For years, Bret Miller was told not to worry about the hard nugget the size of a lima bean underneath his right nipple.
He first mentioned it to a doctor in 2003 during a physical to play football at Shawnee Mission East when he was 17. “They were like, ‘You’re 17. It’s puberty,’” he recalled in the living room of his parents’ Prairie Village home. “‘It seems like a calcium buildup. You’re in puberty. It will dissipate. They come and go.’”
But it didn’t go away. Because it wasn’t calcium. It was breast cancer.
In fact, Bret Miller’s cancer wouldn’t be diagnosed for another seven years — one of the reasons he has committed himself to being the male face of a cancer that is 100 times more likely to be found in a woman.
October — National Breast Cancer Awareness Month — is awash in pink. Miller, 27, knows that’s a good thing for the disease that’s the second leading cause of death by cancer in women.
The year he was diagnosed, he and his mother, Peggy Miller, started the Bret Miller 1T Foundation to add a little blue to the conversation.
“This is still a women’s disease,” Bret Miller said. “It’s always going to be that way. I’m not trying to steal the thunder from anybody. I have gotten some dirty looks from some women, but I’m not trying to steal their thunder.
“I’m just trying to educate people and let them know that it is possible. That’s where the whole foundation came from.”
With his foundation’s pink and blue ribbon tattooed on his chest and proudly displaying his mastectomy scar, Miller is determined to let men know: Breast cancer can happen to you too.
His ultimate goal is to build grow the Bret Miller 1T Foundation into “the Susan G. (Komen for the Cure) of male breast cancer.”
He and his mother are clearly motivated. They got Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to both declare this week Male Breast Cancer Awareness week. Twelve states have now made the declaration, and Peggy Miller traveled to Oklahoma City for a proclamation last weekend.
Miller has been interviewed for an upcoming HBO documentary about men’s breast cancer. A short documentary about his case is shown to Shawnee Mission East students. And he’s one of only two men named as Models of Courage for Ford’s Warriors in Pink breast cancer awareness campaign. For that program, he’s made widely distributed videos telling his story and encouraging men nationwide to start thinking about breast cancer.
One of the reasons Miller’s cancer went undetected for so many years is that breast cancer in men is exceptionally rare. It makes up only 1 percent of the cases of breast cancer nationwide. The National Institutes of Health estimates that while 232,340 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, 2,240 men will be. Almost 40,000 women will die of it; 410 men will die.
In fact, the disease is so rare that Medicaid guidelines aren’t written to include testing and treatment for men enrolled in the program, which leads to men often being denied treatment.
Several months after his football physical in high school, Miller had another physical before entering the University of Kansas as a freshman. He mentioned the lump. And again the doctor said it was likely just calcium and nothing to worry about.
“He thought the same exact thing as the doctors before — calcium deposit, keep an eye on it if it changes size or whatever,” he says.
While at KU though, the hard ball began to worry him a little bit, especially when pressure was applied to it.
“It had kind of started hurting. Not a lot, just a little pain,” he said. “If I did squeeze it, there was a yellow-orange-ish discharge. (I was) thinking it was a cyst or whatnot. A fluid buildup.”
The discharge didn’t alarm him; he figured it was dissolving. “I was just thinking, maybe it’s finally going away just like the doctor said,” Miller said.
After graduating from KU in 2008, he moved back to the metro and took a job managing facilities at the Carriage Club country club in Kansas City. In 2010, about a year after getting health insurance for work, he again mentioned the hardness under his nipple to a doctor.
This time, though, the doctor said it needed to be checked out. Miller was sent to a clinic for an ultrasound. The physician never uttered the word “cancer.”
He drove to the clinic for the ultrasound, and that was when he first realized he didn’t fully understand what the lump could be.
“So I walk in there — big ol’ letters: ‘Women’s Clinic,’” he said.
Still, the possibility of having breast cancer didn’t register. “It’s where they have the (ultrasound) machine, that’s all I’m thinking. Nothing is clicking that it’s breast cancer,” he said.
He even remembers chuckling at the forms he had to fill out in the clinic waiting room. “They hand me the clipboard, I’m filling it out. Name, address, insurance — when was your last menstrual cycle? Are you pregnant?” he recalled.
But things got serious quickly.
The technician doing the ultrasound called the on-call doctor.
“She comes in and literally does a triple-take. She’s looking at the screen, looking at me. Looking at the screen, looking at me.”
The doctor order a mammogram. Is this physically possible? Miller thought. He wasn’t even sure how the doctor was going to conduct the scan: What are they going to squeeze?
The mammogram showed a mass, and Miller consulted a surgeon who was confident that it was a deposit of calcium and that it should be removed. On April 27, 2010, Miller had surgery to remove the mass.
“The next day, I’m back at work at the country club. More numb than anything,” Miller said. “As I’m leaving the country club, I get a call from the surgeon. He doesn’t ask me if I’m sitting down, if I’m driving, whatever. He kinda goes, ‘The preliminary pathology reports have come back, and it says it’s breast cancer.’”
“I love them all dearly,” Peggy Miller says of her children. “If God had to choose anyone to give cancer to, this is the one out of the four of my kids.”
Bret Miller’s eyes remain dry, and he rarely gets emotional when talking about his ordeal.
His mom, though, lets her emotions flow freely.
Bret is the kid who doesn’t get fazed, she said. After all, Bret’s her kid who played nose tackle for the Shawnee Mission East Lancers while weighing only 130 pounds as a freshman. Bret’s her kid who routinely works 50 hours between his Carriage Club job and a gig tending bar at Tango Del Cid in the Power Light District and still remains cheerful and active when he’s not on the clock. He’s the kid who recently volunteered his bar tips to get tumors removed from the legs of the family’s boxer, Dakoda.
He’s the most unflappable member of the family. Even when he got the cancer call from the surgeon.
“I was like OK Uh? All I was thinking was, am I getting punked right now? Where’s Ashton (Kutcher) and the cameras?” he said of the MTV show that filmed pranks on people.
Peggy leapt into action. Her first task was to reach out to every member of their extended family to put together a complete family history of cancer. The good news was that there was no direct line of cancer in Bret’s genetics. That meant that after surgery, the chances were lower that the disease would return.
A second opinion confirmed the need for more surgery. Since the cancer hadn’t spread into his lymph nodes, and no cancer was detected in his left breast, he opted for a single mastectomy. He went under the knife May 18, 2010.
The surgery, done at St. Joseph Medical Center, was a success. The cancerous tissue was removed, and Miller came through fine. He was left with a scar several inches long, and no right nipple, but the cancerous tissue was removed, and so far it hasn’t spread anywhere else.
A prayer Peggy Miller said the morning of her son’s mastectomy to the patron saint of lost causes set the family in motion for raising awareness about male breast cancer.
“I have big faith in St. Jude,” Peggy Miller said, through tears. “We prayed to God and to St. Jude that morning. You make Bret well, I will promise you I will tell the world.”
With her son on the road back to health, Peggy Miller, an Episcopalian, began to follow through on the promise she made to God and to educate people about breast cancer in men.
Her son had already started educating the public through Facebook posts about his diagnosis and surgery. Even in those early days, he showed a flair for fun — a key part of his foundation’s attitude. Just before the surgery, he posted a comic goodbye to his right nipple. “It’s been a good 24 years,” he posted.
Peggy Miller’s activism lands somewhere between a hobby and a part-time job. “My husband, my other three kids probably would wish I would I stop talking about it,” she said with a laugh.
There have been a couple famous men with the disease, including the late “The Price Is Right” announcer Rod Roddy, who advocated late in his life for men to get mammograms, “Shaft” actor Richard Roundtree and Kiss drummer Peter Criss. But its rareness is why Peggy Miller doesn’t blame doctors for missing it in her son.
“Why would I ever expect a male doctor to look at a male patient, especially Bret’s age, and say, ‘Oh, I think you have breast cancer’? I wouldn’t,” she said.
And that’s exactly why she and Bret are working together to build the Bret Miller 1T Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, to educate young people, especially men, about breast cancer.
By launching his own organization, Miller aims to spread his message of early detection to young people. The foundation’s mission is to build “awareness and early detection for young women and men through the knowledge of survivors.”
He plans to send breast cancer survivors to colleges and high schools nationwide to educate students about detection.
During the process of learning about male breast cancer after her son’s diagnosis, she had what she calls her “Oprah a-ha moment.” She asked Bret and Bob if doctors had ever checked their breasts.
“They both said, ‘No. They check everything,’” down to the testicles, “‘But not our boobs.’ I said, ‘Oh my gosh, you men don’t even have a chance in hell. You don’t even know,’” she said.
Indeed, the National Institutes of Health notes that survival rates are the same for men and women when the cancer is caught at the same stage. Men, however, are more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage.
Lon McCroskey, the breast surgeon who performed Bret’s surgery, has been practicing since 1981 and treated about 15 to 20 cases of male breast cancer in his career. He said the treatment for male breast cancer is very similar to the treatment of female breast cancer. It’s important to catch it early, he said.
“Male breast cancer is very curable, just like female breast cancer, if it’s caught early,” he said.
Bret’s work to raise awareness of breast cancer in men is particularly important because breast cancer in men can indicate that breast cancer is in a family’s genes. “Male breast cancer is a red flag for a problem in the family,” McCroskey said. If male breast cancer is found, he said, other family members should get tested to see if they have elevated likelihood of getting cancer.
“If that family is tested, you might find that other members are at risk,” McCroskey said. “And you can prevent breast cancer in those patients if you know that they’re at high risk of developing breast cancer.”
The revelation that men aren’t checked for breast cancer sparked Peggy Miller to pursue a simple mantra for the organization’s mission. The first point she makes to people is that you don’t have to have large amounts of breast tissue to get cancer. Any amount of breast of tissue can become cancerous. “If you got boobs, this can happen to you. It doesn’t discriminate,” she said.
Spend any time with Peggy in the cluttered home office that serves as headquarters for the family’s film production company and the Bret Miller 1T Foundation, and it’s clear she has done her research into breast cancer. As far as she can tell, Bret is the youngest man ever to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Usually men aren’t diagnosed until they are in their 60s.
To help raise awareness, the Millers worked with the National Consortium of Breast Centers, a nonprofit professional membership organization, to create
showing up-to-date and doctor-recommended methods for self examinations for both men and women. The videos have been viewed by people from around the world, Peggy Miller said. And her family’s new activism is already paying off for herself. Using the methods in the videos, she found two non-cancerous lumps in her own breasts a couple of months ago.
“It has saved lives. People have found their lumps. I found mine, because of it,” she said.
Bret Miller wants his foundation to be full of fun — hosting events at bars.
“Everybody has a 5K or a fun run. You have to do something different. Think outside of the box,” he said, during the foundation’s first fund-raiser in late September at the bar and concert space Kanza Hall in the One Block South development in Overland Park. While the family had participated in charity walks and hosted fundraisers for other breast cancer nonprofits, this was the first for the Bret Miller 1T Foundation.
There was a resoundingly nontraditional feel in the bar. A video of Bret chatting with female breast cancer survivors played on TVs throughout the space. And a couple dozen volunteers milled about in blue T-shirts, selling raffle tickets and tending bar. The night culminated in a country rock concert by the band Walker McGuire. It had the feeling of a fun night out, and 342 attendees raised $3,647 for the foundation.
Miller wants to appeal to a younger crowd and get young men educated.
“To quote George Carlin, saliva over a long period of time, swallowed in small amounts, can cause cancer. It seems like no matter we do in our society or world, cancer is inevitable. It’s going to happen. It strikes people that are in phenomenal shape. It’s a genetics thing,” he said.
The Millers are finding out that promoting education about breast cancer among men can cause friction between them and traditional, female-focused breast cancer charity groups.
Peggy Miller says that experiences with those groups have been a little prickly. She recalled asking one cancer patient support group that she didn’t want named to help Bret. A member of the group’s leadership told her that the organization is for female patients only.
“I said, ‘Well you know what? As these men get this cancer, you guys need to rethink your purpose.’ She said, ‘Well, I don’t know if that will ever happen,’” Peggy said.
There’s also resistance among some traditional breast cancer nonprofits to highlight the disease among men on their websites and in marketing campaigns.
Friction between breast cancer nonprofits is a fact of the industry, said Leawood resident Barbara Unell, founder of the nonprofit Back in the Swing. Unell started her organization focusing on getting survivors post-treatment care in 2000 after her own battle with breast cancer.
“I don’t feel like I’m in competition or running against them,” she said of other cancer organizations, but there’s only so much money to go around. “There is a fight, if you will, for that dollar.”
She added that because most research and breast cancer nonprofits are focused on female breast cancer, raising awareness of the disease in men is a laudable focus. A male friend was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, and she said there’s a tight connection between population groups targeted by awareness groups and research funding.
“Where research dollars go, that’s where a lot of the awareness follows. And vice versa,” she said.
The Millers are determined to grow their foundation. They have found success in getting several states to declare a week in October for male breast cancer awareness.
Additionally, the foundation is organizing an event called Tops Off New York, a photo op in which male and female breast cancer survivors will pose topless. The fundraiser will benefit the Millers’ foundation as well as the male breast cancer organization
and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s male breast cancer research project.
As they get the Bret Miller 1T Foundation going, Peggy says their message needs to be simple: The public needs to stop thinking about breast cancer the way it does now.
“It’s not just pink. It’s a pink and blue world now. If you’ve got boobs, you can get it,” she said.