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Writer revisits a health adventure

Tim O'Leary

Special to the Village News

Thank you, sweet reader, for walking with me now amid a sun-splashed woods filled with words and wonder. This outing pertains to a recent health adventure that took me down a path rarely hiked by an aging, brain-addled male like me.

Breast cancer in a man? The statistics say the odds are only 1 in 100. But there it was, an obvious lump that was sensitive to the touch. Hmmmm...

But before I stray too far afield, my journalism training dictates that I must set the stage by giving the all-important context. This context being, of course, my general mental and physical health.

I should first state, contrary to the dictates of AA, that I am an alcoholic. That demon pressed and pushed me in a myriad of directions until God enabled me to quit cold turkey twice for a total of 30-years of ongoing sobriety.

Other than that, until recently the only health challenge I faced throughout my life was asthma. But that pulmonary disease didn't derail me. I avidly played neighborhood baseball, Pop Warner football, wrestled in high school, learned karate and now play Pickleball for fun.

It is my breathing that has taken a beating during my nearly 70 years on God's green Earth. Both my parents were heavy smokers up until the time I left home at the age of 18. I smoked my share of pot in the '70s and early '80s. My mother died of cancer at age 62 after what started as a breast lump ultimately ate her alive.

My 42 years as a police reporter have filled my vulnerable lungs with tons of smoke from scores of structure and wildfires. My Fallbrook home burned down in 2002, and I breathed the charred remains of that fire's aftermath.

I once foolishly boasted that I had never spent a night in a hospital. All that changed last August. That is when my health cratered after I reached the end of my rope in caring for my beautiful, whip-smart wife who is sadly afflicted by, and suffering deeply from, dementia.

Not long after her first placement, I suffered a total health collapse that landed me in an Oceanside ICU for eight days and its medical/surgical floor for another two. I was diagnosed with atrial flutter, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression, dehydration, exhaustion and malnutrition.

My slow decline was a statistical likelihood. A 2020 AARP study found that 26% of those people who responded to researchers said caregiving worsened their own health. That was up from 22% just five years earlier.

My sudden hospitalization brought a quick, humbling end to my idle boasting. It also made me more aware of my own weaknesses. And, furthermore, it led to the discovery of that disconcerting lump in my left breast.

So, of course, I called the office of my amazing GP, Dr. Peter Strutz, a Fallbrook internist. Irma seemed a bit taken aback as to why I felt compelled to call on a Friday.

Doctor saw me a few days later. He wasn't as worried as I was. "It doesn't feel like cancer," he said, explaining that an onerous lump would be hard and not soft. My aging body and the natural ebb and flow of female and male hormones were likely to blame, he said. But he wanted to be sure, and thus he referred me to a Temecula imaging center. There I would undergo a breast mammogram and ultrasound.

The next few days were filled with a lot of curiosity and a little bit of dread. I had learned from many women friends in the past that mammograms can be extremely painful. Most of the women whom I queried after my doctor's appointment seconded that opinion.

Only one female friend, Patricia Roybal, a retired head nurse of a ward at Los Angeles General Hospital, pooh poohed those prognostications. I still didn't know who to believe when my four-door Ford finally rolled into the parking lot of the imaging center not far from Temecula Valley Hospital.

I noted there was a big, pink banner in the lobby that told of the availability of 3D breast images. That sounded pretty cool, so I asked for the procedure. I was told, however, that my Blue Shield of California supplemental insurance policy didn't cover that procedure for its male subscribers.

"Discrimination," I squealed! But no one there seemed to listen to, or care much about one man's whining.

Inside, the ladies were very nice and exceptionally gentle and patient. Arlene, a delightful imaging technician, promised to hold my hand if I whimpered. Arlene needed to prod, pose and squeeze both of my breasts, she said. That way the doctor could compare my good breast against the bad one, she explained.

We laughed and joked with each other. I must admit to going weak in the knees when Arlene contemplated which of those clear, plastic, plate-like devices she was going to use to give me the squeeze. Getting the imaging done on my right breast was a breeze. Collapsing the bulge in my left breast, however, pushed me over the line into an eye-watering wince.

"You have very photogenic breasts," Arlene cooed. Yeah, I responded, "I bet you tell that to all the boys." As she was about to vanish back into the bowels of the clinic, she sharply warned me to "Behave!"

Arlene finally finished and I was moved into a secondary waiting room. There I received a hard dose of reality when I overheard a young woman receiving instructions as to what would occur moments later during her brain scan.

Then, in another flash, I was zipped off to see Victoria, the ultrasound technician, for a different test. Afterward, she disappeared and a female doctor appeared in her place, only to repeat the expert analysis that Dr. Strutz gave me a week or two earlier.

Over all, the experience was an interesting health adventure that few men have had the opportunity to stumble into. At first I was reluctant to share this tale with you, kind reader, lest the possibility exist that this piece could poke fun at what is a serious disease that has cruelly claimed countless lives.

But my friend Patricia prevailed. She said that writing this missive might help other men, and possibly women, know there are compassionate, healing and loving arms waiting out there for us all. So be it. All glory to God.


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