Breast cancer doesn’t just strike women.
Breast cancer is known as the most common cancer in American women, except for skin cancers, according to the American Cancer Society. The average risk of a woman in the United States developing breast cancer sometime in her life is about 13%. This means there is a 1 in 8 chance she will develop breast cancer, the ACS said.
But what about men?
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breast cancer among males in the United States is rare with approximately 2,300 new cases and 500 deaths reported in 2017, accounting for about 1% of breast cancers.
But while it may still be considered rare, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
Bernie Szczesniak, of Rome, can attest to that.
Back in 2005, Szczesniak was doing some work in his bathroom and when he was getting himself back up, happened to brush against the sink.
“I had the most excruciating pain in my chest that I almost passed out. I knew something was wrong,” Szczesniak recalled, thinking it was odd that such a slight movement caused so much pain. “I had a doctor’s appointment later that week and the doctor said I could get it checked out, but that it might be nothing. I said I wanted to have it checked.”
Szczesniak was sent for a mammogram and ultrasound, which discovered a tumor deep behind the nipple of his right breast.
“I never found a lump and it was Stage 2,” he said. “I had to go see a doctor from Syracuse and had a complete right mastectomy, plus 13 of my lymph nodes removed, and two had cancer in them.”
After surgery, Szczesniak had to undergo eight chemo therapy treatments every other week, but no radiation. He also had to be on a medication called Tamoxifen.
“Tamoxifen has actually been around for a while now. It’s used as a preventative treatment for breast cancer,” he explained. “I had to take it for five years, but then it stays in your system for another five years.”
After his chemo, Szczesniak said he would go to Hematology-Oncology Associates of CNY at Brittonfield Parkway in East Syracuse to get his yearly mammogram, but in recent years, has gone to Mohawk Glen. He also has his blood work done at Brittonfield so they can perform tumor marker checks.
Now Szczesniak and wife Jackie make it a point to go get their yearly mammograms together, and then enjoy breakfast or lunch out afterwards — making it a special time they look forward to.
“We are due for our mammograms around St. Patrick’s Day each year, so we usually go out and get Shamrock Shakes (from McDonald’s) and bring them back,” he laughed.
Szczesniak is also known to bring the special green milkshakes and other goodies to the mammogram technicians at Mohawk Glen as a way to say, “thank you,” for what they do.
Although his diagnosis and surgery was more than 16 years ago, Szczesniak remains an active advocate for men’s breast cancer awareness. In 2007, he did a talk at Rome City Hall for Breast Cancer Awareness Day, and it was there that he connected with some special ladies associated with the American Cancer Society Relay for Life of Rome.
“When I was at city hall for Breast Cancer Awareness Day, there was a group of ladies representing Relay for Life — they were on a team together and asked if I’d join,” Szczesniak recalled. “Within a couple months I was asked if I would be a team leader. So I’ve been doing that since 2007.”
That well known Relay for Life team is Nettie’s Guys & Gals.
The breast cancer survivor has also given talks at the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk in Utica and other Relay for Life events in the area, including Oneida.
“Can men get breast cancer? Yes, I’m proof right here, but we never think of that,” said Szczesniak. “Men should do self checks too, just like women, and if they’re in any pain, they need to call their doctor. Don’t take anything for granted. For me to happen to have a doctor’s appointment later in the week” when first experiencing breast pain, “I think some people ‘up there’ were watching out for me.”
He said, “One of my messages when I give talks, because I get mammograms, is next time your wife, girlfriend, daughter, sister goes to get their mammogram, take them out to breakfast, lunch or dinner, or buy them flowers, because I have felt their pain.”
And while mammograms were known to be a little painful years ago, Szczesniak said with today’s technology and 3D imaging, the discomfort is nothing like it used to be.
“There may be a little pain, but it’s nothing compared to what they’re looking for and the pain after,” he said. “It’s definitely worth it, no matter what happens. There’s 3D images now and it’s so amazing. They’ve come such a long way with treatments and technology.”
Szczesniak also made a point for everyone — not just cancer patients — to recognize the support and selflessness of caregivers.
“My wife Jackie was my caregiver and sometimes our caregivers are left out,” he said. “Whoever is taking care of you, know the hard part is that they want to know what’s going on, but it can also be hard to explain. Bless our caregivers.”