Zac Yarbrough, who lives in Middleburg with wife Kelli and daughters Ella and Georgia, found a lump in his breast last spring.
Since his diagnosis, Zac Yarbrough knew he would be an ideal poster boy to promote breast-cancer awareness in men.
He is one of the manliest of the manly men.
“I’m a big, burly, beard-growing, fisherman, hunter, former All-ACC college football player and swim with swordfish, the baddest fish in the sea. If I can get breast cancer being this type of guy, then any man can get it and it doesn’t matter how tough or burly you are,” he said. “I’m never scared to tell the good, bad and ugly of life, and I’m taking this as a chance for me to bring awareness to the disease, especially on the male side.”
Yarbrough, who lives in Middleburg with wife Kelli and daughters Ella and Georgia, found a lump in his breast last spring. A mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy led to a diagnosis of invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common breast cancer in men. In July he had a mastectomy of his left breast and has been undergoing chemotherapy since.
After his hair started falling out, he shaved his head and prominent beard.
“I realized my hair and beard don’t make my true identity and who I am. But hopefully it and I will all come back stronger than before,” he said. “Luckily growing up a competitive swimmer I’ve had this look before and kind of knew what to expect. It’s still a shock when I see myself in a mirror, but I just laugh it off and keep on moving.”
Meanwhile, Yarbrough, 38, is publicly telling his story to help promote Clay County’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, a 5k benefit Saturday in Orange Park. About 3,000 or so participants are expected; the fundraising goal is $75,000 for breast-cancer research and patient services. Jacksonville’s Making Strides event will be Oct. 19.
“It’s the hand of cards life has dealt me at this moment. You have two choices really and either you can be a victim of the disease or you can choose to be an advocate to beat it and raise awareness,” he said. “When I received the diagnosis, the first thing I thought about was the difference I can bring to the male community. I always just try to see the positive light in any situation ...
“Being a male and losing my left breast and nipple is really not that big of a deal for me. I have so many scars and battle wounds from athletics and life that it just adds to my story I get to tell,” he said. “I think it would be much harder on a woman especially if she has to lose one of her breasts and hair during treatment. That is part of a woman’s identity, so I believe it’s harder for them.”
Yarbrough’s “not that big a deal” attitude could help save other men’s lives, said Jaclyn Rodriguez, community development manager at the American Cancer Society’s Jacksonville office, who coordinates Making Strides. An estimated 2,670 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in men in the United States this year and about 500 men will die from breast cancer, she said.
“He’s going to inspire many for sure,” she said. “Some men are embarrassed when they find a breast lump and worry that someone might question their masculinity. Because of this, they could be delaying their diagnosis and reduce their chance of successful treatment.”
Women are generally far more aware of breast cancer than men, she said.
“Many people do not realize that men have breast tissue and that they can develop breast cancer,” Rodriguez said. “Women tend to be aware of the disease and its possible warning signs, but many men do not think that they can get it at all. Some men ignore breast lumps or think they are caused by an infection or some other reason and don’t get medical treatment until the mass has had a change to grow.”
As with breast cancer in women, early detection improves the chances that male breast cancer can be treated successfully. Careful breast exams might be useful for screening men who have a strong family history of breast cancer or have the breast-cancer mutations found by genetic testing, she said.
Yarbrough, as marketing manager for a fishing apparel company, regularly attends tournaments and other fishing events to help promote the brand. Part of his job is photography and social media content, he said, “and my true passion is documenting wildlife in their element.”
“I’m a true outdoor enthusiast and just love and appreciate every day I can spend in nature,” he said. “I just love to experience an animal in their environment and document the experience.”
When he found a lump in his breast in early spring, he was initially unconcerned.
“I didn’t think much of it at first being a male and having no recent family history of cancer. I travel a lot for work so I kind of put it the back of my mind and went about my work,” he said. “After a month or two I noticed it was growing abnormally and something wasn’t right.”
Then came surgery and chemotherapy, and Yarbrough was forced to slow his fast-paced life.
“I’m just treating this like another off-season football surgery. It hurts, it sucks and it’s time to do what is necessary to get better and healthy again,” he said. “Sitting there watching the chemicals getting pumped in is tough, but I just try to remain positive and keep a smile on my face. Attitude is everything in life.”
Scaling back has had an unexpected reward — more family time.
“Life has been different for sure as I’ve ... become more of an indoor homebody. It’s tough missing some big tournaments and events I usually am attending, but it’s great to be able to be home and spend time with my little girls as they are growing so fast,” he said. “I try to take advantage of every good day I have and get outside in the woods even if it’s only for an hour or so. I don’t feel sorry for myself and look at it more as another challenge in life I have to overcome and win.”
If you go
The Clay County Making Strides Against Breast Cancer 5k will be Saturday at the Moosehaven retirement community, 1701 Park Ave., Orange Park. Check-in is at 7:30 a.m., followed by the opening ceremony at 8 a.m. and the walk at 9 a.m. To register, donate, register or get more information, go to tinyurl.com/yxna44bh.
Jacksonville’s Making Strides walk is Oct. 19 at TIAA Field. To register, donate or get more information, go to tinyurl.com/y2rj5z7n.
For more information on breast cancer in men, go to cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer-in-men.html.
This story originally published to jacksonville.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network via the Florida Wire. The Florida Wire, which runs across digital, print and video platforms, curates and distributes Florida-focused stories. For more Florida stories, visit here, and to support local media throughout the state of Florida, consider subscribing to your local paper.