Male breast cancer: rare but real

Breast cancer is a disease that predominantly affects women. However a rare 1% of breast cancer survivors are men. Xiletelo Mabasa and Laurianne Lingbondo interview a survivor about his journey battling breast cancer and speak to students at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) about the stigma surrounding men with breast cancer.

Bobby Were (60) lives in Johannesburg and runs his own gardening and landscaping business. He’s been married for 35 years and loves the outdoors. In late 2007 he discovered a small, hard lump near his nipple while he was relaxing in the bath tub. He ignored it because it wasn’t painful and lived with the lump for more than a year.

In December 2008 he reluctantly accompanied his wife to her doctor’s appointment where she insisted that he also consult with the doctor. Were remembers the moment so clearly. “[The doctor] took one look at it and said I’m telling you that’s cancer.”

His life changed from that moment on. He was in his early 50s and diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. “I couldn’t believe it. Men don’t get breast cancer,” he says. For a long time, he did not feel like breast cancer affected his masculinity but all that changed after he had a mastectomy as most of his breast was removed in February 2009.

Information from the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) website reads that breast cancer is ‘a hundred times more common in women’. However breast cancer does affect 1% of men and so there must be awareness of male breast cancer in order to fight the stigma associated with it.

Male Breast Cancer: The Facts

Many people do not know that breast cancer can affect men. A quick poll on campus at the University of Johannesburg, interviewing young students, revealed that out of five men and five women, only three knew that breast breast cancer could affect men and only one has been screened for breast cancer.

According to a 2016 fact sheet researched and authored by Professor Michael C Herbst , health specialist at CANSA, symptoms of male breast cancer are similar to those found in women. Ulceration of the skin, an inverted nipple, scaling of the nipple, bloody discharge and puckering or dimpling of the skin are all signs that a man might have breast cancer.

The techniques used to diagnose breast cancer in men are exactly the same as those used when diagnosing female patients. A physical examination, mammography and biopsies (where a sample of body tissue is examined under a microscope for signs of cancer) are used to diagnose breast cancer. Lymph nodes can also be biopsied if they are found to be enlarged.

Treatment options include surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy among other forms of treatment. The surgical option for men usually involves a mastectomy and do not affect the muscles on the chest. Lymph nodes are also removed.

“I felt totally disfigured”

A few months after being diagnosed Were underwent a mastectomy and most of his right breast, and affected lymph nodes, was removed. When the tumour was removed it measured about seven centimetres.

“After the operation when I saw what I looked like I felt totally disfigured,” he says, up to this day, when he goes to the beach he refuses to remove his shirt.

But the journey was not over after the surgery. Were underwent several chemotherapy sessions throughout 2009, which presented it’s own scares and challenges. “I’m terrified of needles,” he says, so the doctor had to make a plan. “They inserted a port in me,” he says.

“You go to hospital, [and] under anaesthetic they insert this port into you and they connect to one of your main veins.” He felt that the use of a port was “much better than using a needle” for his chemotherapy treatment.

During and after chemotherapy, Were didn’t feel like himself. When his wife cooked his favourite meal it smelled horrible to him. “It was different, it was definitely different. But it was best for me in the end”, he says. He might not have thought so at the time but he feels it was a blessing in disguise. “I view life totally differently. You see what really matters.”

It’s been years since Were first discovered that he had cancer but he still visits the doctor to check his health. He says at the time he was diagnosed he wouldn’t have known what to look for but now he’ll never forget the signs of breast cancer “the orange peel [appearance] of the skin and the inverted nipple,” he recalls.

Support from friends and family ‘was paramount’

“Support was extremely important, especially to my wife,” he says. Were was lucky enough to meet other men dealing with the same illness who shared their experiences with him.

Today Were uses his experience to help other people whose families have been affected by cancer through CANSA’s Tough Living with Cancer (TLC) programme. He says the programme counsels children and adults who are struggling with the disease. The organisation also helps to educate people in some of South Africa’s rural communities, which often lack facilities in order to screen people for breast cancer.

“Most men don’t believe that they can get breast cancer,” Were says, but “Education. Education. Education,” is the best way to raise awareness for male breast cancer.

For more information visit the CANSA website.

More stories in Issue 78

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