Breast Cancer: It’s Not Just for Women

By Khevin Barnes

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As a man with breast cancer, I get a lot of questions. A relatively rare diagnosis, the odds of a man being diagnosed with breast cancer are 1,000 to one. To put that in perspective, imagine that you have a giant box filled with 999 white socks—single, without mates, which, according to my wife, is just about the number I have.

Now let’s add to that box of socks one red sock.

So, you have a box with 1,000 socks; 999 are white, and one is red. Next, mix them up; then reach in and remove a single random sock. The odds of your choosing that one red sock are pretty slim.

One thousand to one, in fact.

So, there I was, barefoot and bewildered, trying to figure out what my next step might be. And suddenly it became clear: What I needed to do was get back on my feet, put my red-socked foot forward and talk about it.

Now people ask me, “How is it that some guy—a man, a male, a dude—can make it his life’s ambition to travel about and speak to rooms full of women about their breasts?”

Not a bad job description if you ask me.

Seriously, though (and I try not to remain too serious about my cancer), the truth is we are all mammals by virtue of the fact that we have mammary glands. The first mammals are thought to have evolved about 190 million years ago alongside dinosaurs.

When the dinosaurs disappeared, mammals began to diversify into many forms. Today we have about 4,500 different species of mammals living in oceans, in freshwater, below ground, in the trees and in the sky, and they all have one thing in common: mammary glands.

Until we reach puberty, male and female human breasts are pretty much identical. And then, in the case of females, estrogen takes over and things change dramatically, allowing them to produce milk.

It probably won’t surprise you to know that many mountain ranges are named after the breast, which has always been endowed with spiritual significance as a symbol of fertility and well-being. Also not surprising is that many of these mountain ranges were named by lonely men. The Teton Range in Wyoming, for example, is said to have been named by French Canadian trappers who spent many long winter months alone and in the wild.

So, my work as a breast cancer advocate—and as a human mammal—is not actually about men or women or breasts. It’s about cancer. It’s about us and our friends and family, our spouses and partners, our children and neighbors, who are undeniably affected by our disease. Cancer, you see, is never a solo journey—even though it may feel that way sometimes.

But mostly my mission as a breast cancer survivor and speaker is about hope. It’s about using imagination and creativity in our methods of coping with our cancer; it’s about the magic of the human spirit; it’s about laughter in the face of adversity.

Many of us with cancer have learned to refocus our lives to reflect what is important to us. Finding reasons to live, to engage our passions and to renew our reverence for life on earth is a powerful part of our journey. And it is in sharing my own cancer adventure with others—through storytelling, stage magic, music and writing—that I find the inspiration to travel onward.

I hope to see you along the path.