When a state trooper pulled her over in South Carolina this summer, Patricia Washburn was prepared for him to ask how fast she’d been going.
But when she rolled down her window, the 33-year-old patrolman leaned down and asked her a question that had nothing to do with how she’d been driving and everything to do with what she was driving.
“What are the symptoms of male breast cancer?” he asked.
After Washburn’s husband, Marlyn, died in May 2017 of breast cancer, the Omaha woman wrapped his last car — a Dodge Dart — in breast cancer awareness logos and slogans to let men know it can happen to them, too.
At the car wrap company’s suggestion, she also put his photograph on the hood. Taken at Christmas 2016, around the time he was diagnosed, the 66-year-old retired school administrator appears healthy. He’d just made dinner for about 25 family members. But the cancer already had spread from his left breast to his liver, lymph nodes, lungs, bones and brain.
Ever since, Washburn has taken her message — printed on the car as well as on the T-shirts she often wears — all over the country, speaking to groups large and small about the disease and visiting sufferers and survivors. She’s often accompanied by a grandchild or a friend.
Washburn said getting the word out is important because most men aren’t aware that they can get breast cancer. Most aren’t taught to check for it.
Male breast cancer is relatively rare compared to the female version. A woman’s risk of getting breast cancer in her lifetime is about one in eight; for men, the risk is roughly one in 833. An estimated 2,670 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, according to the American Cancer Society. For women, the estimate is 268,600.
Like the trooper, people notice Washburn’s car and her black T-shirts with their entwined blue and pink ribbons. Recently, Washburn stopped at her neighborhood Walmart. A woman who was putting groceries in her Jeep noticed her T-shirt and mentioned that her uncle has breast cancer. Washburn has since been in touch with the uncle and his daughter.
Sign up for the Live Well Nebraska newsletter
Get the latest health headlines and inspiring stories straight to your inbox.
If people don’t notice, Washburn doesn’t hesitate to bring it to their attention. Peggy Miller, director of the Male Breast Cancer Coalition, first met Washburn at a cancer conference in Chicago. When the two women got on a hotel elevator to go to their rooms, Miller said, Washburn turned to a fellow passenger and asked whether he knew that men could get breast cancer.
“She never gave up after it all happened,” said Miller, who lives in a Kansas City, Kansas, suburb. “She wanted to make a difference, just like we all do.”
The message appears to be getting out.
A handful of coalition members were in the audience of the Dr. Oz Show recently for the host’s interview with Mathew Knowles, Beyoncé’s father. Knowles, 67, revealed this month that he’d been treated for breast cancer this summer, undergoing a mastectomy. The coalition members also weighed in on questions during the episode, which aired Friday.
In September, Washburn showed her car in Denver as part of the Hot Wheels Legends Tour and told about 200 people about male breast cancer. She was invited after sending photos of the car and explaining her mission.
Miller’s son, Bret, the coalition’s co-founder, last year appeared in a public service announcement on breaking male stereotypes created by the makers of the ABC drama “A Million Little Things.” The show features a male character who’s been treated for breast cancer. Bret Miller, now 33, found a lump near his nipple at age 17. A doctor told him it was a calcium deposit associated with puberty. He was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years later at age 24.
“Because of our big mouths and squeaky wheels, we’re getting notoriety,” Peggy Miller said.
Breast cancer certainly wasn’t on Marlyn Washburn’s radar.
Patricia Washburn said her husband, who served as high school principal in Red Cloud, Nebraska, before retiring in 2014, went to the doctor in early December 2016 for a regular blood test for his diabetes. He also mentioned that his right arm and shoulder hurt, which the couple assumed was from golfing.
The blood test pointed to a problem with his liver or gallbladder. He went back the next day for an ultrasound, which showed six lesions on his liver. The couple later learned the cancer had spread well beyond his liver.
“We had no idea anything was wrong,” Washburn said. “He had pain in his arm, that was it.”
As it turned out, he did have a lump in his breast, right under the nipple. Washburn said her husband told her that he didn’t remember whether he’d ever felt it. If he had, he told her, he probably would have thought it was a lipoma, a kind of fatty, usually benign lump under the skin that can show up in middle age.
Doctors, she said, biopsied both the breast tumor and a liver lesion and determined that both were breast cancer. But people often assumed that because he also had cancer in his lungs and brain that he had lung or brain cancer. The couple would explain that he had breast cancer that had spread to those organs.
“We find a lot of people do not understand the difference,” she said.
Five months later, he died.
Washburn first made brochures explaining that men, too, can get breast cancer. She’s handed out about 15,000 of them. Then she outfitted the car.
Her husband, she said, devoted 41 years to education. “I guess I just felt like it was my turn to step up to the plate and start educating people,” she said.
She later became involved in the coalition, which has become family. Peggy Miller, the group’s director, said the coalition is all about bringing men together so they can open up and feel like they’re not alone. The condition still carries stigma, although the two women believe Knowles’ openness will help shift that.
So when the South Carolina trooper leaned in this summer, Washburn had answers.
After explaining the possible signs and symptoms of breast cancer in men, she asked whether he was worried about himself. He said yes. She gave him some brochures and encouraged him to see a doctor.
She said she hasn’t been able to find out whether he’s done so. But she’s glad she got the chance to help.
“Even if I don’t touch anybody else,” Washburn said, “I touched him. And everything I paid for that car was worth it because he had a chance to ask somebody about breast cancer.”
A roundup of inspirational stories from Midlanders with heart
There's the woman with MS who runs despite her diagnosis. The 7-year-old born without his left hand who plays baseball just like the other kids his age. The refugee who turned to Zumba to help her recover from cancer treatments. Check out their inspiring stories and others below.