A couple of survivors Chris Koniers helped his wife, Franny, battle breast cancer. Then he, too, faced the fight. Sunday, both will join the survivors' walk at the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.

Posted: May 06, 2010

Last Mother's Day, Chris Koniers stood on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art holding the hand of his wife, Franny. The emotional and triumphant survivors' march down those famous steps, an annual rite at the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, was about to begin.

His presence in this pink-T-shirt universe of more than 6,000 women elicited curiosity. And admiration for a man lovingly supporting his wife, a breast-cancer survivor.

Koniers, in his gray T-shirt with pink trim, was certainly doing that, as he had for the last 12 years. But what most didn't know was that he, too, is a breast-cancer survivor.

"I felt all kinds of emotion that day," recalls Koniers, 60, who lives in Willow Grove. "It's always moving, always wonderful, always inspiring. But this time, I was not standing at the bottom of the steps waiting to snap a photo of Franny. I was suddenly a 'sister.' And I was also a stranger in a strange new land."

Koniers' journey started uneventfully. It was just a tickle. A vague itch in his right nipple.

In the spring of 2008, as he got up to leave after a regular checkup, there was an offhand "by the way, doctor" moment. Koniers mentioned that several times recently, for just a few minutes at a time, he'd felt that sensation.

After checking the area and detecting nothing, his doctor advised that if the itch persisted, he should have it checked out.

The feeling came and went over the next few weeks, and Koniers, a real estate agent and an account representative for a publisher of educational training materials, decided to take action.

At Franny's urging, he visited Dr. Donna Angotti, a surgical oncologist on staff at Holy Redeemer Hospital in Philadelphia. She previously had diagnosed and treated Franny, an operating-room nurse at the same hospital.

Angotti initially prescribed a cream, thinking that Koniers might have a form of psoriasis, but when that didn't work, she recommended a breast biopsy at Holy Redeemer.

"I remember feeling a little foolish, like the boy who cried wolf," says Koniers. "All this attention for a tickle that came and went seemed a bit over the top."

A few days after the biopsy, though, Koniers got a call. The diagnosis: breast cancer.

Koniers became one of an estimated 2,000 men a year diagnosed with breast cancer, a disease that few even know they can get. By comparison, more than 200,000 women a year learn they have breast cancer.

"I was, of course, shocked. A little scared," says Koniers.

"I knew [Franny] had been through this - and that millions of other women had," he says. "That made me realize that I could do this, too."

Franny Koniers knew what her husband was facing. Her own diagnosis in 1997, at age 48, had come as a shock.

It was her annual mammogram that revealed her breast cancer.

"As soon as my routine mammogram turned out not to be routine, I just knew I had cancer," remembers Franny. "I'm not more special than anyone else, so I didn't spend a lot of time asking 'Why me?' It was more 'Why not me?' " A lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation followed, and all the while her husband was by her side, even shaving his head to match hers when she lost her hair after chemo.

But now, unimaginably, their roles were reversed.

"Our feeling was, 'Here we go again!' '' says Franny Koniers. "We were stunned, but we also were determined to see this through together."

"Now it was time for me to be there for him. What I learned is that being the support person, not the patient, is actually a lot harder than it looks."

Son Kevin, 21, one of their three children, recalls feeling both shocked and alarmed by the news about his father.

"I'd never heard of men getting breast cancer," Kevin says. "I didn't even know it was possible."

But, as with his mother, he was determined to help.

"He was her rock. I tried to be the same for him."

In May 2008, Chris Koniers had a modified radical mastectomy surgery, which left him with a larger chest cavity than he had expected.

"I definitely defied the odds. I was younger than most men are. I didn't have a lump or dimpling or puckering in my skin. But I did have breast cancer."

Though his cancer was discovered early and the likelihood of reoccurrence was minimal, Koniers decided to have follow-up chemotherapy. But he suffered a severe hike in blood pressure after one round and stopped treatment. He also decided against reconstructive surgery, which is an option available to men.

"I guess I see my mastectomy scar as a kind of battle scar. It doesn't really affect my self-image, and if it bothers other people when I'm at the pool or the beach, I figure they'll get over it."

Women, Koniers says, are his strongest allies, especially women who have experienced breast cancer themselves.

"Men tend to be fascinated by how I discovered my cancer, and almost all of them say they never knew it could happen to a man. I'm used to the startle factor by now."

Koniers has never met another male breast-cancer survivor, though he does sometimes read the Web site www.malebreastcancer.org, started in 1995 by the son of a male breast-cancer casualty.

And he and Franny are actively involved in breast-cancer education.

"Some men are just plain uncomfortable, but I talk about it openly. I figure it's my chance to raise awareness," says Koniers.

He also recently spoke to Sisters for the Cure, a support group for women in the black and Hispanic communities run by the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

"I guess they were a little surprised when I turned up. I'm a guy - but I wanted to help dispel the notion that cancer is something shameful. I wanted to get the word out that it's not some dark secret, and that men can get breast cancer, too."

At this year's Komen Race for the Cure, which is expected to draw 120,000 survivors and their supporters, Chris and Franny Koniers will again take that emotional walk down the Art Museum steps together.

"This is a shared battle for us," says Franny. "We're survivors. And that's a beautiful word."

Race for the Cure

The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure is Sunday, 7 to 11 a.m., at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Eakins Oval. The Survivor Parade begins at 7:30 a.m.

Information: 215-238-8900 or www.komenphiladelphia.org.

Breast Cancer in Men

Breast cancer in men is rare. An estimated 2,000 men a year are diagnosed with breast cancer, compared with 200,000 women annually.

"Because men don't follow regular screening practices like women do, the cancer is usually detected at a later stage, and therefore typically will require more treatment," says Dr. Robert A. Somer, associate director of the Breast Program at Cooper Cancer Institute in Camden. Treatment usually involves mastectomy because breast conservation is not a significant issue.

"It's still a very difficult diagnosis for men to hear because it's totally unexpected. Women have strong support networks while men tend to feel a bit lost," says Somer. "They sometimes don't know where to turn."

According to the American Cancer Society, symptoms include a lump in the chest, skin dimpling or puckering, redness of the nipple or breast skin, and nipple changes or discharge.

Known risk factors in men include chronic liver disorders, alcoholism, obesity, advanced age, and Klinefelter's syndrome, a genetic condition associated with high estrogen levels. Ten percent of men diagnosed with breast cancer may have a genetic predisposition to the disease.

Somer stresses that men, like women, need to be aware of the disease and examine themselves regularly.

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