Last fall, Galen Johnson woke up short of breath, thinking he was having a heart attack. A trip to Medical City McKinney’s emergency department revealed something completely different – a mass on his left breast.
He was referred to Solis Mammography for a mammogram and biopsy, which confirmed that Johnson had invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), the most common form of breast cancer.
“I could feel the mass on my left side. It was large enough to put pressure on my lung and cause me to be short of breath,” says Johnson, a 59-year-old warehouse manager and hobby sports and nature photographer. “I thought breast cancer was just a woman’s thing. As guys, we don’t think about breast cancer. But I found out firsthand that it happens to men too.”
With IDC, cancer cells originate in the milk ducts, spreads to other parts of the breast tissue and can eventually spread to other parts of the body. The American Cancer Society estimates about 2,650 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in men each year.
Johnson is sharing his story to bring awareness to men’s breast cancer for Men’s Health Month, an annual observance aimed at raising awareness of preventable health problems and encouraging early detection and treatment of disease.
Following the mammogram, Johnson was connected with Brandy Meierhofer, BSN, RN, Medical City McKinney’s Sarah Cannon breast cancer navigator. As a cancer navigator, Meierhofer supports patients throughout their cancer journey from diagnosis to recovery.
Meierhofer connected Johnson to critical resources, including surgeons and oncologists, and also to nonprofit organizations that focus on supporting breast cancer patients in a variety of other ways.
“I am here to walk alongside Galen in his journey, providing education, information and smoothing out any barriers to his care,” says Meierhofer. “We’ve come an incredible distance in breast cancer treatment in recent years. Today, treatment is specific to each patient, often allowing for successful outcomes.”
As one of nine children in his family, Johnson has watched cancer impact the lives of four of his siblings, taking the lives of two. His father and uncle also were treated for prostate and colon cancer.
“I’ve been checking myself for prostate cancer since I was 40, but never considered checking myself for breast cancer, even though two of my sisters had breast cancer,” Johnson said.
With encouragement from Meierhofer and his Medical City McKinney surgeon, Umar Butt, MD, Johnson underwent genetic testing, which revealed he has a gene that additionally puts him at a higher risk for developing pancreatic cancer.
“Based on genetic testing and his family history, we removed the cancer and performed a mastectomy and lymph node removal on his left breast," Dr. Butt says. "We also did a preemptive mastectomy on the right side as men with breast cancer have 20 to 30 times the risk of developing breast cancer on the opposite side, much greater than the increase in risk for women with breast cancer. "
Just weeks after his double mastectomy, Johnson started a five-month, bi-weekly chemotherapy treatment plan. He is grateful that his cancer navigator Brandy, who he calls his “angel,” checks in with him often for updates.
He is also talking to his adult son and encouraging him to undergo genetic testing and develop a plan of action with his primary care doctor for early screenings.
“I’ve been a stubborn male all of my life, but through this, I’ve learned I need to stop being stubborn,” Johnson says. “If I had followed up on this a year ago, when I first found the lump, I might not have to go through chemotherapy. I’ve learned, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”