Survivor Story: Arnold Roufa of Nyack

Peter D. Kramer wrote this inspiring profile of Arnold Roufa for the Sunday Life section of Oct. 9, 2011:

If you’ve been to Nyack recently, you’ve likely seen Arnold Rou­fa’s panoramic photo of the village adorning the “Welcome to Nyack” banner.

The retired ob/gyn — who goes by the name “Roufa,” not Dr. Roufa or Arnold Roufa — has had three wives and three lives, one of them touched deeply by breast cancer.

First, he was married with children. That marriage ended in divorce.

Then came his marriage to Myrna March, a R&B-pop singer-songwriter whose talent still causes him to speak in hushed tones. For 22 of their 24 years of marriage, March battled cancer, in one breast, then the other, succumbing to lung cancer in 1998.

The next year, Roufa married Arlene Levine, his high-school sweetheart from New Orleans. They live on the Hudson in Nyack, where he pursues a passion that drives his third life: photography.

Here’s the wrinkle, though: In that middle life, 20 years ago — as he watched March battle cancer, Roufa himself was diagnosed with breast cancer, a diagnosis that is extremely rare in men. Fewer than 1 percent of breast-cancer cases each year are in men.

By the time of his 1991 surgery — on stage 1 cancer in his right breast — Roufa had lived with March’s cancer for 17 years.

His surgeon found the cancer after operating on Roufa for gynecomastia, a painful swelling of his breasts that was a side effect of ulcer medication he was taking. The surgery was on a Friday. The following Monday, the surgeon asked Roufa to come to the office.

“I’ll never forget that day,” he recalls. “It was horrible. He told me I had cancer. I was not thinking cancer, although I had been living cancer since 1974 with my wife. It hit me.”

As a gynecologist, Roufa had examined thousands of women, urging his patients to be proactive about breast cancer.

Doctor became patient. He had his right breast removed and chemotherapy.

Being a man with a disease that primarily affects women didn’t affect his ego.

“Men have breasts,” Rou­fa says.

What took its toll was watching March endure years of doctors, diagnoses and more doctors.

There were dark times.

“As Myrna was going through more things, I would take her tranquilizers. I would take my tranquilizers and sneak liquor. To me, it killed the pain. But it didn’t kill the pain of what she was going through.”

There were also laugh-out-loud times.

After her first mastectomy, March insisted on going to a hospital affair, wearing a prosthesis. When a brash man at the bar complimented her breasts, “she took out her prosthesis and threw it at him,” Roufa says with a laugh. “That’s how she was.”

Twenty years later, long retired, Roufa shared 10 things he took away from his battle with cancer. Read them, after the jump.

1.His surgery and treatment made it easier to talk to his patients about the disease.

“Many of my patients would go for mammograms and they’d be told, ‘It’s not going to hurt.’ I’d tell them, ‘That’s b.s. I’ve had a mammogram. It hurts.’ It set up a good relationship. I would tell them, ‘No matter what the other doctor says, if you have a lump, the diagnosis is in the microscope. It’s not anywhere else. It’s not in the tip of their fingers. If someone tells you, ‘Nah, it’s not cancer,’ get it taken care of.”

2.He did not have breast reconstruction. His sole accommodation to the disease is to wrap a towel around his neck after swimming.

“I did feel strange if I went to a swimming pool,” he says. “I’d put a towel on and keep it on and that was it. Other than that, it didn’t pay to go nuts.”

3.Breast cancer was harder on March than it was on him.

“She was all about show business, which is all about how you look. Myrna would say ‘I use my (breasts) to get me in the door and my talent kept me there.’”

4. Chemo, for Roufa, wasn’t as brutal as he expected.

“I wasn’t nauseous. I had a mustache at the time and it started thinning out. My eyebrows got a little thin. My hair got thicker and curlier during chemo.”

5.He thinks about his cancer once a year, on June 18, the anniversary of his surgery.

“You go through something like that and you move on,” he says. “I don’t have time to look back. I still have a lot of photos to take.”

6.He doesn’t use the word “remission.”

“My theory is once you have cancer you’ve got cancer. People say ‘Oh, you’re healed?’ And I say, ‘I don’t feel anything. I examine myself. That’s it. But whether there’s any cells floating around, I don’t know.’”

7.Life goes on: Roufa says March played an active role in finding his potential next mate. “Myrna used to almost interview women as my next potential wife. It was her showbiz thing.”

8.His advice for those facing a breast-cancer diagnosis: Don’t live in fear.

“If you fear, it’s worse.”

9.He considers himself fortunate.

“There’s life after cancer. You just do what you gotta do and move on. If it had been more advanced, who knows? I was lucky.”

10.With the benefit of 20 years, Roufa now looks at cancer as something horrible that happened to a woman he loved, and something he overcame.

“Life was great,” he says, “but it had its downsides: cancer. But other than that, I’ve had a ball.”

Liz Johnson

Liz Johnson is the food editor of The Journal News and, for which she's won awards from the New York News Publishers Association, the Association of Food Journalists and the Associated Press. She lives in Nyack with her husband and daughter on a tiny suburban lot they call their farm — with fruit trees, an herb garden, and a yardful of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, shallots, cucumbers, zucchini, radishes, cabbage, peppers, Brussels sprouts and carrots and four big blueberry bushes.