Rodney Harmon is a man’s man. The former high school running back coordinates quality control at Element Electronics in Winnsboro, walking the manufacturing floor with a confident smile. He shows off photos of his three sons, equally enthusiastic about their academic accomplishments and prowess on the gridiron. He works out regularly and often enjoys throwing the football with his son Noah at Caughman Road Park in Hopkins.So it’s only natural that his cancer came to light after a bench press bar hit him in the chest. When his left side continued to ache long after the injury should have healed, he moved his annual physical up six months to get it checked out.
“My doctor felt something there. He said, ‘it’s probably nothing,’ — but if I wanted to get it looked at I could,” Rodney said.
Men account for one in every 100 diagnosed cases of breast cancer. While the incidence is much lower in men than women, few know that men are 10 times more likely to die from the disease than women.
But Rodney, 43 at the time, knew he had a family history of breast cancer. His mother, grandmother and grandfather had breast cancer, and all were diagnosed at fairly young ages.
That awareness made a trip to Lexington Medical Center’s breast imaging center a top priority. After the mammogram revealed a suspicious lesion, Rodney received an ultrasound and then a biopsy. The next day, he got the call confirming a stage 2 breast cancer diagnosis. His first call was to his wife Yvette.
“She was stunned to say the least,” he said.
Rodney and Yvette took their sons Sterling, Jordan and Noah out to dinner to break the news. With two children in college and one in middle school, they were concerned about how it would rock the boys emotionally and affect school performance.“They had already seen what happens with breast cancer, because of my mother,” Rodney said. “It was almost like I was sitting down and telling them I only have so many months to live. So for me, it became a matter of trying to stay positive and strong. If they see you break down, they break down.”
Rodney’s son Noah was 11 at the time of the diagnosis. The Dent Middle School student remembers crying and worrying that his dad would die. Today, he feels much better and has advice to other children with a parent who has cancer.
“Don’t give up early,” Noah said. “Always pray for whoever it is who has cancer.”
Determined to minimize the impact, Rodney returned to work only a week after surgery. “The important thing for me was getting back to normal,” he said. “Cancer is a disease that if you think you’re beaten, you’re beaten. But I know that with the right mindset, you can get through anything. If your thought process is, ‘this is just a bump in the road,’ and you keep moving, then everything will be all right.”Rodney’s surgeon was Myron Barwick, MD, FACS, of Lexington Surgical Associates, a Lexington Medical Center physician practice.
“There isn’t a lot of publicity about men having breast cancer, but it does happen and should not be a surprise, Dr. Barwick said. “Men should talk to their doctor about any abnormal lump in the breast just like women do.”
The surgery left a long scar that shows when Rodney works out. “For a little while, you feel disfigured when you go through something like that. But I had a 10-year-old kid with a brain tumor who was looking at my scar, and he said, ‘you look like a superhero.’ If he can say that, then I’m not going to feel bad about it.”
Rodney’s cancer was hormone-receptor positive, like 88 percent of breast cancer cases. That requires him to take estrogen-suppressing medication for five years — resulting in the hot flashes and weight gain women often experience. “I know what that’s all about now,” he said.
Like many women with breast cancer, Rodney found support from co-workers and friends. And far from hiding his experience, Harmon leverages his status. He meets with newly diagnosed men for lunch to talk and answer questions. And he was the only man invited to model in the fashion show at Lexington Medical Center’s Women’s Night Out, the hospital’s annual breast cancer event that honors cancer survivors and their families.
“If it’s going to raise awareness, then my answer is ‘yes,’” he said.
Rodney advises men to get a physical every year as a precaution.
“A real man is one who is not afraid to get checked out, and if something is wrong, not afraid to tell people about it,” he said. “I’m blessed. I’m walking above ground and not lying below it. In the grand scheme of things, everything that happens to you is a chance to learn and help the next person.”