‘Mr October’ tells his story

IMG_0052According to the South African National Cancer Registry, one in every 733 men is diagnosed with breast cancer every year. I was one of them.

About 5% to 10% of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary, caused by abnormal genes that pass from parent to child. That made sense to me because there is a lot of breast cancer in my family.

That is until I took the opportunity while I was in London last year to be tested for the BRCA 1 & BRCA 2 gene. No pathogenic mutations were detected so hopefully my children will be in the clear.

In 1952 my sister, who was then just 14, had radiation therapy for a lump in her right breast; I was 7 years old and clearly recall a concern over burns. Those were pioneering times indeed – Anne is a survivor.

My mother had a right mastectomy at the age of 83 and died at 95 and my brother survives oesophageal cancer and was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer.

On my mother’s side both my female cousins have breast cancer and have had mastectomies, and then of course, there’s me.

It all started in Oct 2008 – I’d had an inverted right nipple for many years but it never bothered me so naturally I didn’t do anything about it. Then I noticed that the nipple was discoloured, and the sudden appearance of what felt like a small marble sitting behind it gave me the jitters. I called my wife and she duly whisked me off to see my daughter who is a practicing homeopathic doctor. She realized the importance of this discovery and chased me off for a thorough check up – sonar, X-rays etc.

I went to the ‘Bone and Breast Clinic’ This was an experience; I needed a mammogram – if you can imagine what it was like to have a 4’6” lady trying to squeeze the breasts of a 6’ guy into what looked like the jaws of a ‘duck billed platypus’ you would have laughed. I’m still not sure if they got the results they wanted but we certainly entertained the other patients, and then came the biopsy – yeah – ouch.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer and the treatment was as set out as follows; four sessions of chemotherapy followed by a full right mastectomy and then four more sessions of chemo – after that, 30 sessions of radiotherapy.

The first four chemotherapy sessions were an ‘emotional roller-coaster Ride’ I don’t remember the name of the chemical substance but it was referred to as the ‘Red Devil’ not unpleasant but I don’t recommend it – in fact I slept for most of the 4 ½ hours it takes to administer. I was fine for three days after the treatment and then my world momentarily collapsed, it took another three days to get back on track and then I was off to work until the next treatment – normally spaced at three weeks apart; subject to blood count.

The one thing I did learn was not to believe everything you hear, there are a lot of horror stories out there; and I’m sure many with substance. What applied to them does not necessarily apply to you; you must be positive and just push on – in retrospect; I think I got off pretty lightly.

The operation went off like clockwork. So did my breast. I was in theatre for two and a half hours.

When the surgeon did his rounds he found me sitting up in bed tucking into some good old hospital food – he was quite surprised – Same the following morning; he came round and I was washed, shaved and sitting up in bed reading. He checked me over – asked if I would be able to manage the drain myself – put me through some basic arm waving exercises and said “You may as well go home; no point keeping you here”. I was a bit peeved because I’d just ordered a ‘Curry’ for lunch.

I had a little discomfort from the operation but I kept that pretty much to myself.  There was the odd time when the grandchildren whacked me in the chest: that does make your eyes water.

The second round of chemo went a little easier than the first; possibly due to the change in the medication – I cruised through that – I must say the nurses and staff in the oncology centres are very special people, they do a great job in rather unpleasant circumstances.

Radiotherapy – I wasn’t sure what to expect, when I went for the mapping which establishes the parameters for the radiotherapy. I was tattooed in three places; I wanted Bunny rabbits but ended up with three blobs of ink, these blobs act as a datum for setting up the machine on each visit.

After the first session I was somewhat bemused; I expected to see smoke and smell burnt chicken; but fortunately nothing like that happened.

After the first 15 – 20 sessions a burn began to manifest itself, you feel nothing during the treatment but ultimately you end up with a patch of sunburned flakey skin. Strangely the only thing you need apply throughout the whole process is cornflour – it seems to work a treat; and it’s cheap.

Prior to the cancer being confirmed I said I would rather let nature take its course and not expose myself to the chemotherapy and radiation but when faced with the truth you re-access everything and start weighing up the odds of survival.

Between the surgeon, my oncologist and my daughter we made the right choice.

Ladies, you no-longer have exclusivity to this club – men get breast cancer too and we get the ‘Tamoxifen’. When I was first prescribed ‘T’ I went home and Googled it. I found that most of the references were directed at women which was understandable. And there amongst the contra-indications was reference that shook me to the core; I could get a ‘dry vagina’ and I thought “Oh no! On top of everything else I don’t need one of those!”

I must acknowledge the fact that my daughter played a big part in my recovery; being a homeopath she worked closely with my oncologist and between them she filled the gaps as she saw fit. If I compare my progress to others, I think I had a huge advantage.

If my wife and I were to compare notes you would get two very different stories. She says I’ve been a grumpy old sod and I thought I’d been my usual charming self. You can’t account for the mood swings, but you can take advantage of them.

Upon reflection; I never dealt with the emotions that many of my fellow sufferers mentioned, the ‘fear’, the ‘shock’ and the fact that I may die. I did everything I needed to ensure I survived.

My saviour has been my friends and family, I love them all; but I never realised just how much they loved me – that’s important, it would be a very difficult journey to travel alone.

Having survived the treatment my life took a different turn. I got involved with a cancer trust called Moments in Time. The first I heard of them was whilst driving home from work. The 702 afternoon host Jenny Crwys Williams announced that Moments in Time were looking for candidates for the 2010 calendar, anyone interested should send them their details.

This address stuck in my mind, when I got home I did what they asked and much to my surprise, three or four weeks later I ended up as the ambassador for male breast cancer in SA and Mr October in the 2010 MIT calendar.

We spent a couple of days filming up at Hartebesport Dam; there were professional photographers, wardrobe, make-up and numerous other people scampering around. The whole calendar was filmed there – 12 exciting pictures representing 12 different types of cancer. My spot was at 4:30 in the morning on the banks of the Jukskei River. It was freezing cold and there I was half naked wandering around dressed like Peter the Fisherman. I had a wonderful time; I never realised just how much effort went into the making of such a thing. The movie was a great hit. They were a remarkable group of people, I am sure they have all earned their place in heaven.

From here things began to happen at a different pace:

I appeared on TV a couple of times, one programme International.

National Radio and numerous magazines, I became quite a celebrity!

I also became an honorary member of a couple of breast cancer support groups and got well and truly spoilt by all the ladies.

I’ve given talks about my journey with breast cancer and attended a number of meetings, I enjoyed it so much at the time I used to phone around and see if anyone wanted to hear my story!!

My first talk was in Centurion with maybe 50/80 people. I was not overly concerned about speaking in public. As an Aircraft Engineer I was quite used to making technical presentations – This was a breeze and the Tamoxifen story went down a treat….

After the event I was approached by a gentleman who praised what I was doing and wished he had the courage to stand up and do the same for his cancer. Now, I’m a bit of a flasher and don’t mind exposing my chest to show-off my battle scars, in fact I’m quite proud of them. I asked this gent “What cancer do you have?” “Testicular Cancer” was the answer; I burst out laughing as I immediately saw him standing on stage flashing his genitals at the audience!

It is quite amazing the impact one person can have on other people’s lives.  Having completed a number of talks I’m always humbled when people approach me and say what an inspiration I have been to them – That’s weird but I must admit it makes you feel quite pleased with yourself.

Most importantly ‘GUYS’ I know it sounds daft but do get yourselves examined or learn how to do it yourselves, it might just save your life – It did mine.

Do you have a story to tell? We’d love to share it! Just leave us a note in the comments and we will get back to you.


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