He’s a voice for those struggling in secret.
John Falk received a rare diagnosis, one typically associated with women. But he’s made it his mission to share his story and shred the silence.
The 61-year-old retired corrections officer, who spent 22 years looking after inmates in the county jail, had swelling in his left breast and was referred to a specialist.
“When I arrived at his office, he asked me, ‘Why did your doctor send you to me?’” he said.
Initial tests were negative, but a year later Falk’s symptoms persisted and he noticed a lump.
“I knew something was wrong,” he said.
Northwestern Medicine’s Dr Rena Zimmerman is the radiation oncologist who ultimately treated Falk. He’s one of just three male patients she’s cared for at McHenry Hospital Cancer Center.
“Men actually do have breast tissue, not as much, but it’s clearly there. So, any abnormality that you see in a breast, male or female, needs to be evaluated,” Zimmerman said. “They deserve the same medical care, and that doesn’t always happen. … When John first presented, he had a palpable mass, and he did have a mastectomy. His entire left breast was removed and lymph nodes sampled, and he was fine.”
And then it grew back.
Falk had 30 rounds of radiation to his chest wall and now takes tamoxifen to lower his risk for another recurrence.
“It became for me a mission to tell and educate people about it, educate men,” Falk said. “Most men who are diagnosed, it’s embarrassing. They can’t believe they’ve been given this diagnosis, and they don’t want to talk about it. I told everybody.”
Part of his mission is spreading the word, “Men Get Breast Cancer.”
Falk wears a shirt with the phrase clearly printed on it and he leaves bright yellow post-it notes at locations with the same message.
“I carry them around, and I will put them on window glass at Target as I’m leaving the store,” he said. “It really gets to the heart of the matter. It challenges people to ask me how I know men get breast cancer so I can tell them I’ve had it twice.”
“You don’t hear about it too often because it’s rare. Less than one percent of breast cancer is diagnosed in men,” Zimmerman said.
The risk factors are identical in women and men. Genetic mutations and family history play a role, as do hormones, increased estrogen due to excess weight or alcohol consumption.
None applied to Falk.
“No way shape or form can I find any reason this man got this other than he has turned out to be an ambassador for male breast cancer,” Zimmerman said.
At a recent 5K, John walked proudly with his shirt off, scar on full display.
“I wanted people to see it’s not a terrible thing to see a man with his shirt off and a mastectomy scar,” Falk said.
Falk found support through the Male Breast Cancer Coalition, an advocacy organization dedicated to building awareness.
More about the Male Breast Cancer Coalition here.
More about McHenry Hospital Cancer Center here.