Former Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.) is, by most accounts, jealous of his privacy and secure in his quiet life.
Yet, open a newspaper, turn on the television, and you might very well find Brooke testifying about some of his most intimate moments as a breast cancer survivor.
Yes, breast cancer.
Brooke, 83, who in 1966 became America’s first black Senator elected by popular vote, explained last week that he has decided to climb back into the media spotlight in order to promote awareness in men and their doctors that breast cancer can strike males, too.
“Men don’t want to admit they have breasts. They don’t want a doctor squeezing and testing their breasts,” said the now-recuperated Brooke.
Brooke was diagnosed with breast cancer almost by fluke last September. He had consulted doctors on a festering pain that would come and go in his chest for years, but no one ever thought of examining Brooke’s chest for a hard lump of cancer. Brooke himself thought he was suffering gas pains or a sore muscle.
Then his wife found the cancer, under Brooke’s right nipple. “It was very hard, she said, harder than any other lump she had felt before. She felt immediately that I should go to a doctor.”
Brooke didn’t go to a doctor, however, putting it off until he pulled a muscle on his rib cage while working on the field of his Virginia farm. Brooke was half-way out of the consulting room door when he remembered his wife’s insistence. The doctor “said get back in here and took off my shirt. For the first time in my life, I was examined by a doctor where he actually touched my breasts.”
The response was to send Brooke to a mammogram. “I said mammogram, you’re as bad or worse than my wife.”
Then came the sonogram, the needle biopsy, and the staggering diagnosis. “I told my wife I had breast cancer and she began to cry, and I put my arm around her and said ‘it’s all right, I’m going to get through this.’”
Getting through it required a six-hour surgery in 2002 that was originally scheduled to last four hours. While Brooke was under the knife, the doctors discovered the cancer had spread to his lymphatic system. Fifteen lymph nodes had to be removed.
In the surgery room, “It was all ladies there. It was a pink and purple room, everything was feminine. When I walked in there I’m sure everybody thought I was bringing my wife in rather than the other way around.”
The recovery was slow and hard, requiring 10 days of rest. “Blood would be draining out from the operation” from a tube inside his body into a sack, Brooke said.
The former Senator said his doctors have certified him as cancer free. But the experience had changed him, adding another layer to a complicated life of firsts. The first black attorney general of Massachusetts and first elected black Senator is now the first national spokesman for male breast cancer. “You never know in life what you’re going to be called upon to do,” he said.
After his recovery, Brooke began asking questions about “why men did not get examinations and why there was not a national male breast cancer program.”
Brooke said the response — that the disease doesn’t strike males often enough — wasn’t satisfactory.
Dr. LaSalle Leffall, a breast cancer surgeon at Howard University Hospital in D.C., said last week a terrible ignorance exists when it comes to male breast cancer. “I even had a couple of physician colleagues tell me ‘I didn’t know that males could get breast cancer,’” he said.
Leffall, also chairman of the board of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, with which Brooke works to publicize male breast cancer, characterized the disease as “uncommon” but not “rare.” Annual incidence rates are less than 1,500 cases a year, he said, but “If you happen to be that male who has that cancer, it’s a major problem for you.”
Men shouldn’t cue up with their wives to get regular mammograms, Leffall said, but physicians should be aware of the disease and be able to send male patients for insurance- and Medicare-covered mammograms if suspicion of cancer exists.
He added that men should not be ashamed if they’re diagnosed with breast cancer. “It has no overtones at all of a man having female characteristics, in any way.”
As for Brooke’s willingness to discuss his breasts, he said, “I have no macho hang-ups, whatsoever.”
He added, “My role is to get the message out, make the awareness and hopefully reach out to the medical profession and to the Congress to take whatever measures are necessary to prevent male breast cancer.”
Brooke still values his privacy. “How happy I was here, reading and writing and listening to opera and talking to my cattle and horses, who don’t talk back to me,” Brooke said of his life on the 150-acre farm he shares with his wife. Speaking out on the national stage doesn’t mean he wants to become “a poster boy,” he said.
And Brooke’s not ready to launch a lobbying effort at Congress. “I’m 83 years old. I’ll be 84 in October. God’s been good and I’m in relatively good health. I don’t’ have the energy I used to have. I certainly don’t have the support system, assistants or research people.”
Generating awareness is the most he can do, Brooke said. “I’ll do whatever I can do, let’s put it like that.”
Leffall said it’s Brooke’s valued privacy that makes his effort so laudable. “For that fact alone he deserves so much credit because he is a private man, but he’s willing to expose himself for the greater public good.”