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Thomas Birch

Breast Cancer in Men – It Happens

Holy Name - Dr. Thomas Birch

It’s not a common disease. In fact, many people don’t even know that men can get breast cancer. But they do. And just like in women who develop the disease, it may be deadly if left untreated.

Dr. Thomas Birch, former Medical Director of the Institute for Clinical Research at Holy Name Medical Center, was well aware of the possibility of men getting the disease, mostly from his training as a physician. But he was also very cognizant because his mother and sister had breast cancer. Though he’s known for his infectious disease expertise and has been a leader in COVID-19 treatment, he wants to bring attention to male breast cancer.

Each month, Dr. Birch performs a self-examination. One May, just months before his daughter’s wedding, he felt a hard nodule, about the size of a pea, under his right nipple. He thought maybe he hurt himself playing tennis, but his knowledge and intellect won out – he had no bruise and it was hard. He knew he needed to have it checked.

“My first thought when I heard I had cancer, was oh crap,” Dr. Birch said. “I knew I’d be okay – it was small, I knew we caught it early because it wasn’t there last month – it was just something I had to get through.”

For the most part, he just looked ahead, never feeling sorry for himself or wasting energy on such emotions as fear. But he had a few moments when it caught him up short, like the afternoon following the lunch hour when he got his biopsy. When he got back to his office he started thinking about his daughter’s wedding and how treatment might interfere with this special event. Then he started considering who would cover his work schedule while he was recovering from surgery. And of course, thinking of surgery, should it be a double mastectomy to help prevent cancer from developing on the other side of his chest?

But he quickly put his thoughts aside to focus on his work. Meantime, he had genetic testing done. The results couldn’t point to a definitive higher risk for the disease. Still, he decided on a double mastectomy. He shared the news with his family and coworkers, who offered some much-appreciated support.

“I didn’t want to risk getting cancer on the other side,” Dr. Birch said. “And let’s face it, it’s a lot easier for a man to go through a mastectomy than a woman.”

While he remained fairly unemotional throughout his diagnosis and surgery, he admits to feeling very relieved after learning he wouldn’t need chemotherapy. His thick shock of white hair would remain and he wouldn’t have to deal with the other side effects caused by chemotherapy medications.

“Chemotherapy is much harder – for breast cancer it causes you to lose your hair, there’s nausea and other side effects,” Dr. Birch said. “Radiation is so much easier – it’s painless, though my skin was a little burned and I was tired when it was over.”

A day after surgery he was out of the hospital, and a week later, gardening in his backyard. His body needed time to recover from surgery before he could start radiation therapy, but he returned to work quickly and continued seeing patients and conducting research through the five weeks of radiation treatment.

“The whole team who treated me was just great,” Dr. Birch said. “They are always so caring and want to make sure you’re comfortable. Not just because I’m a doctor here – they treat everyone as a person, not a patient.”

A week before his radiation treatment ended, Dr. Birch danced at his daughter’s wedding. It was a day he’ll never forget.

“I was a little tired but I’m so glad I felt as good as I did,” Dr. Birch said. “If I had waited to get diagnosed, say even three to six months, who knows how much it would have progressed and what type of treatment I might have needed? Men can get breast cancer and they should know to examine their chests. It’s easy and it may prevent them from needing extensive treatment, or maybe even save their life.”

Learn more about Holy Name's Breast Center