When he arrived in Arkansas 20-plus years ago, Bill Robertson wore a buzz cut. More recently, the Arkansas Extension cotton specialist has sported lengthier locks and a serious beard.
There was a reason for the transformation and for the fact he’s reverted to the earlier haircut.
Here’s Robertson’s story, which he tells between laughs.
“I was diagnosed in 2010. Towards the end of 2009, I noticed a tender spot on the right side of my chest, maybe a little bit of a lump. I told my wife about it and we talked about the possibility of going to a doctor.
“After a week, though, it stopped bothering me. That’s when I became, like many others, an ‘internet doctor’ and got online and looked up symptoms and whatnot. Sure enough, I read all that and said, ‘I don’t have breast cancer. I don’t have these symptoms.’
“At the time, I was working for the National Cotton Council and had a trip to China scheduled in April. I certainly didn’t want to mess that trip up and flew over there, gave two presentations. I got up to the room that night and took my vest off and there was stuff on my shirt. The first thing I thought was my ink pen had busted. I got to looking, though, and realized my pocket was on the other side from where this had happened.
“Obviously, I was worried. But it was kind of funny because it was nighttime and my interpreter had taken off for the day. I went downstairs to the gift shop and bought some Band-aids and criss-crossed a few over the leak.
“I called (my wife) Carey and said, ‘I better get to a doctor quick. Should I cut my trip short and come on home?’ She calmed me down and scheduled my doctor’s appointment the day after my plane returned. So, I made the visits with Chinese researchers.
“As soon as I got back home, I went to my doctor in Batesville. He sent me straight to the women’s center where they do mammograms and biopsies. They did a biopsy and sent it to the lab. We called the pathologist later and he was a little excited: ‘You’re my very first male breast cancer patient!’
“Kind of like I’d hit some bad lottery winner,” Robertson says laughing.
“So, we headed to Little Rock and was so very lucky to see Dr. Mendelsohn as my oncologist and my surgeon, Dr. Hagen with Baptist Hospital.
“The tumor was about the size of a pea. I was at Stage 2 cancer because there were some cancer cells in my lymph node glands. After the mastectomy surgery in May of 2010, we did three full rounds of chemo for a total of nine treatments. The chemo was over in November of 2010.
“That year, at the Beltwide, it was just kind of a blur. During those months, there were a few meetings that were that way.
“Looking back, I was pretty lucky. I did what most guys do: find something that you ought to see a doctor about and then find an excuse to blow it off. Then, we leave it alone until it’s spread all over and things are really bad. That incident in China didn’t let me do that.
“They’re studying this disease and are making real advancements quickly. There’s so much about breast cancer we’re learning and the knowledge base is really growing. Depending on the tumor, everyone’s treatment is different. They know so much more now than they did a few years ago when we went through this.
“That’s why I think supporting that research and organizations like the Susan G. Koemen Foundation (https://ww5.komen.org/) is very important. Look at where the Koemen Foundation money goes and a lot of it comes back to the state. I have a Facebook post on this that folks can check out. Even here in Batesville, money comes back to the White River Medical Center and is put to great use.”
Has Robertson had opportunities to share his story with other men?
“Folks at Koemen sometimes call and say, ‘Hey, there’s a male breast cancer patient in Missouri, or Alabama, and he’d like to visit.’ I’ll call them and walk them through what it was like and what to expect.
“My biggest involvement with the foundation started last year, though. They had ‘Runway for the Cure.’ Lots of folks know about ‘Race for the Cure’ but they were looking for male models to help increase awareness. I said,‘Sure, I’ll go with that,’ and was really glad I did. It was a blast and I met a lot of like-minded people.
“This year, to get the men involved, Susan G. Komen Foundation came up with ‘The Pink-Tie Guys.’ The About You (AY) Magazine in Little Rock was the founding sponsor of the runway. They highlighted pictures of all the models from the runway and broke them out into those who’d gone to certain surgeons and oncologists. This year, like I said, it’s all about the pink ties — I’m the only survivor wearing one of those ties.
“I always wanted to do something to support folks going through chemo and decided I would grow my hair to donate. I want to send my hair to Wigs for Kids (https://www.wigsforkids.org/) — for children going through chemo who have lost their hair. They need a foot-long ponytail. I’ve got mine about as long as I can with two years of growing. My wife says she’ll let them have a foot of hers if mine is a little short. There are other groups that will take shorter lengths of hair. We will do our best to see that my hair finds a new home.
“Something that’s kind of funny is I didn’t have a heavy beard before this. I didn’t start having to shave until senior year in high school. Then, before the breast cancer, I could get by shaving two or three times a week.
“It turned out my tumor was highly responsive to estrogen and I started taking an estrogen blocker — which is common for those with breast cancer. So, when I started taking that it got to where I had to shave every day.
“Then, at the Beltwide in January 2016, I ran into Andy Jordan and he was growing a beard. That made me think, ‘I bet I could grow a beard.’ It just hadn’t occurred to me before then. So, I haven’t shaved or cut my hair since that Beltwide meeting!
“At this point, I’m seeing my surgeon just once a year. I see my oncologist every six months. That’s the schedule and I’ve had no scares. I take tamoxifen daily to block estrogen that my tumor was highly responsive to. Breast cancer research has really come a long way developing effective treatment protocols. That is why support for organizations such as Susan G. Komen Foundation for research and screening is so important.”