They found each other in a sea of pink — two Connecticut men, made brothers by their shared experience. Now they're fighting back against the disease that brought them together and some of the ignorance about it.
Bill Becker was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2011. About a year later, so was Bob DeVito.
The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2013 about 2,240 men in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer and that about 410 men will die from it. Although the number of women diagnosed with the disease is about 100 times the number of men diagnosed, the mortality rate is much lower for women.
"Each year 25 percent of men diagnosed with breast cancer will die," said Becker, whose Stage 4 cancer has spread to his bones and liver. "I would like to see that number drop."
After his diagnosis, DeVito — a Waterbury resident who is now living cancer-free — reached out to the Susan G. Komen For The Cure organization in Connecticut, looking for information, which can be hard to find for men. The organization put DeVito, 51, in contact with Becker, a 45-year-old Bridgeport resident who had previously reached out to the organization.
"I wanted to make sure that Bob wasn't alone when he went through this," Becker said.
The two became fast friends, both struggling with painful treatment and the sometimes even more painful stigma of being male with what some see as a "women's disease." They formed "Breast Cancer Brothers," a group on Facebook to which men with breast cancer can go for support, information and friendship.
"I realized that this can't be the same for everyone," said Becker. "Because this sucks."
Nick Sadler, a filmmaker based in New Canaan, was in the process of filming the stories of some local breast cancer survivors — a project that he began for the family of one of his son's friends, who had just lost a grandmother to the disease. Through that project, Sadler said he discovered that several men in Connecticut had been diagnosed with breast cancer, including Becker and DeVito.
"The more I got to know them, the more I realized that there was a much larger story to be told," he said.
Sadler said he was stunned by the number of men affected by breast cancer and by the lack of specific treatment, but mostly, he was stunned by the strength, good humor and humanity with which these two friends faced their disease.
He began to work on a documentary project with Becker and DeVito titled "Times Like These." Sadler said he hopes that the project will "really shine a light on what's going on with this disease."
"One of the things that just breaks my heart is the feeling of marginalization that these men have," Sadler said.
The project started entirely out of pocket and now the team is hoping for crowd-sourced funding through an Internet Kickstarter campaign. Sadler says he hopes to use the funding for travel to film some of the others involved in the story and, perhaps, to bring together some of the Breast Cancer Brothers, who were only able to form their community through social media.
"I wish I could just open up my wallet and pay for this," Sadler said.
Becker and his wife, Lisa, said that they hope that the film will help educate people.
"It's very exposing, but there's a reality to this," Becker said.
Becker said he first noticed a depression in his chest in October 2010, but assumed that it was nothing. When months passed and the strange depression didn't go away, Becker mentioned it to his doctor.
Like many men, and women, Becker knew nothing about male breast cancer, although there is some history of breast and ovarian cancer in the women of his family, his wife said. According to the American Cancer Society, men often don't check for irregularities in their breast tissue or, when a lump or depression is found, they assume that it has to be something else.
Becker, who lost all of the breast tissue on his left side and his left nipple in the surgical procedure to remove the cancer after his first diagnosis, said he wishes that he had found the cancer sooner.
"Stage 1 is not Stage 4," he said.
Dr. Anees Chagpar, director of the the Breast Cancer Program at Smilow Cancer Hospital and a member of the American Cancer Society New England Division board, said that while although she can't say that 25 percent of men diagnosed with breast cancer will die from the disease, men are more likely to present with a later stage disease than women, simply because they don't get checked. One percent of breast cancers occur in men, she said, but it is still important that men, especially those with a history of breast cancer in their family, are aware of any irregularities in their breast tissue.
"Men who notice something out of the ordinary… should seek the advice of their doctor," she said.
All of the treatments for breast cancer in men come from what is known about breast cancer in women, a fact that Lisa Becker said is unacceptable.
"They're [men and women] night and day," she said. "Why wouldn't we expect their bodies to react differently?"
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy recently declared Oct. 20-26 as Male Breast Cancer Awareness Week, which Sadler says is a "huge step forward."
"The next step is that there's awareness every day," he said.
The bottom line is that a chest exam should be something that is included in medical exams for men, Becker said.
Although October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Lisa Becker said that the lack of awareness for men suffering from this disease is upsetting. As a mother of six, she said the abundance of pink, women-focused campaigns without any mention of the men sends the wrong message to their children.
"In this vast ocean of pink, there needs to be a river of blue running through it," she said.
Donations to the "Times Like These" project can may be made at http://www.timeslikethesefilm.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun