Despite being together for more than 50 years, three months ago the Daknis’ learned of something they never thought they would have in common: dual breast cancer diagnoses. In the face of adversity, Col. and Mrs. Daknis’ tribulations with breast cancer are as unique as they are inspiring. After overcoming their initial shock, this husband and wife pair has taken support and empathy to a new level.
While the Daknis family’s fight against breast cancer began in 2008, their journey together began long before that. The Daknises met in 1952 during a high school production of Brigadoon. Mrs. Daknis, affectionately referred to as Betty by her husband, was in the chorus, while Col. Daknis worked as a stagehand. “I was 14 and he was 17,” Mrs. Daknis recounts. “Our first date was in an open convertible in February. I think I got sick from it,” she remembers, laughing.
The Daknises were married 1957 with a traditional church wedding. In the early years of their marriage, Col. Daknis, a colonel in the US Army, was stationed in many places. “We lived in Hawaii, Washington, Louisiana, Georgia, California,” Mr Daknis recalls, “and New Joisey,” he finishes, jokingly imitating the accent of the locals.
“What was our favorite again sweetheart?” he asks his wife.
“Panama,” she replies.
“We had an agreement that she would travel wherever I go and I would travel wherever she goes, so after following me for my career, I then followed her. We moved up to Alexandria for Betty’s job, where we bought a condo,” Col. Daknis remembers.
In early 2008, Mrs. Daknis received some unexpected news after a routine screening mammogram. The radiologist detected an abnormal growth in her right breast, and suggested she follow up with a breast surgeon, Dr. David Weintritt, MD FACS.
“Dr. Weintritt did the biopsy, and told me it was malignant,” Mrs. Daknis says. “I was stunned, scared, and teary, breast cancer isn’t in the family.
Col. Daknis said that he “couldn’t believe it” when he heard his wife’s diagnosis.
Despite the shock, Mrs. Daknis attests that “Bill took very good care of me. He cooked, cleaned, made sure I got to my beauty parlor appointments when I still had hair,” she says, laughing again. “My diagnosis brought us closer together; we joined at the hip.”
For husbands with wives diagnosed with breast cancer, Col. Daknis recommends to “do what [husbands] always do, take good care of your wife.”
Mrs. Daknis was diagnosed with stage II invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common type of breast cancer. Dr. Weintritt discussed a treatment plan involving surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. In February 2008, Dr. Weintritt performed a lumpectomy, employing oncoplastic reconstruction techniques for Mrs. Daknis. Oncoplastic reconstruction involves the manipulation of breast tissue during cancer-removing surgery in a way that optimizes cosmetic outcomes, preventing divots or pockets forming in the location where the tumor was removed.
“Oncoplastic surgery recognizes that when dealing with breast cancer, a significant amount of tissue may be removed to treat the cancer, but there is also a need to properly put things back together. This actually improves healing and enhances a patient’s appearance and sense of well being. It also uses a wider variety of options for reshaping or reconstructing a breast after surgery. So, many women who would traditionally be forced to have a mastectomy are candidates for breast conservation, and those that do have a mastectomy are able to have preservation of skin and even the nipple to maintain a more natural appearance.” Dr. Weintritt says.
After completing her treatment, Mrs. Daknis’ cancer went into remission. When Mrs. Daknis heard the good news, she was ecstatic.
“We were pleased, we felt blessed, we were thanking God, we felt very lucky,” she recalls. To celebrate Mrs. Daknis’ good health, the Daknis family went to Atlantic City. “I told Bill Dr. Weintritt said I needed that trip! We had so much fun.”
A few years later in 2012, Col. Daknis mentioned a lump on his breast during a visit to his primary care doctor. His doctor ordered a biopsy.
Days later, Col. Daknis received a call from his wife while sitting in a community computer class. “She told me a doctor was on the phone for me, and that he had the results of my biopsy,” he remembers. “When this doctor told me it was cancer, I was stunned. I tried to settle myself down. Betty went through it with Dr. Dennis Dobrzynski and Dr. Weintritt, I knew I was going to go through it with those same doctors and that they were going to take good care of me. So I called Dr. Weintritt immediately and got on his calendar right away.”
Mrs. Daknis had an understandably difficult time accepting her husband’s diagnosis. “I cried, it upset me a lot. I was scared for him and scared for me,” she says.
“We’ve been a team for so long, it didn’t seem right he had to get it. Bill approaches everything with humor though. He said ‘You never told me [breast cancer] was contagious!’ And that broke the ice and we hugged and marched forward,” Mrs. Daknis says. “And here we are today.”
According to the American Cancer Society, only 1-2% of all breast cancer patients are males. However, men are generally diagnosed with breast cancer at a later stage because their symptoms go unrecognized or unnoticed. Mr. Daknis was diagnosed with stage II invasive ductal carcinoma. His medical treatment program was designed collaboratively with his team of doctors to address the specific challenges of male breast cancer.
“The challenge with male breast cancer is always overcoming the perception that it only happens in women. Not having a high level of awareness that a lump could be something dangerous and that there are proven methods to assess men with breast lumps can limit how early male patients are diagnosed.” Dr. Weintritt says.
Dr. Weintritt recommended that Mr. Daknis be tested for the BRCA gene mutation. Carriers of the BRCA gene are at a higher risk for breast cancer. Individuals with male breast cancer have a higher probability of being carriers, and genetic testing is important in the development of the patient’s treatment plan and for the empowering knowledge it can offer family to members.
“The Daknises are always positive and up to the challenge. They are a perfect combination of knowledgeable and understanding about the process but trusting in their medical team to always do the right thing for them. As well as being incredibly selfless and devoted to each other and to helping raise awareness for breast cancer.” says Dr. Weintritt.
For other families facing breast cancer, Col. Daknis recommends to “Go see Dr. Weintritt!” Mrs. Daknis agrees, and also believes that keeping a good attitude and having a positive outlook can make all the difference. They both strongly encourage that everyone, both women and men, see a physician if they notice any breast lumps or changes.
“I’ve been walking around with that lump for a couple years!” he exclaims. “I sent out a mass email to our family and friends about my illness.” which inspired several recipients to seek medical evaluation for lumps they had neglected to get checked.
“It has been my honor and privilege to be able to treat both Col. and Mrs. Daknis. I have treated thousands of woman and numerous men with breast cancer, but this is the first married couple that I’ve treated for the disease. We used every latest technology and treatment necessary to provide this wonderful couple with the best care. They have been an inspiration to me in their courage and heartfelt love and support for one another. I wish all of my breast cancer patients had the support that they have given each other. They truly set an example for all of us,” Dr. David Weintritt.