Bill Ehrhardt, 69, saw Jose Sumaquial, MD, at the Kaiser Permanente Elk Grove Promenade Medical Office in fall 2022 to address a sore hand. Before his appointment ended, Dr. Sumaquial asked if there was anything else they should discuss. Ehrhardt almost didn’t mention it but decided to tell Dr. Sumaquial that his left nipple had slightly receded.
“Dr. Sumaquial acted so swiftly,” Ehrhardt said. “He referred me to the dermatologist and within an hour I was in the office.”
Thanks to Kaiser Permanente’s service called teledermatology, Dr. Sumaquial was able to snap a picture of Ehrhardt’s chest and send it to dermatologist Kory Parsi, DO, who recommended Ehrhardt have an in-person dermatology appointment.
“We can get input from a specialist in minutes at Kaiser Permanente, which is amazing,” said Dr. Sumaquial. “It was a great way to get Bill the care he needed right away.”
Once Ehrhardt was at the dermatology office, Dr. Parsi immediately ordered a deep tissue biopsy of Ehrhardt’s left breast. Fewer than 3 days later, he was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.
“I know in cancer diagnoses there is only 1 number after 3, so I knew it wasn’t great,” said Ehrhardt. “I was determined to beat this thing. I have twin grandsons, and they are only 9 years old.”
Mastectomy, chemotherapy, and reassurance
Dr. Sumaquial explained that breast cancer in men is rare, accounting for less than 1 out of every 100 diagnoses in the U.S., and added that it’s important to be aware of the warning signs. These can include a lump, swelling, redness, or flaky skin in the breast, irritation or dimpling of breast skin, nipple discharge, pulling in of the nipple, or pain in the nipple area.
After Ehrhardt’s diagnosis, he was connected with Michael Schlieman, MD, an oncology surgeon at Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento.
“We removed Bill’s affected lymph nodes and completed a simple mastectomy on his right side,” Dr. Schlieman said. “We also ordered an additional biopsy to locate other areas in the chest where the cancer may have spread.”
The biopsy showed that Ehrhardt had more cancerous lymph nodes near his armpit. Before his second surgery to remove them, Ehrhardt underwent 25 weeks of chemotherapy to shrink the tumors.
Although Ehrhardt said this was one of the most difficult experiences in his life, his care team made him feel reassured and cared for.
“Dr. Schlieman and the nurse practitioner Poline [Engeman] were in touch with me constantly,” Ehrhardt said. “I was blown away at the time and effort given to me. They constantly asked how I was feeling, and if they could do anything for me.”
The epitome of resilience
One of the hardest aspects of Ehrhardt’s cancer journey was that his wife was diagnosed with liver disease fewer than 3 months after his own diagnosis.
“We were going through chemo at the same time, and I was doing what I could to take care of her since she was bedridden. It was a rough time,” he said.
Additionally, his chemotherapy treatments caused neuropathy, a form of nerve damage that causes numbness, in his hands, feet, and legs — a common side effect of chemotherapy. It was so severe that he had trouble walking, which was addressed by physical therapy at Kaiser Permanente.
Ehrhardt said it was his care team that inspired him to stay positive, for which his nurse practitioner, Engeman, gives Ehrhardt all the credit. “He really is the epitome of resilience and how a positive mindset can get you through a diagnosis of breast cancer, chemotherapy, physical therapy, and surgery,” said Engeman.
Ehrhardt, who is now officially cancer-free, has entered a new chapter of life. His wife died in 2022, so he is spending his time in meaningful ways.
“I spend as much time with my grandkids as I can, travel to my cabin, and do things I enjoy,” he said. “I have a new appreciation for life.”
Learn more about metastatic breast cancer in men.