Men can get breast cancer too

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Breast cancer affects 1 in 29 women in South Africa. Though it is considered to be a woman’s disease, 1 in 733 men are diagnosed with it every year, according to CANSA. Most men are in the dark about breast cancer, due to the idea that men do not have breasts, but this is not the case. Men have breast and gland tissue as well as vestigial nipples, a remnant of the early stages of embryonic development where the embryo takes on the mother’s genotype for the first several weeks.

Just like women, men from any ethnic group, region or social circumstance can get cancer at any age but it is more common in older men. Breast cancer is more likely to occur in men who produce high levels of oestrogen, have a family history of breast cancer and drink large quantities of alcohol. Those also affected are men who are obese, have liver disease or have Klinefelter syndrome (low sperm production, small testicles and infertility). Other factors that may increase the risk of developing breast cancer are working in environments with extreme heat, exposure to radiation and taking specific testicular treatments or oestrogen-related drugs.

During the Reach to Recovery international conference which was held in Cape Town earlier this year, we spoke to Bobby Wear, a male breast cancer survivor. This is what he said:

“I walked around with a lump in his breast for two years, but didn’t think much of it because ‘men don’t get breast cancer’.”

As the time passed, the lump grew in size and became quite irritable, but still Bobby didn’t think it was serious. “I showed a friend who said that it’s just an infection in one of the glands and that he also got it from time to time,” Bobby said, who is a small-business owner in Polokwane.

One day he went to collect his wife at the doctor’s office when she went for an annual mammogram when she suggested he show the doctor the lump on his breast.

“The doctor gave it one look and said: ‘that’s cancer’,” said Bobby. “I didn’t believe her and was quite annoyed that she would say something like that from just looking at it. Who the hell did she think she was?”

On the insistence of his wife he went to a surgeon who wanted to remove it the very next day. Although Bobby agreed to have the lump removed, he still didn’t believe it was cancer. “I thought this was a big fuss over nothing.

“Before going into surgery the doctor said that if they open it up and find it to be cancer, they will have to do a mastectomy (removal of the breast) and insert drains for the lymph nodes.  So when I woke up after surgery and felt the drains coming out of my side, that was the first time I actually realised that I had cancer,” said Bobby.

“Then I started chemo, and that was the real killer.” But it was in the waiting room when he went for his chemo that he started chatting to other patients, sharing stories, empathising and relating to them. “I started getting involved with cancer support groups and organisations, and today I am a volunteer with Reach to Recovery, TLC (Tough Living with Cancer) as well as CANSA.”

Having a phobia for needles himself, Bobby said that he found that he can really relate to the fear and terror young children go through when receiving chemotherapy. He often visits newly diagnosed patients, or people that have undergone cancer surgery as well as the children’s oncology ward to offer support.

“Breast cancer opened my eyes to a different world. You realise you can’t take money with you. It really changed my outlook on life.”

For other cancer patients Bobby wants to say: “Don’t lose hope – cancer may be a killer disease but it can also be cured. There is so much that can be done.”

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