Former NFL star raises awareness of breast cancer in men

Not just a woman’s disease

Karen Miller | 10/1/2013, 6 a.m.
Ernie Green, 75, was a force to be reckoned with on the football field. He played seven seasons for the ...

As in women, obesity plays a part. Fat cells in males convert a male hormone into estrogen, thereby exposing men to a greater risk of estrogen-fuelled breast cancer.
Green knew something was wrong in July 2005 when he noticed a lump in his right breast. “Initially, I didn’t think it was anything,” he said. “The last thing I thought about was breast cancer.” 

That’s when his wife, Della, stepped in. He immediately saw a doctor, who assumed it was a cyst. The doctor explained to Green that in his 37 years of practice, he had never had a male patient with breast cancer.

Green took it one step further. It’s a good thing he did. The next doctor was not so cavalier. “It could be a cyst,” he said, “but it should not be there.” He recommended surgery to take a better look at it. 

Green remembers the day well. When he woke up from surgery, the doctor was standing over him with a look on his face that spelled trouble. “I have good news and bad news,” his surgeon said. The good news was that they got “it” all; the bad news was that the “it” was cancer. 

Green said he fell apart. “I was never afraid of dying from football,” he said. “But I knew that people died of breast cancer.” One of his sisters had already succumbed to the disease.

The news wasn’t all that bad. His breast cancer was stage I, which meant that cancer cells had invaded surrounding breast tissue but had not reached the lymph nodes.

Green said his eight sessions of chemotherapy were harsh and implied that getting beaten up on the football field was a walk in the park in comparison. 

He is not embarrassed to discuss his breast cancer; nor does he see it as a threat to his manhood.

As a matter of fact, it’s the exact opposite. He’s on a mission. He made a vow that if he could get through his treatment he would “come out” and let men know about this problem.

Green imparts words of wisdom to all men. “Do breast self-examinations,” he advised, and “demand that a doctor examine your breasts as well.”

He emphasizes the importance of knowing your family tree and to look at both parents for a history of breast cancer. The genetic link can come from one’s mother or father. “And don’t look at just your parents,” he advised. “Find out the history of aunts and uncles and first cousins.”

Green says he will keep on preaching. He has to. An elderly woman approached him and confessed that her husband died of breast cancer because he refused to seek treatment. Green said he wants to make sure these scenarios are not repeated. “There’s no need to get to stage III or IV if we are vigilant,” he said.

An unexpected result of his cancer is increased empathy. “I’m more sensitive to women’s issues,” he explained.

And that must make Della very happy.