Male breast cancer patient tackles the rare disease

Milbert Kennedy, male breast cancer survivor
Milbert Kennedy

Milbert Kennedy is an active 66-year-old who works on the sanitation team at one of the sweetest places in Chicago, a chocolate factory. When Kennedy found out he had locally advanced breast cancer in November 2018, he was concerned about his ability to maintain his strength for work — and surprised.

“I was shocked because I hadn’t heard of any men that had breast cancer,” said Kennedy, who lives in the south suburb of Riverdale.

Many people don't think men can get breast cancer. But men, in fact, have a small amount of breast tissue and can get it.

Although rare, 1 in 1,000 men is diagnosed with breast cancer each year and, because it’s not top of mind, men are often diagnosed at a later stage. The risk of male breast cancer increases with age, obesity, a family history of breast cancer, radiation exposure, and heavy drinking. Staying at a healthy weight, limiting alcohol and being physically active are some of the best ways to lower the risk of male breast cancer.

Common Symptoms

Months before his diagnosis, Kennedy felt a knot in his chest. He thought it was odd, but not enough to do anything about it, even though his wife, Telise, would often tell him to get it checked. One day, he casually mentioned to her that the knot sometimes felt sore. She insisted he go to immediate care to get it checked out. That day he listened.

I was shocked because I hadn’t heard of any men that had breast cancer.

At the emergency room, which isn’t equipped to run mammograms, Kennedy was told that it may be a cyst and to follow up with his primary care physician. That's when the doctor found swelling in his armpit, which prompted a biopsy to be performed. Results showed that he had a few lymph nodes positive for cancer in his armpit and, after a scan, they found the cancerous tumor at the site of the cyst, his left breast.

What Kennedy experienced is one of the common symptoms of breast cancer: a lump or swelling in the chest. Other possible signs include skin dimpling and nipple retraction. Sometimes, the cancer can spread to lymph nodes and cause a lump or swelling under the arm or around the collar bone.

Kennedy's primary care physician referred him to James Wallace, MD, an oncologist at UChicago Medicine Ingalls who specializes in the treatment of older patients with cancer.

A genetic test revealed that Kennedy has a BRCA2 gene mutation, which put him at an even higher risk. BRCA is an abbreviation for breast cancer gene, which typically works to suppress tumors. When there's a mutation, BRCA can’t do its job. With a BRCA2 gene mutation, men have a lifetime risk of 6 in 100 to develop breast cancer.

Wallace developed a treatment plan together with his patient.

“Milbert's work is physical, and he really wanted to maintain strength and continue working,” he said.

Chemotherapy, Then Surgery

The main part of the tumor was in his breast, but it was also invading the muscle. If they were to operate immediately, they would need to take the entire muscle and breast. The plan was to start with chemotherapy to help him keep the muscle.

During his treatment, he’d often bring candy bars for his care team, and he continued to work his shifts at the chocolate factory, which started at 2 a.m.

"It is rare for a patient to bring chocolate bars every visit, but he quickly became the nursing and support staff's hero every time he came in,” said Wallace.

After chemotherapy, Nora Jaskowiak, MD, performed a modified radical mastectomy, which involves removal of the entire breast but keeping intact the pectoralis major muscle, the large muscle in the upper chest that spans from the shoulder to the breast bone.

“People present at more advanced stages all of the time, but this tumor was odd because it was in his breast, but it was also invading right into his muscle,” said Jaskowiak. “It was worrisome.”

After surgery, Kennedy took two months off from work to heal and also had radiation therapy to get rid of some minute traces of cancer.

Kennedy has been cancer free since September 2019, and he and his wife are looking to retire in a few years.

“I feel good. Even after going through this, I feel healthy,” Kennedy said. “Maybe 66 years old is the new 46.”

James Wallace, MD

James Wallace, MD

James Wallace, MD, is a skilled oncologist with specialty training in geriatrics. He has particular expertise in the treatment of older cancer patients. Dr. Wallace specializes in the assessment of the "oldest old" (age 85 and up) and "frail older" patients (age 65 and up with other medical problems) who seek help in learning how to manage cancer.

Read Dr. Wallace's physician profile
Nora Jaskowiak, MD

Nora Jaskowiak, MD

Nora Jaskowiak, MD, is an expert in breast surgery and breast cancer, and also specializes in the surgical management of endocrine disorders, including thyroid cancer and parathyroid conditions. She serves as surgical director of UChicago Medicine's Breast Center.

View Dr. Jaskowiak's physician profile