The right side of his torso. That’s all that’s different now.
Pink and blue ink stains the skin covering 27-year-old East alumnus Bret Miller’s rib cage. The tattoo forms the shape of a cancer ribbon. Inscribed around it are three words, words that Bret’s brother repeated to him throughout his battle.
Love. Persevere. Fight.
Below are two dates — Bret’s diagnosis date, and his final day of chemotherapy.
Above the tattoo is Bret’s battle wound, a three inch scar that spans the space where his nipple and breast tissue used to be. Bret is proud to bare his chest in the summers when he works at the Carriage Club, or when incredulous strangers doubt that he — as a male — fought and defeated breast cancer.
For Bret, the scar isn’t just a sign of his victory over breast cancer; it is a daily reminder of a battle that he and his family never expected. It is Bret’s inspiration to devote his life to raising awareness through his organization, the Bret Miller 1T Foundation.
“You hear breast cancer and you think, ‘Oh, my mom or my sister is going to get it,’” Bret said. “You never think it could happen to a guy because no one ever hears about that. That’s what I want to change. I want to get out there, to tell my story and show people that this can happen.”
According to the Cancer Treatment Center of America, one percent of all breast cancer cases occur in men. This percentage is small enough to prevent doctors from creating studies and clinical trials to research male breast cancer. But Bret also believes that the small number causes a larger problem — a lack of awareness — and he is trying to change that.
He experienced this lack of awareness firsthand three years ago when he was diagnosed. His mother, Peggy, thought that it was a mistake. To Peggy, breast cancer was pink ribbons and Susan G. Komen walks, not shaving her son’s head after his first round of chemo.
“It’s a very ‘pink’ world when it comes to breast cancer,” Peggy said. “There’s not a lot of talk about men, so men feel like they can’t talk about it, like they can’t speak out about their stories.”
Bret was a junior at East when he first discovered his lump. Peggy urged him to show it to one of the doctors at East physical night. When the otherwise healthy 17-year-old varsity football player showed the doctor the bean-sized lump, the physician shrugged it off.
The doctor said that it was a calcium build-up, a typical part of puberty. Bret believed him for the next seven years.
As a 24-year-old, the lump had grown. Bret decided to return to the doctor when his right breast began to hurt and leak liquid. When a biopsy confirmed that the lump was a malignant tumor, Bret’s doctors were conflicted over what to do.
A double mastectomy was typical for women. Hormone therapy was often successful — in women. But there weren’t any standard procedures for men with cancer.
The problem was that there was barely any available information about men for the doctors to use. With hardly 2,000 cases of American males with breast cancer each year, there was minimal available data for Bret’s doctors to use in addressing his disease.
“In the hundreds of cases I’ve followed in my career, I’ve only seen about four or five men [with breast cancer],” Bret’s oncologist Richard McKittrick said. “When we get a male patient, we just have to say, ‘Okay, this worked in women, so we’ll see if it will behave similarly.’”
The female treatments worked effectively in treating Bret’s cancer. But what frightened his entire family was the fact that the tumor had been allowed to grow in his body for seven years due to lack of awareness.
In response, Bret and Peggy created the Bret Miller 1T Foundation. The foundation began as a way to raise awareness locally, but it quickly spread to become a national story.
Bret was a phenomenon not only because he was a boy, but also because his cancer formed when he was 17. According to Dr. McKittrick, a majority of male and female breast cancer cases occur in adults over 60 years old, making the likelihood of a teenaged boy getting breast cancer extremely rare.
The unlikeliness of Bret’s diagnosis gave him opportunities to participate in national events for breast cancer awareness. Bret was invited to speak at national conventions, participate in the Ford Warriors in Pink campaign and, most recently, film an episode on the Katie Couric show, which is scheduled to air in March.
Peggy and Bret started two websites: CheckThem.org and a new site that will be unveiled by the end of the school year. CheckThem.org hosts a blog where Bret explains his story, and provide information for males experiencing or concerned about breast cancer.
In addition, Peggy manages the men’s breast cancer section on the American Cancer Society website. The family is constantly ready to pause their lives in order to travel to California or New York for a new opportunity.
This isn’t always easy for Bret. He works multiple jobs to pay the bills, as does Peggy. His foundation costs him more than it makes him. When he returns home from conventions or photo shoots, Brett often works 18 hour days.
But every time he hears the story of another man who has caught and survived their own cancer, Bret and Peggy know that the sacrifice is worth it.
“We’re not in this for the money, believe me,” Peggy said. “We get nothing from this except for pride in knowing that we might have touched or saved someone else’s lives. That’s worth it. That’s what it’s about.”
Despite the daily struggle to balance working and spreading awareness, Bret feels that he has been chosen to continue this movement for the rest of his life. Whether it’s pulling up his shirt to show off his tattoo at work, or petitioning President Obama to create a Male Breast Cancer Awareness Week, Bret knows that this will continue to be his life’s calling.
“In the end, I just don’t want men to feel like they have to go through this alone or ashamed,” Bret said. “I want guys to know — it’s okay to touch yourself, it’s good to be aware, because this can happen to anyone. But I’m living, breathing proof that you can also survive it.”