I Was A 24-Year-Old Man With Breast Cancer -- Heard in the Halls: Voices From the 2018 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium
Bret Miller talks about his experience being diagnosed with male breast cancer. He found a lump in his right breast when he was 17 and was finally diagnosed with breast cancer at age 24.
— Last updated on May 3, 2022, 3:03 PM
This content made possible by Lilly Oncology.
This podcast is made possible by the generous support of Lilly Oncology.
Bret Miller: My name is Bret Miller. I am the co-founder of the Male Breast Cancer Coalition. We founded it in 2014, and it kind of stemmed off of the original foundation that we set up shortly after I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. That was the Bret Miller With One T Foundation.
A little back story on that: the name from it comes because my name is spelled with one T, and growing up, I always asked my mom — I was kind of mad with her at certain times, why my name was spelled with one T instead of two, because I met other Brets growing up and they all had two Ts. Well, when I got diagnosed with breast cancer, I had to have the mastectomy so I had to have the nipple removed, so when she asked what we should name the foundation once we started it, I said, “The One Nipple Foundation.” She said that’s inappropriate, and I go, “But it’s true.” So the Bret Miller With One T Foundation is what we settled on, because I’ve always had one T in my name and now I’ve got one tit and one nipple. So that’s a little humor that I’ve come to believe that you need to have in this to get through with it, because otherwise everybody’s too serious about it. I mean it needs to be serious, but anybody that’s not affected by it, when they try to ask questions, they feel that they’re asking the wrong questions or they don’t know how to ask, you know, “How are you feeling,” or, “How are you doing.” But if you’re able to joke about it, it makes everybody a little more at ease, too, to ask some of the hard questions. It just makes it easier for everybody. So that’s where the foundation started from.
So I was diagnosed on April 28, 2010. I had had the lump for 7 years. I found it when I was 17. I went to the doctor going into senior year of high school and pointed out the lump that was directly below my right nipple, and I was told it was a calcium buildup, it was puberty, and it would go away. At the end of my senior year I had to finish up to get shots for college. A different doctor, pointed out the lump to him to ask him, and oddly enough he almost said the same thing — calcium buildup, puberty, it would go away. Don’t worry about it. It’s nothing.
Fast forward to 7 years later, it was 2004. Finally, I had had health insurance for probably about a year and a half or so from my job, but I hadn’t had the need to go to the doctor for anything besides the common cold, so I hadn’t gotten a physical for quite some time. But my parents urged me to go because they knew that I still had the lump. My mom didn’t really know, but my dad did, but I did have a discharge from the nipple for about a year and a half. But I didn’t think anything of it because I thought it was just the calcium buildup dissipating and going away like I was told by all the doctors.
So I went to the doctor, and I had a physical. He was pretty much out the door before he even checked the lump, because in a physical exam for men they do not do breast exams. So I had to ask him to come back in and check out the lump. And he did, he checked the lump, and he immediately said, “We need to set you up with a sonogram,” which led to me going to the women’s clinic. That was fun to walk into. I was greeted by name because I’m pretty sure I was the only male walking into the women’s clinic that day. I had to put the pink gown on to walk around the hallways, and I had the sonogram done.
The doctor came in to check to make sure that what was requested scan-wise was done properly. A female doctor. She comes in, and she does like a triple take at the monitor and myself and says that she needs — “Let’s just do a mammogram just in case just so that you don’t have to come back in and waste any more time.”
I think that she knew then that something bad was going to happen. So I had to have a mammogram, which was a fun experience.
Jamie DePolo: Yes. Welcome to the club!
Bret Miller: Yes. A fun experience! Needless to say though, the mammogram was the better scan, better than the ultrasound that kind of showed the lump. I met with a surgeon to have it removed, and he didn’t think anything of it but he just said, based on the timeline you’ve had it, let’s just remove it anyway.
The first surgery was cancelled, or denied by the insurance, because of a male having surgery on their chest, not saying anything with breast cancer, just having surgery to remove a lump. He actually told me that it was going to happen.
Pushed it back through, so I had the surgery to remove the lump. Next day, the doctor calls me, doesn’t ask if I’m sitting down or in a place or to come in, “Maybe we need to discuss.” He just tells me that the preliminary pathology reports are in. It is breast cancer. I’ll call you back in 3 to 5 days when I fully read the report.
Jamie DePolo: Oh my God.
Bret Miller: Yeah. I’m thinking it’s a joke for one, just because of how it was handled. It wasn’t. But I told my dad. I asked him not to say anything to my mom because I was leaving one job to go to the other and I just didn’t have the time to have her ask me a thousand questions, you know, mom instinct jumping in. That lasted 5 minutes. I got off the phone with him, driving, and mom calls. She asked all these questions. Needless to say, we were in seeing the doctor the next day, and asking all these questions, finding out that I would be the first male patient that he would do the surgery, the mastectomy, on. He was adamant about a double mastectomy. It just didn’t seem like he had all his ducks in a row to perform the surgery at best, so we went for a second opinion.
I found another doctor. I kind of got beelined to some of the top doctors in the area based on being a 24-year-old male diagnosed with breast cancer. They also shared my case with other friends at MD Anderson and Johns Hopkins to try to get some more information. It helped a lot because the morning of the mastectomy surgery… The doctor was told to not treat it just like you would with women at the time, no double mastectomy, just a single mastectomy.
Luckily, I was able to do that, but I made a deal with my surgeon, the one that performed the mastectomy, that if he made me well, that I would start speaking out. I would start sharing my story, because he said that he offered that he could try to reach out to the males that he had performed the surgery on before and if I had any questions I could ask them. But most of them, 12 of them, took vacation time off work, had the surgery, healed up, and went back to work like nothing ever happened and never talked about it.
So he said that if you’re willing to share your story, I believe that with your age, that you would be able to make an impact on other men and help others. I was like, “If you get me healthy, let’s make a deal. Let’s strike a deal.”
So that’s what we did, and that’s where it all started from. It started with the Bret Miller With One T Foundation, and that evolved into the Male Breast Cancer Coalition with the help of my co-founder Cheri Ambrose — and my mother, our director, keeps us all in line. It’s kind of a pain some of the times, but I guess that's what you have to do to get everything done.
We’ve met men from all over the world. Michael Singer, diagnosed not too long after me but he didn’t really talk about it much. He saw me on the Katie Couric show — well, his wife Patti saw me on there and yelled at him to get his ass in there — sorry, language — to watch the show. “If he’s able to speak out and talk about it, then you should be able to.” He called us the next day, and now we can’t get the guy to shut up about it [laughs]. No, it’s great. I love them. I love everybody that’s a part of our coalition. Without them, there’s no way we’d be where we’re at today, globally. Essentially, we’ve got survivors contacting us from all over the world, happy to see that there are others out there, and we’ve got a group going and they can actually talk to others.
Mine was barely a stage I. I got lucky through all the years that I’d had it. So I’m able to talk to a lot of the men to an extent, but when it comes to certain treatments, I haven’t received them. I had four rounds of chemotherapy and then I did 5 years of Arimidex, anastrozole. I tried tamoxifen, but there were some side effects and they took me off of it.
So I’ve only got so much experience in treatments to talk to some of these men, but we have so many others out there. We have a handful of metastatic survivors, and their experiences I couldn’t even imagine, but we have those out there for the men that are getting diagnosed. And most of them — or a lot of them — are getting diagnosed at late stages with metastatic just because we don’t think, you know, because we’re stubborn. It took 7 years for me to go to the doctor and get the lump diagnosed.
We just have to be more adamant about our health. We have to be more proactive. We have to know our own bodies because we are, all of us, advocates. So if you find a lump anywhere — breast, neck, testicular, so on, or wherever — go to the doctor. Get to the doctor. If you have an instinct that something is wrong and they’re telling you it’s nothing, don’t stop. Go to another doctor. Get a second opinion and a third and so on.
This upcoming April will be our fourth conference. This year we’re going down to Orlando. It’s a time for all of our survivors to come together, a lot of them meeting each other for the very first time. Social media has brought us together, but we haven’t physically met each other, so it brings us together on that. And we do have a lot of doctors that have come down. We have Dr. Ben Park, for one. We met him several years ago, and he has been outstanding to our coalition. He is a very, very smart doctor. He’s at Vanderbilt now, and he’s helped out so many of our men. If they’re questioning the treatments that they’re getting, he talks to their doctors and they kind of formulate maybe a little bit better plan. So he’s been great.
So several doctors will be there, with time for all the survivors to meet each other face to face and be able to come together. If anyone needs any information, you can go to MaleBreastCancerCoalition.org, and through there we have links and information. Everywhere, we have survivor stories, we have a survivor memory page for those we’ve lost along the way, and some of the links on there. We have our breast self-exams. We have little cards on there for people to see how to properly do it, as well as videos for both men and women.
We’re here to bring awareness to men that men have breasts, too. So as our original slogan was: Guys, don’t be afraid to touch yourself.