Military man with breast cancer: ‘I couldn’t believe it when my doctor said I had it’
Only one in 1,000 men has the risk of getting breast cancer. The main risk factors include elevated estrogen levels, alcohol consumption, obesity, prior radiation exposure, and family history of breast cancer
As a boy, the colorful lives of men in uniform never failed to fascinate him. And so, after earning a degree in criminology, the brawny and determined Leonardo Dumapig, then 27, enlisted in the Philippine National Police in his hometown Davao.
It's been 24 years since Leonardo, or Nards for short, first proudly donned his military fatigues.
"I was assigned to the Hall of Justice in Davao City to assist judges and fiscals, especially when there were problems," Nards, 52, relates.
Nards had always been physically fit and healthy, even combat-ready, until one day in November 2019, when he started slacking off. "I would tire easily and even a slight bump on my chest would cause so much pain," he recalls.
"Iba yung sakit, hindi ordinary (the pain was different, not ordinary). And it continued for one week, disappeared and then returned. The pain was even more unbearable whenever I carried heavy things. It felt like my chest was being sliced. But because it came on and off, I did nothing about it. I thought it was just a backache and a massage would make it go away."
The pain emanated from deep under Nards' right breast (it felt hot, he says) and as it grew more intense, Nards could no longer ignore it.
Nards Dumapig is battle-scarred, a veteran of life’s harsh realities. At nine, he was orphaned when both his parents were massacred by members of the NPA.
"On June 23, 2020, I went to see a breast specialist at the Metro Davao Hospital," he recounts. "I underwent a lab test and the biopsy results revealed that I had stage 1-A breast cancer. My doctor felt the lump under my right breast and both my mammogram and ultrasound showed the lump."
He discloses, "Upon learning I had breast cancer, my morale became so low. I was never really desperate, but I prayed hard for my life to be extended so I could still be with my wife and children."
Not a laughing matter
Last July 20, Nards had surgery to remove the lump underneath the nipple of his right breast. His surgeon was Dr. Gina Fernandez while his oncologist was Dr. Em Morelos.
"All my doctors were there in the operating room," Nards shares. "When my anesthesiologist learned about my case, he exclaimed, 'Puede rin pala magka breast cancer ang lalaki (even a male can have breast cancer).' We were all laughing about it."
When they learned about it, his colleagues at PNP couldn't stop poking fun at him.
But male breast cancer is no laughing matter. Although it is very rare (only one in 1,000 men has the risk of getting breast cancer) and males don't develop milk-producing breasts, men have breast tissue and cells that can develop cancer, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation as it celebrates National Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October.
Beyoncé’s father, Mathew Knowles, was also diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy last year. In an interview with the New York Times last year, he urged men to get checked.
According to the NYT story, “about 245,000 women in the United States learn they have breast cancer each year, compared with about 2,200 men”— numbers from the CDC
"A whole lot has to change in the education of men about breast cancer," Knowles told USA Today in June. "I want to save lives, especially in the Black community."
Risk factors and symptoms
The symptoms or red flags in men are the same as in women. The prognosis (chance of recovery) for male breast cancer depends largely on the stage of the tumor, just like in women.
The main risk factors for male breast cancer include elevated estrogen levels, alcohol consumption, obesity, prior radiation exposure, and family history of breast cancer. Nards' oncologist, Dr. Morelos, said that cancer is 60% inherited and 40% lifestyle.
Beyoncé’s father, Mathew Knowles, was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy last year. ‘A whole lot has to change in the education of men about breast cancer,’ he said.
Nards couldn't think of anything that qualified him to be a breast cancer patient. "I've always led a clean and active lifestyle—I never smoked, drank moderately, ate only vegetables and fish," he enumerates. "But I have a first cousin who died of lymphoma and an uncle who had leukemia."
Fear and anxiety set in as Nards started his chemotherapy (six cycles, every 21 days; the last was on Dec. 17).
He worried about the mounting financial costs of his hospitalization and post-treatment. "But I was encouraged by my surgeon who told me, 'Take it one step at a time.' Worry about where to get the money later," Nards confesses.
His battle with cancer rages on. But even at a young age, Nards has survived many bruising battles. He is battle-scarred, a veteran of life's harsh realities.
At nine, he was orphaned when both his parents were massacred by members of the NPA (New People's Army) in Davao del Norte.
As he couldn't go back to his own home, he was taken in by one of his nine siblings. He studied for two years in Zamboanga, then went back to Davao City and was adopted by a police colonel who put him through school. He took on odd jobs, as a traffic aide and construction worker. Indeed, he has come a long way.
"I'm okay now, I have no diet restrictions," says Nards in our online interview, looking good with his shining skinhead and bright-as-sunshine smile.
"I try to eat even if I don't have the appetite after a chemo session. In fact, I've gained weight."
The main risk factors for male breast cancer include elevated estrogen levels, alcohol consumption, obesity, prior radiation exposure, and family history of breast cancer
He hastens to add, "If there's one lesson I've learned from my cancer, it is that we must value life, take care of our health. I give my life to Him who created it."
His message to all men: Man up, whether it's cancer or some other battle you're facing now.