A Journey With Cancer & The Discovery of Spiritual Peace

They say every cloud has a silver lining, but cancer usually looks more like a dark, forbidding thunderstorm than like puffy cumulus clouds drifting across a blue summer sky. After being diagnosed with breast cancer and going through the treatments that followed, Michael Dale discovered a power in the combined peace of mind, body and soul. Retired from a rewarding 25-year interior design career, Dale found himself one day on a new “journey with cancer.” Today, organizations like CancerForward and the Pink Ribbons Project and D’Feet Breast Cancer have joined The Houston Museum of Fine Arts and DIFFA (Design Industries Foundations for AIDS) as the beneficiary of his time and financial support.

NT: Male breast cancer?

MD: I found the lump by accident, lying on my side in bed, brushing against my chest. I was not looking for anything. Men don’t generally know to do a breast exam. The lump was about the size of a pea, perfectly round and hard, to the left of my left areola. I knew immediately that it should not be there.

In April 2009 at 62, I was diagnosed with male breast cancer. It’s not common, but it can happen. Dr. Sharon Giordano, an oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center who happens to be the male breast cancer specialist, diagnosed it as invasive ductal carcinoma, stage two. Tumors in the duct and lymph node of the breast spread quickly in men, because there’s so little tissue.

NT: I don’t think anyone ever expects to hear the words you’ve got cancer.

MD: Less than 1% of all diagnosed breast cancer is in men. Every step I was told that we know so little about breast cancer in men that the protocol for treatment is the same as it is for breast cancer in women—six months of chemo, off for four weeks, modified radical mastectomy. They removed 24 lymph nodes, after which there was still evidence of cancer cells, so the chemotherapy was followed by six weeks of radiation five days a week.

NT: What was going through your mind? Why me? And then the questions about such an unusual cancer.

MD: Initially I was so focused on the doctors, the testing, and getting treatment that the first couple of weeks were a whirlwind. When I told people I had cancer, male breast cancer, their reaction was, “Wow! I didn’t know it was possible. I never knew a man with breast cancer! Oh my gosh, how do they do a mammogram?” The first couple of weeks in this whirlwind were a distraction. Then suddenly I found myself alone and thinking: you have cancer.

You get the comment, “oh, it’s not that big of a deal for men. It’s not like the psychological trauma women can experience from a mastectomy.” Most people think that there isn’t that emotional aspect of a male mastectomy, but I will say it does have an impact when you get out of the shower and see that you have only one nipple.

NT: I would guess that it’s a startling reminder every day. The world can’t necessarily see any change, but it’s there for you to see and remember.

MD: Your body is altered, and psychologically it is a big change. The missing body part and incision scar is an ongoing reminder of the cancer. Generally, men do not have reconstructive surgery. They do not remove the muscle, so the surgery is actually less disfiguring than I had expected. Initially the desire to rid my body of the cancer was of more importance than the physical aspect of a mastectomy. But, I would not be truthful if I did not say I am self-conscious about the obvious change.

NT: Despite how routine so many things about cancer seem to be today, I’m sure a diagnosis of cancer never feels routine, especially when it’s a type of cancer that you don’t hear about all the time.

MD: With male breast cancer, you’re pretty much an oddity through the whole treatment process, because you’re part of only one percent of breast cancers. It’s a very altering experience. Cancer is a huge interruption in life. I just feel blessed that I had MD Anderson nearby where everything—diagnosis and treatment—is so integrated.

NT: What do you mean by integrated? Don’t doctors always communicate and confer?

MD: They do, but at MD Anderson there are other specialists in addition to oncologists there, and they’re integrated into your overall program. As a result of chemotherapy, I had skin problems, so I was referred to a dermatologist within the hospital in the Melanoma and Skin Center. When I had heart issues I was referred to a cardiologist there as well. Specialists who deal only with cancer patients treat you, and from a records standpoint it is all in one system. Integrated medicine is also available. During chemotherapy I received acupuncture for 14 weeks to offset the nausea and neuropathy in my hands and feet. Post-surgery and pending radiation, I was referred to rehabilitation and physical therapy at MD Anderson to regain range of motion for the position I needed to get into for radiation and to deal with lymphedema that developed. It was all coordinated in one place, which is so comforting and easy when dealing with cancer.

NT: Were the doctors able to give you any idea of why or how you might have developed breast cancer?

MD: There are two known hereditary genes for breast cancer. I was tested for both and showed negative. But both of my grandmothers had breast cancer, one dying at 38 and the other surviving to 91 after having a radical mastectomy in 1929 at age 25. I was keenly aware of the physical and psychological damage done to my mother’s mother. Thankfully, diagnosis and treatment are so much more improved today. I think a lot about my grandmother having to deal with this in 1929. And, it wasn’t discussed in the family.

NT: Today, it’s hard to imagine that some types of cancer were so taboo in families and with close friends—when emotional support is so important.

MD: I was so overwhelmed and afraid. I had to find a sense of purpose, an understanding or a belief in myself that I could get through the treatments and cancer. With the amazing insight and understanding of Reverend Steve Thorney, the facilitator of the MD Anderson’s support group for men, I began to understand a difference between organized religion and spirituality. I found acceptance of myself and my journey with cancer.

NT: Finding inner peace is so important to the healing process. While you can’t expect a silver lining with every storm, it’s important to look for one.

MD: Spirituality for me is a sense of our individual uniqueness, our sense of self and purpose, all within the oneness of the universe and God. Faith. Hope. Love. Cancer really forced me to explore these things. The journey was not just turning to blind religious faith but seeing life—living and dying—from a spiritual base. Cancer throws a bucket of water in the face of the person you think you know, and the spiritual journey brought me through. It helped me understand life issues in general and to know myself.

I also had tremendous support from my family, in particular my twin brother Mitchell. The twin bond really came into play during this journey. He was with me at every step of the way and the one I shared my hopes and joys with. He was the one I turned to in those low moments that are part of any experience with cancer.

Mitchell and my sister-in-law Dianne were with me every step of the way through doctor appointments, taking me to chemotherapy treatments and then home with them for multiple day infusions. And then there was the recovery after surgery, you just can’t ask anyone to take care of your drains! Physically and emotionally they were there for me. I was blessed with the support of so many people. Never underestimate friends either—cards, calls and great food including simple things like morning muffins left on the doorstep. All of it played a major part in my cancer journey and recovery.

I found faith and belief and the acknowledgement of a higher power, but I also learned a lot about myself: my life, my wonderful family and friends, my many blessings and experiences. These things are what life is about. And, I learned to live prayerfully in appreciation of these things, not just kneeling and reciting a prayer.

My brother gave me sage advice: “Do not let the unknown become fear.” You learn that grief is part of the acceptance of fear, and you work hard to move beyond it. I feel that this is vital for recovery. I found strength that I had not been challenged to find in life and a peace in prayer and hope.

NT: So, after the storm has the landscape changed?

MD: There is a new normal after cancer, and it has blessings as well. I would not be the person I am today without the challenge of cancer having come my way—learning of the strength one can get from family and friends, how much a kind thought or word means, caring for all mankind, and that there is something out there, a higher power than oneself.

Category: Survivors in the News

Tags: DIFFA, duct, higher power, Integrated medicine, interior design, lymph node, male breast cancer, Michael Dale, Newell Turner, rehabilitation and physical therapy, spirituality