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Man who faced breast cancer scare shares his story: 'It can happen to us, too'

Film producer Todd Lieberman noticed a small lump on his breast. His experience completely changed his view about breast cancer.
Film producer Todd Lieberman and his family.
Film producer Todd Lieberman and his family.Courtesy of Todd Lieberman
/ Source: TODAY

A concerned face and a concerned pause from my doctor. "I need you to go get that checked out by a specialist immediately," he said.

"Really? OK, I can schedule something later in the week."

"I need you to get that checked out today. I’m a bit worried. It looks irregular."

"What do you mean worried … and irregular?"

"That could be breast cancer."

"Huh? Excuse me? Breast cancer. But I’m a … a man. Only women get breast cancer."

"That’s not accurate, actually. Men can get breast cancer too. Let me make a call right now."

That was the exchange I had with my doctor when I showed him a small lump under my left nipple. I noticed it one day and thought it looked odd and felt unnatural. I had no clue what it could be (an ingrown hair, a pimple?) but breast cancer was certainly not one of the options.

I was scheduled for an appointment with the Women’s Breast Center at Cedars Sinai in West Hollywood, California, several hours later, giving me way too much time to grapple with the shock.

Getting a mammogram: Panic and confusion

I started thinking about my family, my wife, my kids, all my friends and relatives. How leaving them prematurely would be horrific. I had that shivering and sinking sensation in my gut, the same feeling when I was told my father was dying. And when my mother was admitted to the ICU.

Suddenly, and without warning I was hit with total and utter panic.

I might die of BREAST CANCER. My ego was in full-on overdrive protective mode and I thought to myself, this disease is … feminine. Dying from it wouldn’t be like dying while rock climbing, a helicopter crash, or even prostate cancer. It all felt emasculating. What would the conversations be at my funeral?

Exploring one’s own masculinity is a treacherous minefield, so I challenged myself to question predisposed gender stereotypes. My feelings about these exact stereotypes is what compelled me to write it down to dispel it for myself and hopefully others.

Women make up the vast majority of breast cancer patients, but it can also impact men. Not many people know that. I didn’t. About 1 in 8 U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. A man’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is about 1 in 1,000.

Women make up the vast majority of breast cancer patients, but it can also impact men.

I arrived at the Cedars Sinai Women’s Breast Center and quickly walked into a packed waiting room. I was the only male in the entire building.

With a brave face, I shuffled up to the counter, and as quietly as any human has ever talked, whispered my name. She asked me, quite loudly, who I was with.

"I’m actually here for myself."

She handed me a clipboard, a pen and threw me a kind and sympathetic look.

The thought of leaving my family behind, and the confusion after hearing men could have breast cancer, was almost too much to bear, even if only for a few hours. Courtesy of Todd Lieberman

I filled out the paperwork and waited, drenched in more sweat, occasionally catching glimpses from the other patients in the room. Twenty minutes later (which felt like hours), I heard my name called.

Experiencing what women go through

I was walked into a room and asked to take a seat. The nurse began to ask me questions she said she has to ask every patient, including when my last period was. I had no idea how to answer, still deeply confused.

After a few more uncomfortable questions, she paused, saying she was going to get the doctor. I took a very deep breath, and we both shared a nervous laugh.

Next was my mammogram. Terrified of it, I let out a loud expletive and complied with the technician's directions to insert my breast.

My boob was smushed.

"Women have to do this every year? That’s crazy," I thought aloud.

Another awkward body adjustment. Grab. Slab. Smush. Ouch.

The extra blessing I received was the opportunity to walk in female shoes, albeit for a few hours, and experience normal procedures that millions of women have to go through.

A sonogram, and the official word

Next was my sonogram. I’d been by my wife’s side while she got them during her pregnancies. I’d never imagine I’d get one.

I was led to the next room, where a new nurse technician asked me to take my shirt off.

Then the gel (it really is cold) and the joystick. Roaming … more roaming.

After a few minutes, the technician calmly let out … "This is just a fatty deposit. Nothing to worry about at all."

"A fatty despot? A fatty deposit? Is that cancer? No?! It’s just fat …Thank the Lord!”

She told me that the doctor would call me but that I was free to go and that my breasts were completely healthy and cancer-free.

I sat up with the exam table paper glued to my back and hugged her. When I saw the doctor in the hallway, I hugged her too.

Walking out of the hospital, I felt drained and still in shock, but grateful.

The feeling of going from certain death to complete health was something I hadn’t ever experienced before. I was filled with utter gratitude to the amazing women at the Breast Center who treated me like one of their own and the recognition that every so often an opportunity for genuine life expansion presents itself.

Thankfully for me, my scare was brief. Others’ are not, and the extra blessing I received was the opportunity to walk in female shoes, albeit for a few hours, and experience normal procedures that millions of women have to go through.

As the old saying goes, when we walk in others’ shoes, we can begin to understand them. This is true for every facet of life, but realizing that we are living at a time when this philosophy couldn’t be more important to grasp, it is our obligation to try.

Breast cancer has touched everyone in some way and I can’t even begin to understand the strength that these survivors possess. I nearly couldn’t handle it for four hours. To all the men out there who think it can’t happen to them — think again.

To all the mothers, wives, sisters, grandmothers and daughters out there who live with this daily fear, you’re stronger than I am, you’re braver than I am and as a man, I can speak for our entire gender to say, we're all lucky to have you and your collective strength in our lives.

Todd Lieberman is a leading producer in Hollywood ("Beauty and the Beast (2017),"Insurgent" and others) and a co-owner of Mandeville Films and Television. In total, Mandeville has had eight movies open at #1 at the box office, and they have been nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning three.