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In February I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It literally came out of nowhere, starting with the discovery of a lump just under the skin on my right breast. I dutifully went to the doctor, who suspected a cyst but, also dutifully, sent me for an ultrasound. Since I was male, neither of us seriously considered the possibility of breast cancer. After all, according to the Canadian Cancer Society less than one per cent of breast cancers occur in men. We were both wrong.
I found myself going through the standard emotions: shock, denial, anger, etc. In my case the anger was considerable. Less than five years before I had gone through eight hours of open-heart surgery and months of slow painful recovery after being diagnosed with a life-threatening thoracic aortic aneurysm, another supposedly extremely rare condition. I still carry the after-effects. I thought I had fought my war and was done with these long-shot diseases.
Acceptance, however, did eventually come. Along with my resolve to beat this thing, just as I had done before. But I quickly learned that this second fight for my life would be different. Who knew how unexpectedly pervasive and illogical male vanity could be? And, care providers excepted, I was the only man in sight, and mind. The cancer care navigator at the hospital handed me a hefty manual entitled A Woman’s Guide to Breast Cancer Recovery without a hint of irony. For a man, the breast cancer journey is a particularly lonely one.
Diagnosis was rapidly followed by surgery (a mastectomy and removal of some lymph nodes, a few of which were cancerous) and the beginning of a demanding treatment protocol. All against the complicating backdrop of COVID-19.
After my second chemotherapy session my hair started to fall out in clumps, as I had been warned it would.
No big deal, I thought. After all, shaved heads were an accepted style option for men of all age groups these days, who was I to feel sorry for myself?
All I needed was the right equipment. Like so many others in this time of lockdown, I naturally turned to Amazon. But with barbers and stylists closed down, there had been a run on head shavers. The recommended familiar names like Philips, Remington and Conair were out of stock or had months-long delivery times.
That left me with few options. I was immediately drawn to the sexy looking Pitbull Platinum Electric Razor by Skull Shaver. After all, it sounded manly and offered “IPX5 water resistance technology” no less. But at $279.99? I thought not.
I eventually opted for the Glynee Electric Shaver for Men, at a reasonable $54.99 with free delivery within three days. The Glynee was one of a slew of identical looking and priced made-in-China products bearing such uninspiring names as Dee Banna, Kibley and Surker. No testosterone-boosting branding here, but affordable and, above all, available.
The Glynee arrived on the promised day courtesy of one of those stealth deliveries Amazon seems to employ these days. It just appeared on the porch without the hint of a door knock or any other notification.
In spite of an array of toothy attachments, the Glynee clogged up after less than five minutes in action. After a thorough cleaning and with the aid of some ancient but still sharp Sheffield steel scissors and a remarkably tough battery powered $20.00 Gillette beard trimmer, my head was eventually shaved.
It actually didn’t look too bad, I found myself admitting. Pretty stylish, in fact. The smooth head accentuated my short closely trimmed grey-black beard. Naively, I hoped the beard would not be affected. After all, it had held up while the rest of my hair fell out. I thought it would last. And it did – for about four days. Stubbornly I held on to the stubble for another couple of days. Then, faced with tiny hairs all over my pillow and unsightly bare patches beginning to appear in the beard, I realized it had to go.
Hard to take but necessary, I told myself. But when I came to my mustache, I found myself hesitating. Man, I’d grown this thing during a backpacking tour of Europe with three friends between high school graduation and our respective universities, colleges and jobs. It was in 1977, for heaven’s sake. I hadn’t been without it since then.
But what was the real issue? I asked myself as I stared in the mirror. Did I really need a Seventies dude mustache? Apparently, even Thomas Magnum in the rebooted Magnum P.I. opted against one. And what was left of mine was not pretty.
Then it slowly dawned on me. With the sacrifice of my mustache, I was, in some way, surrendering control. I no longer even had a say in how I looked. The fact is that if you are diagnosed with breast cancer and you want to beat it, you pretty much have to be prepared to strap yourself in and go along for the ride. The treatment protocol laid out is pretty strict. In my case, surgery, four months of chemotherapy, a follow-up “insurance” surgery (in males breast cancer tends to be more aggressive), a month of radiation and several years of daily pills. It is not particularly pleasant. There are some nasty side effects along the way, especially during chemotherapy, exacerbated by the side-effect management drugs that go with it. There’s really not much you can do, besides be positive.
The best you can hope for is to mitigate some of the effects through changes in your behaviour, but these don’t really help much. It becomes something of a mind game from this point. You have to convince yourself that you are not ceding control to the cancer, but to the treatment. You are putting yourself in the hands of the doctors, nurses, technicians, pharmacists and, yes, drug companies, and they are on your side.
If all goes well, and you let them do their jobs, control will return. You will once again be the one who determines what you look like, you’ll feel stronger and, no longer tied to a strict timetable of appointments and treatments, you’ll be able to schedule your own life again. Oh, and your hair (plus beard and mustache), if that’s still important to you, will grow back.
Ian Corks lives in Toronto.