Couple raising awareness about breast cancer ... In men

  • Pat Washburn had her car wrapped with an image of her late husband Marlyn, who passed away from male breast cancer. On the side it reads, “Breast cancer does not discriminate. Men too.”

  • Clinton resident Robert McMillan, who was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, stands with his wife Sandy, center, and Pat Washburn. Washburn is traveling the country to help raise awareness of breast cancer in men.

Clinton resident Robert McMillan was a week away from turning 53 when he received a life-changing diagnosis.

“It was a mixture of emotions at the time,” he said. “I felt angry and frightened. Then I also couldn’t help asking the question, ‘Why me?’”

McMillan has breast cancer, a disease that is diagnosed around 2,600 times per year in men. According to the American Cancer Society, about 500 men will die from breast cancer each year. It’s often diagnosed too late in men, because it’s not something men think to check for.

For now, McMillan’s cancer has stabilized. After initially being diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, that changed when doctors discovered the cancer had spread to his bones.

“I had already had a mastectomy, but they didn’t realize that the cancer had spread,” he said.

He credits Sandy, his wife of 15 years, for being his rock since his diagnosis.

“I depend on her to help me around the house, to shuttle me back and forth to the doctor,” he said. “She‘s been great, a million-percent support system for me. I really couldn’t do it without her, I really couldn’t.”

It was Sandy that made him go to the doctor in the first place. When he found a lump on his chest by casually running his hands down his shirt, they thought it was just a cyst.

“We came to UT hospital, and they immediately did an ultrasound and biopsy that day,” Sandy recalled. “This was a Wednesday, and they called for us to come back Friday. They wanted to do the mastectomy the following Wednesday. They were moving so fast, and we were just overwhelmed.”

Omaha, Nebraska, resident Pat Washburn came through Knoxville last week to spread awareness of breast cancer in men. She met with the McMillans to offer encouragement and support. Washburn’s husband, Marlyn, was diagnosed with breast cancer in early 2017.

He passed away just five months later.

“We didn’t know that men could get breast cancer,” she said. “His own daughter was diagnosed with it in August 2014.”

Washburn mentioned to him that he should get checked out, since his father died of lung cancer, and now his daughter had breast cancer. They laughed off the possibility of him having breast cancer.

He went in for a routine blood test one day for his diabetes, and his liver enzymes were elevated. After an ultrasound, he had an MRI, a biopsy, a bone survey and a brain MRI.

“When they finally told us, his breast cancer was at a Stage 4,” she said. “When the doctor walked into the room she told us there was no cure.”

The cancer had metastasized from the breast into the liver, both lungs, lymph nodes and his bones, along with eight tumors in his brain.

“And we had no idea anything was wrong,” she said.

That’s why she does what she does. In late 2017, she had her car wrapped with an image of her late husband with the words “breast cancer does not discriminate. Men too.” She travels the country, and is often stopped for advice or information. She also visits with other families who have been affected by the disease.

“There are too many people that just don’t know,” she said.

She has traveled to St. Louis, Kansas City, Nashville, Jacksonville, and even to Washington, D.C. and Colorado.

She’s on her way back home to Omaha now.

“My husband’s breast cancer was very aggressive,” she said. “But people can survive. You just have to find it early.”

The McMillans know that eventually, the medicine will stop working. But they hope that by sharing their story, they can help someone catch it early.

The symptoms to watch out for in men are the same as they are for women:

• A lump or swelling, which is often (but not always) painless

• Skin dimpling or puckering

• Nipple retraction (turning inward)

• Redness or scaling of the nipple or breast skin

• Discharge from the nipple