Survivor Story: Theodor “Ted” Brown of Irvington

Heather Salerno wrote this inspiring profile on Theodor “Ted” Brown of Irvington for the Sunday Life section of Oct. 9, 2011:

Breast cancer never crossed the mind of Theodor “Ted” Brown when he pointed out a pimple-sized bump on his right breast during an annual physical.

Even his doctor didn’t think it was serious, though he urged Brown to get it checked out. A biopsy revealed that Brown was indeed in the first stage of the disease, making him a member of an exclusive — and unfortunate — fraternity. For men, the lifetime risk of getting breast cancer is about one in a 1,000, compared to the one in eight women who will be diagnosed at some time in their lives.

The condition is so rare that Brown, a 59-year-old dentist who lives in Irvington, didn’t believe the diagnosis at first. After the biopsy results came back, he paid to have the test redone at three different laboratories.

“I don’t think guys think it’s a possibility,” he says. “It’s really thought of as a woman’s disease.”

Photos by Tania Savayan / The Journal News

In Brown’s case, the disease was caught early, though he did have to undergo a mastectomy and six months of chemotherapy. He’s still taking tamoxifen, a cancer-fighting drug, but he’ll celebrate six years of being cancer-free in December.

Brown says that he’s not ashamed to share his story, though some male patients report being too embarrassed to tell others. He wants other men to know that breast cancer is a possibility — and that they should always look into any potential medical problem.

“I could have ignored it, totally ignored it,” he says. “But when (my doctor) said, ‘Maybe you should get it checked out,’ why not? When in doubt, why not? What do you have to lose?”

There are plenty of ways that breast cancer changed Ted Brown’s life.  After the jump, 10 more examples of how the disease affected him.

1.He’s had his pilot’s license for about 20 years, but following his diagnosis, he signed up as a volunteer pilot for several nonprofits, including Angel Flight, Patient AirLift Services and Veterans Airlift Command; they’re groups that arrange for free air transportation for those with medical and charitable needs. “I joined to give back a little bit to people that need it, and at the same time, to have a good excuse to go out flying,” he says.

2.He wasn’t allowed to fly alone while receiving chemotherapy, so he studied for his commercial pilot’s license. “Not that I was going to be a commercial pilot, but it was another rating,” he explains. “I remember saying, ‘I don’t want to think of this as the six months I was grounded. Let me accomplish something.’”

3.He’s always been an “exercise nut,” and having cancer reinforced the importance of working out. He even made a point of exercising on chemo days: “I couldn’t wait to get home and push myself to work out. I had to, just to feel like I was fighting back,” he says. “It made me feel much better.”

4.He considered retiring early, but then realized how much he loves his work. “I like my job, I like my life and breast cancer got in the way for awhile.”

5.He found out what it’s like to be one of the girls, since he was always the only man in a roomful of women at chemo treatments. “When you’re having chemo in that room, it doesn’t matter what you say or what you do,” he laughs. “Everybody’s really letting it all hang out.”

6.He won’t go near beef broth ever again. The meaty stock brings back bad memories, because he was encouraged to eat a lot of it during treatment to boost his protein levels. “If I was starving, I wouldn’t have it. It repulses me now.”

7.He doesn’t think of himself as brave because he survived breast cancer. “I don’t see it as a badge of courage, like risking my life to do something … it happened and was bad luck. And with bad luck you try to do the best you can with it.”

8.He discovered who his true friends are. Some people whom he thought he was close to “didn’t show any caring,” but others went out of their way to boost his spirits. A few pilot pals took him for rides when he wasn’t able to fly himself, and he’s grateful to those who got his worried wife, Annette, out of the house when she needed a break. “They were really amazing.”

9.He got tested to see if he carries an abnormal breast cancer gene, because he was concerned that it could be passed to his two daughters: Erin, 31, and Samantha, 24. (Most breast cancer cases are not hereditary, but those with an abnormal gene have a much higher risk of getting the disease.) Thankfully, he was negative: “That was a relief.”

10.He learned firsthand how important it is to get actively involved in medical decisions, not simply to rely on a doctor’s recommendations. “I grilled (my doctors) like crazy,” he says. “About whether I had to have surgery, whether I had to have radiation, whether chemo was beneficial or not. And I still do … you have to know enough to ask the right questions.”

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.