My Journey With Male Breast Cancer

Len Robertson shares his journey with breast cancer

This article is part of Breast Cancer and Black Women, a destination in our Health Divide series.

Len Robertson

Photo courtesy of Len Robertson / Designed by Julie Bang / Verywell

Meet the Author

Len received his undergraduate and graduate education from the City University of New York, and his postgraduate education at Columbia University. He currently teaches high school music for the New York City Department of Education in Brooklyn.

To most people, I don’t look like a typical person who gets diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer—but it happened to me.

It all started with a pain in my chest. I immediately went to get it checked out by the breast specialists at SUNY Downstate Hospital in Brooklyn, where I had been treated six years prior for an issue with my right nipple. At that point in time, it was only a benign tumor, which I had removed, but I was cautioned to keep an eye out for any other issues, as cancer was a possibility.

It turned out that the pain I was experiencing years later was, in fact, breast cancer, and I was diagnosed by the same specialists who had helped me remove my tumor years before.

Once I received the diagnosis, the next challenge I faced was finding the appropriate avenues for treatment since many hospitals weren’t equipped to deal with a rare male breast cancer patient. I started seeing the disparity for the first time as a man diagnosed with breast cancer, as well as an African American.

Finding a Path to Treatment

As a teacher, my initial response was to search for answers and solutions after realizing that my current doctor wasn’t sure how to proceed with my diagnosis. At first it was a waiting game, but I knew I had to do something to take my health back into my own hands. So, I told my family, which was a hard thing to do, but they were supportive and committed to helping me on this journey. 

Then, I saw an ad about the United Federation of Teachers in New York working with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. I called and told them my situation, and I was seen within a few days.

The doctor there told me exactly what to do. He had dealt with male breast cancer before and assured me that I was going to be fine, which was a relief to hear after several weeks of not knowing what to do. 

Finding the right medical care had been a stressful barrier to cross, but once I knew I was in good hands, the path to treatment and recovery opened up. So, I had a double mastectomy that was going to be followed by several rounds of chemotherapy. I still had a difficult road ahead as I started chemo, but at least this part of the adventure had started and was successful.

Finding the right medical care had been a stressful barrier to cross, but once I knew I was in good hands, the path to treatment and recovery opened up.

Support Is Key

During the entire process, I came to realize just how important it is to have a community of supporters, especially when you’re going through chemotherapy treatment. I had my family there to support me, but I also found companionship with other cancer patients through the Rising Voices Choir at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. 

I’ve been a trained singer for years, but chemo took a toll on my entire body, including my voice. I couldn’t control my voice in the same way, and I was struggling to deal with that change. But everyone in the choir—including some doctors and nurses who were also diagnosed with breast cancer—loved my new voice and helped me stay positive during recovery and treatment.

When I talked to those people and everyone in the choir, I was so overcome with emotion at the support within our group. They helped me realize that this diagnosis was going to impact me for the rest of my life, and I sought out ways to share my story in the hopes of helping other men with breast cancer find the right avenues for medical care and support.

Advocating for Male Breast Cancer Awareness

There’s no doubt that breast cancer is well known and highly advocated for, but in my experience, one of the most difficult challenges I faced was the lack of understanding when it came to men who have breast cancer. That’s why I’m such a strong advocate about my journey with stage 2 breast cancer, in the hopes that it can help someone else who may be struggling with the same issues and facing similar disparities when seeking out the proper treatment and care.

I want to empower other men who receive this rare diagnosis so they can see how I tackled the cancer head-on and came out on the other side a changed person, with a lot to give back to the breast cancer community. I want to offer all of the support, knowledge, and advice that I can, as well as tips for prevention and discussing the disparities not only amongst male breast cancer patients, but Black cancer patients as well.

I want to offer all of the support, knowledge, and advice that I can, as well as tips for prevention and discussing the disparities not only amongst male breast cancer patients, but Black cancer patients as well.

As a Black man diagnosed with breast cancer, I know the importance of raising awareness for this condition since breast cancer is more prominent in Black men than in White men. Black men are also more likely to have a BRCA mutation, which can increase risk for prostate and other cancers too.

In my experience, I’ve seen firsthand how members of the Black community tend to shy away from health care and medical treatment in general, and I want to change that notion.

Like Black women, Black men with breast cancer tend to have a worse prognosis, so advocating for prevention and early action when something doesn’t feel right is critical when it comes to diagnosis and treatment. It can be something as small as a pain in your chest, but getting it checked out sooner rather than later can mean all the difference, especially since catching any kind of cancer in the early stages is ideal for a better outlook.

For any other men who may receive a breast cancer diagnosis and don’t know where to start, you’re not alone. I was grateful to find additional support from:

These places helped provide me with the materials I needed to go forward in my treatment. Finding the right accommodations for treating male breast cancer can be hard to come by, but with proper support and a knowledgeable medical care team, the road to recovery is much easier to travel.

And for the men out there who are less likely to schedule a visit to the doctor when something seems off, I would encourage them to seek out health care regardless of their age, race, or ethnicity. Something small could be nothing to worry about, or it could be an indicator of something more serious. Getting a checkup is worth the time when it comes to your health and well-being.

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Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Black men have higher rates of all types of breast cancer compared to White men. Updated January 7, 2020.

  2. American Cancer Society. Key statistics for breast cancer in men. Updated January 12, 2021.