In 2007, Michael Kovarik and his doctor discovered a lump near his left nipple, which was beginning to invert. Michael proceeded with the necessary follow-up as his doctor ordered a series of tests. When he heard the words breast cancer, Michael didn’t have the faintest idea that men could be affected by it. His immediate thought: it’s a women’s disease.
Dealing with his breast cancer diagnosis
Michael was hesitant about sharing his diagnosis at first. “It took me a while to overcome my own shock and disbelief,” recalls Michael. When he initially opened up about his journey to others, it was not always well received. Some people became uncomfortable, and often fumbled for the right words. “After a few months, I came to a realisation that I should talk about it. If no one knew that men could have breast cancer, then it was time to raise awareness.”
In Australia, about 148 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018, about 28 of whom will die. And in New Zealand, 26 men were diagnosed with breast cancer, and 2 men died from it in 2013. Breast cancer is often seen as a disease that affects only women; therefore, men tend to be diagnosed at a more advanced stage of cancer.
Michael, a retired primary school teacher, became an active contributor of an online blogging community for people to share their stories and connect with others touched by cancer. He is a former radio show host and has authored a book called Healing Within: My Journey with Breast Cancer.
Today, people still react with surprise when he talks about his cancer. But they’re not as shocked as they used to be. “I’ve noticed that people are more curious rather than uncomfortable and I certainly welcome their questions,” Michael explained.
On having advanced cancer
In 2015, Michael learned that his breast cancer had spread. Feelings of despair and sadness rushed in, as well as the thought that he had done everything he was supposed to. He had followed his doctor’s recommendations, kept his medical appointments, was eating right, and staying fit—so how and why? But Michael’s doctor told him, “Don’t cash in your life insurance policy yet.”
Michael now has Stage 4 breast cancer, the most advanced form of the disease in which cancer has spread beyond the breast to other parts of the body, and is currently on cancer treatment.
Michael explains that the conversation on advanced (also called metastatic) breast cancer is very different from what many people see or hear about breast cancer in earlier stages. Many may associate breast cancer with pink ribbons and stories about survivorship. But with advanced cancer, the discussion is about managing or minimising symptoms of the cancer, and maintaining your quality of life. He stresses that people with advanced cancer usually don’t ever stop taking medications for their cancer.
Michael believes that everyone has a different journey, but a person’s outlook on life guides how he or she handles setbacks. He explains, “I was scared at first and I still have breakdowns today. But I decided a while ago that I didn’t want to be afraid anymore. I had to learn how to be at peace with myself. After that, I could come to peace with everything else—including my cancer.”
Michael stresses the importance of letting go of what you can’t control. Here are the top six lessons Michael wishes to share based on his journey:
- Listen to your body. Follow up with your doctor on anything that seems off.
- Find a GP and oncologist that you feel comfortable with. Michael has had a few doctors, “some were better than others. My current doctor is not only excellent but he also knows exactly how to talk to me.”
- Accept your feelings. It’s okay to feel fear or sadness. But it’s important to deal with them in order to move on.
- Share your experiences with friends, family, or supporters.
- Be aware of feelings of depression. It’s common for people with cancer to experience major depression. Don’t be afraid to ask your GP for help.
- Have quiet time to listen to your thoughts. “It’s during these reflection moments that I realised it’s time to face my fears or that I can find more strength within,” Michael said.
“Because of where I’m at, when I take my dog—Polar—for a walk, I’ll notice that the stars are shinier and more beautiful against the night sky. I find joy in the simple things.”
More information is available on Get Healthy Stay Healthy about breast cancer in men.
Caroline Pak, PharmD, is a pharmacist and the Medical Editor-in-Chief for Get Healthy Stay Healthy at Pfizer.
- 1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2017. Cancer in Australia 2017. Cancer series no.101. Cat. no. CAN 100. Canberra: AIHW.
- 2. Ministry of Health. 2016. Cancer: New registrations and deaths 2013. Wellington: Ministry of Health.