The men in pink
After their diagnoses there was silence, confusion and uncertainty about whom to talk to or what to do next.
Tampa resident Herb Wagner scoured the Internet and found little.
André Poirier, of Quebec, Canada, remembers a work colleague making a joke.
Mark O’Connor, of Cork, Ireland, says his friends and family were “gobsmacked.”
So it’s perhaps not surprising that in a sea of pink-clad women and a celebration of sisterhood this weekend at the International Breast Cancer Paddling Commissions’s Dragon Boat Festival, these men stand out and build an instant camaraderie.
Wagner meets O’Connor, 46, and Poirier, 67, under a tent at Nathan Benderson Park, and within minutes the men have traded team pins bearing the emblems of the dragon boat teams they joined after being told they had breast cancer. More than 2,500 paddlers have traveled to Sarasota for the international dragon boat festival, but just a handful of them are men, who the American Cancer Society estimates are 100 times less likely to develop breast cancer than women.
It’s a peculiar but meaningful experience for these men, who have become unintentional spokesmen for breast cancer awareness and prevention for their gender. Dragon boat racing has been an important part of that journey, they say.
“I find it very therapeutic — I love the physicality of it,” O’Connor says. “When you are on the water, it relieves you of all the things in your head.”
O’Connor was encouraged to go to an open tryout by a doctor almost a year after getting his diagnosis in September 2011. He’d played soccer, but loved anything to do with water. He’d experienced surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, but after dragon boat racing, quickly found himself getting stronger.
Now Team Ireland calls him their “secret weapon.”
“I’m not blowing my own trumpet, but I’m strong,” O’Connor says with a laugh.
Poirier saw a Dragon Boat poster in a hospital while recovering from surgery after an August 2010 diagnosis. Two years later he joined the Vise-a-Vie paddlers, who welcomed a male to their practice sessions on a local lake in Quebec City.
He tries to explain the special connection he feels to women, both in his life and in general, after years of practicing with a team that he can’t always compete with as a man.
“You have to like women, to love women,” Poirier says. “When you have cancer, life changes for you, your parents, your wife, your children,” he says. “To be a member of a team of survivors, I love it. I imagine what was and what is in (these women’s) lives.
“The connection you form is very important to me.”
Wagner, from Tampa, isn’t competing this year. But he is at the Sarasota fest as a supporter and voice for men who have survived breast cancer and want to promote awareness about it.
He spoke at the opening ceremonies for the international festival in Peterborough, Canada, four years ago. There were three men there. He made sure that this year’s male competitors — O’Connor, Poirier, and Ontario Survivor Thriver Steve McDougall — all met each other.
Wagner might be considered a veteran, but he’s still in awe of this event, and of this sport.
“You don’t understand what a person can be until you deal with women who are paddling to beat cancer,” says Wagner, 70. “They took me in as part of themselves to experience something that no other person would experience who hadn’t experienced breast cancer.”
A native Canadian, Wagner moved to the area in 1997. In 2005 learned he had breast cancer, and after a mastectomy, found a team in Ontario with which he could compete. Before that he could find no one who understood what he was going through.
“I was in shock and lost,” Wagner says. “It was unbelievable the feeling of what has happened, why, how can a man get breast cancer?”
Today Wagner heads “A Man’s Pink,” a group that challenges notions that breast cancer is a women’s disease and encourages men to talk about their experiences, largely through the website Malebreastcancer.ca.
So few men develop breast cancer that major organizations often aren’t interested in pushing resources toward preventing breast cancer in men, Wagner says.
In Ireland, few people want to talk about the reality of men getting breast cancer, O’Connor says. So he tries to do interviews to get the word out. “If anyone is in doubt about any part of their body, go see a doctor,” he says.
Poirier nods, agreeing with his new friend’s sense of urgency.
There can be no shame, he says.
Several years ago, a two-centimeter tumor was removed from behind his left nipple; eventually 39 lymph nodes were removed.
Throughout the weekend, he’ll wear the male breast cancer ribbon pin in front of his left breast.