While growing up in New Jersey, Vanessa Silva enjoyed memorable daddy-daughter dates with her father, Arnaldo Silva, that morphed into lunch get-togethers and weekend outings with her three children after she moved out on her own.
Although they’ve always been close, there is one thing the pair never expected to share: breast cancer.
“As a man, it’s the last thing that you expect to hear you have when you go to the doctor,” Arnaldo, 67, a retired stationary fireman, tells PEOPLE, “but I’m proof that it happens. This year alone, 3,000 men will be diagnosed and 400 will die, which I find unacceptable.”
Arnaldo, who was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in January 2007 after he found a lump beneath his right nipple while showering, is grateful today that he saw a doctor and had a biopsy — not only because it saved his life, but his daughter’s as well.
Through genetic testing, the single father of four from Woodbridge, N.J., learned after his cancer diagnosis that he carried the BRCA2 gene mutation, and urged each of his children to be tested 10 years ago.
Vanessa, now 42, and her younger brother, Arnaldo III, 38, both tested positive for the gene, and for Vanessa, there was more bad news: A mammogram in May 2007 revealed that she also had breast cancer.
“Essentially, my dad saved my life,” she tells PEOPLE, “because after I opted for a bilateral mastectomy, they found it was worse than they thought. It was very aggressive, and if not for my dad’s diagnosis, I might not be here today.”
She and her dad sought treatment together, supporting each other after surgery to remove their breasts, and during chemotherapy, when they lost all of their hair.
“My sister and five paternal aunts died of breast cancer,” says Arnaldo, “and I felt terrible guilt for passing along this gene to my daughter and possibly to my grandchildren. But I’m grateful that it was diagnosed in Vanessa when it was. She’s become my best friend. She makes sure that I keep all of my appointments, and we comfort each other. Fighting cancer brought us even closer together.”
As cancer survivors, the father and daughter now regularly speak together at conferences and breast cancer awareness events, hoping to convince men to be examined for lumps at their annual physicals.
“We want men to know that breast cancer is not a taboo disease — it’s an equal opportunity killer that doesn’t discriminate,” says Vanessa, who now works as a secretary for the New York City Department of Education. “Cancer is cancer, whether you’re black, white, Puerto Rican or Asian.”
Symptoms of breast cancer in men are similar to those in women. According to the American Cancer Society, possible symptoms include: a lump or swelling, which is usually (but not always) painless; skin dimpling or puckering; nipple retraction; redness or scaling of the nipple or breast skin and discharge from the nipples.
“We look at every single day now as a gift,” adds Arnaldo, “and so now, we want to give others the same hope.”
“If I can convince even one man or woman to be examined and prevent them from dying,” he tells PEOPLE, “then spreading the word has been worth every minute. I never expected to take this journey with my daughter, but I’m proud to have had her by my side every step of the way.”