Advertisement
  1. Health

Best line of defense against breast cancer: know your risk, be alert to body changes

Darby Steadman, 46, was 34 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer the first time. She firmly believes that knowing what your body feels like, knowing what’s normal, is vital. “It’s important to know yourself and if something is off, go and take care of it.”
Published Sep. 29, 2016

Cancer detection is often about noticing a change, something that's not quite right, and doing something about it.

Just ask Darby Steadman. She was used to checking herself for changes. At age 34, she already had a long history of what many women call "lumpy" breasts. She'd had many biopsies, too, which all came back negative.

But during the summer of 2004, she noticed something different about a lump in her left breast that the doctor had been monitoring since 1999 and thought to be benign. It felt larger, and there was discharge from the nipple.

Steadman decided to wait a couple of months to see her doctor, when her kids were back in school and she wasn't so busy.

"I remember the look on the technician's face as she was doing the sonogram. I knew it wasn't good news," said Steadman, now a 46-year-old homemaker living in Tampa with her husband and two children. The doctor suggested a lumpectomy, removal of the lump and a little surrounding tissue, preserving as much of the breast as possible. But Steadman opted for a double mastectomy. She wanted maximum peace of mind.

Three years later she made another troubling discovery: a lump, about the size of a pea, in the area of her left breast. Further testing revealed more tumors: under her arm, in her rib cage, in the bones in her neck and in her lungs. The cancer was back and it had spread.

"Today the recommendation is for women to get five years of the drug Tamoxifen after the initial cancer is found, to prevent recurrences. But that wasn't being done when I was first diagnosed in 2004," Steadman said. She started chemotherapy, including the drug Herceptin, which she still receives nine years later at Moffitt Cancer Center.

"I've been in one clinical trial, taken 12 to 15 different chemotherapies, but I'm most grateful for Herceptin. It's one of the reasons I'm still here," Steadman said with confidence. That, plus checkups every three months and being on the lookout for changes.

"It's important to know yourself and if something is off, go and take care of it," she said.

"Just relying on screening recommendations isn't enough. You need to know yourself. Know your boobs," she quipped.

That advice applies to men, too. Clarence Banken was 65 years old in the spring of 2015 when he noticed a blood-tinged discharge from the nipple of his right breast. While checking it out, he felt something hard and small, about the size of a grain of rice, near the nipple. Banken was about to retire and relocate to Florida, so he decided to wait until he was situated in the Tampa Bay area to see a doctor.

"The doctor said I was lucky to find it when it was so small," said Banken, who is now 66 and lives in Sun City Center. "We caught it at a very early stage and the biopsy confirmed that I had breast cancer."

Less than 1 percent of men develop breast cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates about 2,600 new cases will be diagnosed in men this year, compared to 246,660 for women. And about 440 men will die from the disease in 2016, compared to more than 40,400 women.

"Men don't have to panic over it, but awareness is important — an awareness of changes in your body," said Dr. John Kiluk, a surgical oncologist who specializes in breast cancer at the Center for Women's Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center.

"And if something is wrong, doesn't feel right, speak up," Kiluk said. "You must be your own best advocate."

He said he is always amazed at the number of people who don't even think it's possible for men to have breast cancer, which helps explain why men usually have advanced disease when they are diagnosed.

"If a woman feels a lump she's calling her doctor in about 10 minutes. With guys, they say, 'It's nothing, it can't be anything serious,' " he said.

What are the signs of breast cancer in men? Typically, it's a very hard mass, lump or growth in the breast, usually under the nipple.

"We're talking rock hard," Kiluk said. Some, but not all, men have a nipple discharge that may be mixed with blood. A very few will notice a change in the look of the breast, such as an inverted nipple, one that looks as though it is being pulled back into the body. Sometimes, some men will feel enlarged lymph nodes under their arms.

Men who are considered at high risk for breast cancer should be aware of their bodies and be alert to any changes. Those at high risk include men with a strong family history of breast cancer, usually a mother, sister, father, brother or child who had the disease. (Banken's older sister had breast cancer before she was 50 and is doing well today.)

Men who have a history of radiation to the chest and those who have been exposed to high levels of estrogen may be at increased risk. Obesity, heavy alcohol use and liver disease also increase risk.

Kiluk, who was one of Banken's doctors, said Banken was lucky to have found his cancer early. "He's the poster child for, if something isn't right, let's tell the doctor and get it worked up," Kiluk said. "He didn't need radical treatment, just surgery."

Banken chose to have his right breast removed, and doctors also took five lymph nodes under his arm. He now goes to Moffitt for an annual mammogram and recommends that all men begin practicing breast self-examination. "Drop the macho and check yourself," Banken said. "If you find something unusual, have it checked out. It's so important."

Contact Irene Maher at imaher@tampabay.com.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Dr. Paul McRae was the first black chief of staff at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. Dr. McRae died on September 13, 2019. He was photographed here in the Tampa Bay Times photo studio for the 2008 Dr. Carter G Woodson Museum's "Legends Honorees" gala. BOYZELL HOSEY  |  BOYZELL HOSEY  |  Times
    ‘His extraordinary example paved the way for so many others.’
  2. Michael Jenkins spent seven days at North Tampa Behavioral Health last July. Since then, he says his three children have been afraid he’ll leave and not come home. JOHN PENDYGRAFT   |   Times
    The patients have no choice, and the hospital is making millions.
  3. Samantha Perez takes a call for someone in need of counseling at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay earlier this year. The center handles calls dealing with suicide, sexual assault, homelessness and other traumatic situations. They also do outreach and counseling, and operate Transcare, an ambulance service. JONES, OCTAVIO  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Florida’s mental health care system saves lives.
  4. The Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County identified a positive case of hepatitis A in a food service worker at Hamburger Mary's in Ybor City on Oct. 22, 2018. [JOSH FIALLO | Times] JOSH FIALLO | TIMES  |  JOSH FIALLO | Times
    Slightly more than 200,000 people have been vaccinated this year — a huge jump from the 49,324 people vaccinated in all of 2018.
  5. FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2014, file photo, a patron exhales vapor from an e-cigarette at a store in New York. Under the Trump administration, former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb kicked off his tenure in 2017 with the goal of making cigarettes less addictive by drastically cutting nicotine levels. He also rebooted the agency’s effort to ban menthol flavoring in cigarettes. But those efforts have been largely eclipsed by the need to respond to an unexpected explosion in e-cigarette use by teens. AP
    Hundreds of people nationwide have come down with lung illness related to vaping.
  6. This May 2018, photo provided by Joseph Jenkins shows his son, Jay, in the emergency room of the Lexington Medical Center in Lexington, S.C. Jay Jenkins suffered acute respiratory failure and drifted into a coma, according to his medical records, after he says he vaped a product labeled as a smokable form of the cannabis extract CBD. Lab testing commissioned as part of an Associated Press investigation into CBD vapes showed the cartridge that Jenkins says he puffed contained a synthetic marijuana compound blamed for at least 11 deaths in Europe. JOSEPH JENKINS  |  AP
    The vapor that Jenkins inhaled didn’t relax him. After two puffs, he ended up in a coma.
  7. H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute is the centerpiece of Project Arthur, an 800-acre corporate park that could include up 24 million square feet of office and industrial space on nearly 7,000 acres of what is now ranch land, but targeted for development in central Pasco. Times
    The H. Lee Moffitt facility is the centerpiece of an economic development effort in a proposed 800-acre corporate park.
  8. Taylor Bland-Ball, 22, posted this photo and open letter to Judge Thomas Palermo to her Instagram account on September 10, the day after she lost custody of her 4-year-old son Noah McAdams. The boy's parents wanted to treat his leukemia with natural health care remedies instead of chemotherapy. [Instagram] ANASTASIA DAWSON  |  Instagram
    The couple refused chemotherapy for their son, instead seeking alternative treatments including dietary plans, alkaline water and THC and CBD oil treatments
  9. Sharon Hayes, the new chief executive officer at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, says she will draw on her roots in nursing as she engineers a turnaround for the hospital. SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
    The city’s largest hospital has suffered setbacks under a corporate owner, but a new leader says it’s time for an infusion of “love and attention.”
  10. An architect's rendering shows part of a planned research center and hospital on N McKinley Drive in Tampa for the Moffitt Cancer Center. During the 2020 legislative session in Tallahassee, the center will seek an increased share of Florida's cigarette tax to finance the McKinley Drive project and other improvements. Moffitt officials said Thursday that the increase initially would finance $205 million, to be paired with $332 million they have already allocated for the project. Moffitt Cancer Center
    Florida lawmakers are the key to unlocking the money, which would pay for more hospital beds and research space.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement