My name is Nat Spencer and I’m a breast cancer survivor from 9/11. This is my story from that dreadful day up to the present.
I remember getting off the X17 express bus which dropped me in front of Century 21 department store, directly across the street from World Trade Center 5. The aromatic smell of the Crispy Crème donut shop was intoxicating to say the very least, but I was on a diet, and I was also a little late for work. Thank goodness I chose to head to my office, because the first plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center no more than ten minutes later. My office was approximately 800 feet from where the bus let me off.
After the first plane hit, my company evacuated the building, and we were told to go home. I remained at home for two days until I received word to report to our disaster recovery site in New Jersey. We remained at the site conducting our daily business until the day after Columbus Day, October 11th, 2001. On October 12th we returned to Manhattan. You could see the PCP’s spewing from the rubble, smell the toxins in the air, and see the total devastation where the WTC complex once stood. To say the very least, it was a site that will be etched in my memory forever.
On December 14th I had an anxiety attack at work not realizing I was suffering from PTSD. I was a corporate officer of the bank, and I was retired by them on October 31, 2002. I spent one year in the aftermath of 9/11, 800 feet from the smoldering rubble and breathing in the poisonous carcinogens that were still being released into the air.
At that point in time, I was 54-years old and still anxious to work (even in NYC). But there were no opportunities for an executive who had many years’ experiences in computerized accounting systems. I eventually helped open up a Lowes on Staten Island, worked there for 1½ years and then worked for the Department of Homeland Security for 12 years.
In 2006, I started going to Weight Watchers and was successful in losing 50 pounds. In so doing my chest area got smaller and one day, while on the treadmill, I felt an itching sensation to the right of the right nipple. At that time, I felt what appeared to be something like a pimple. I went to my primary care physician, and she recommended that I have a sonogram taken. The sonogram revealed a mass. I was scheduled for a needle biopsy and the pathological results revealed a cancerous tumor 1.9 x 1.8 x 1.2 cm in size. Invasive ductal mammary carcinoma in situ. I was 58 years old.
My first reaction was fatalistic, I was going to die. How could a man get breast cancer? I don’t ask that question today, because I know the answer: we DO get breast cancer. I felt ashamed and embarrassed. I quickly went to the gym where my wife was working out and I told her. Needless to say, she broke down. We told our children and my sister-in-law, who was in the medical field. She started the wheels turning, first, by getting the name of a surgeon at Memorial Sloane-Kettering Hospital who specialized in male breast cancer surgery. We made an appointment for a consultation, saw him. and set a date for a mastectomy of the right breast (no reconstruction was done). I told my surgeon that my main concern was getting the cancer out of me. I wasn’t born with it and I wanted to be rid of it. My surgeon staged the cancer at 1, but that wasn’t the actual number, as I will explain later.
On June 22, 2006, my wife, daughter and son-in-law accompanied me to the hospital. It was the scariest day of my life. My surgeon explained to all of us what would happen in the OR. The tumor would be removed, and four sentinel nodes would also be removed and tested in pathology. If they showed no cancer or metastasizing, then I would be in the clear. There was no cancer in the four nodes, and an additional seven nodes were removed and tested as a precaution.
The operation lasted approximately three hours. I was in recovery for a few hours and finally put into a room. As a side note, I was the only male on the breast cancer floor. The nurses joked that I was king of the floor.
My next visit to Memorial Sloane-Kettering hospital was the following week at which time I saw my surgeon and the head nurse who hooked me up with a single 7 mm Jackson-Pratt drain through an opening in the skin to drain excess blood and fluid from the surgical incision. I visited both the surgeon and head nurse several more times until the drain was disconnected about the end of June, 2006.
In July 2006, me and my family left for a 10-day cruise to the Caribbean and a week after I returned, I saw my Oncologist to prepare for the treatment which included eight weeks of chemotherapy and 7 1/2 weeks of radiation therapy. When I first met my oncologists, he reviewed all the reports and staged my cancer at a 3B. His reasoning was that the cancer was in situ which meant it was in the skin. My first chemotherapy treatment was on August 22nd, 2006. I remember that day very clearly because it was my first day starting a new job with the Department of Homeland Security. The nice thing about it was that it was on Staten Island. Prior to August 22nd I had a titanium port inserted on the left side of my chest to receive the chemo, saline solution, Benadryl and whatever else they were putting into me. It was a total of six bags which took approximately seven hours each visit. I was fortunate because I remember my wife and daughter being in the room (with myself and three other chemo recipients) where the chemotherapy was being administered. The chemo was given in my oncologist’s office. My daughter would go to the corner deli and buy sandwiches and drinks for everyone, although we didn’t have much of an appetite. And the Benadryl made me sleep for about three hours.
The process was tedious and tiring. The day after chemotherapy, I was back at work. Although I was extremely tired, I felt that I needed to keep my mind occupied. On several occasions, during the treatment process I fell asleep on my way home from work. Thank goodness I always put the car in neutral at red lights. I started losing my hair almost immediately after the first treatment. In the shower I could see my beautiful red hair going down the drain forever (when my hair did come back it was black and gray). I solved that problem by shaving my head up until today.
The eight treatments of chemotherapy actually took more than three months because I kept developing infections and my white blood cell count was high. This required getting a shot of Neulasta. I was very upset because I was anxious to get the process finished. Before each treatment, I took a drug, as prescribed by my oncologist, to dispel any nausea created by the treatments.
Through the entire process I had my family at my side giving me the support I needed to get through it. After all, it was a drain on all of us. We told a few close friends who would come and visit with me and provided us with assurances (which there are none) about how I would beat this terrible disease. I’m a born pessimist, so all the positive feedback I got helped me keep my attitude and perspective in the right direction.
I finished chemotherapy in December of 2006 and started radiation therapy shortly after that finishing up at the end of February 2007.
I saw my oncologist every three months accompanied by a blood test. I used to be on pins and needles until he told me that my Platelet count, RDW, Lymphocytes, Monocytes, Lymphocytes Absol, to name a few were okay.
After chemo and radiation therapies were completed, I was tested for the BRCA2 gene mutation, for which I tested positive. I learned that having this gene gives me a higher chance of getting a “recurrence” of cancer. Not necessarily just breast cancer, it could be melanoma, stomach, testicular, prostate, etc. At the time, I tried to convince my younger sister to get the testing, but she refused, saying it was ridiculous. My son and nephew also declined. Three years ago, my older sister died from stage four ovarian cancer. She died a terrible and painful death. She was never tested but I would bet that she had the BRCA2 gene, but it went undetected. My daughter was tested shortly after her first child was born and she tested positive for the BRCA2 gene. My sister finally woke up and got tested along with her three daughters and they all tested positive for the BRCA2 gene. Her son and my son have still not been tested. My son is a Registered Nurse, and he should know better. He also has a daughter as well as my nephew. I’m still working on them because it is personal to me! Due diligence will hopefully pay off and if something can be caught early before it blossoms into cancer, then you are ahead of the game. My daughter, sister and nieces already have their families in place and have taken steps to prophylactically handle a potential problem. As a side note, there was never cancer in my family, I started things rolling.
The last twelve years for me and my family has been one of heartache, recovery, education, awareness and thankfulness. I was ashamed to reveal my scars at the beach, swimming pools or any outdoor events.
My message to men and to everyone: be aware…assume nothing. Human beings have different anatomies, but we all have the same body tissue, and epidermis. It may be shaped differently, but the contents are basically the same. Check yourself. Do the self-examination with your fingers like you’re looking for a needle in a haystack. If you feel something that seems to be irregular, make an appointment to see your primary care physician. Don’t assume that it will go away. You could be saving your life.
I want to end by telling you a story about someone I was speaking with today at the gym. I’m usually at the gym seven days a week and being a friendly person, I love to talk to people. Also, I’ve been on CBS news with Cindy Hsu, FOX five news with Dr. Manny Alvarez, the cover of the Staten Island Advance, and page two of the New York Post, and Channel 11 news in January. This is not my resume, and I am not a celebrity or TV personality. I’ve been tapped on the shoulder by my lawyer, who asked me if I would like to help get the word out about this terrible disease that also affects men. I said, absolutely. So, at the gym this morning, a guy came up to me and said that Bobby (another gym buddy) told me that you had breast cancer from 9/11 and that we should talk. He was NYPD officer and first responder from the 9/11 tragedy. He said that his grandchild was sleeping on his chest when he felt an uncomfortable feeling near his right nipple. Low and behold, a lump right near the nipple! He immediately went to his doctor, got a mammogram and sonogram. The good news is that the lump was benign, it turned out to be fatty tissue. The point is he was proactive and will remain diligent in the future where his health is concerned.
I’m not an expert on male breast cancer, but I think that I have enough personal experience to assist someone who might have issues as to how to approach this disease psychologically and what to do medically. Remember, don’t assume.