I didn't know men got breast cancer

Tue, Feb 28, 2012, 00:00

MY HEALTH EXPERIENCE:A lump thought to be an insect bite was in fact cancerous, explains COLM DALTON

WHEN I was on holiday in Canada six years ago, my wife noticed that I had a lump just beside my nipple. I had been aware of it and thought it was a mosquito bite. It was like a small boil underneath my skin, the size of a pea. My wife thought I should have it looked at, so when I got back to Kinsale I went to see my doctor.

She wasn’t happy with it, saying it might be a cyst or mastitis, although she thought the shape was wrong for a cyst. She referred me to the breast care clinic at CUH [Cork University Hospital]. Samples of tissue were taken and it became clear that I had breast cancer.

I didn’t understand what the doctor was saying. I had never heard of men getting breast cancer. It felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. It was quite surreal. At the clinic, there was only one other man on the files there who had the condition.

I went for a mammogram. It was the most painful thing I had ever experienced in my life because my breast, such as it was, had to be put between two plates so that it could be flattened and X-rayed.

I then had the lump removed. About three or four inches were taken off the breast and I lost the nipple as well. My lymph nodes were checked. The doctors had to see if the cancer had got into my system. It hadn’t.

I was asked about the history of breast cancer in my family. It’s there on my mother’s side. An aunt and a [female] cousin had the same thing as me. When their details were sent to my doctors, they were able to identify the gene. The doctors were very positive about the outcome. They said they would treat it aggressively. Because of the history, I had to have both breasts removed. That was two months after my diagnosis. The doctors wanted to ensure that there was no oestrogen whatsoever in my chest that might trigger more cancerous cells.

I felt isolated when I first got the diagnosis. When you get that kind of information, you wonder how long you have to live. I was embarrassed too at the start. When I told people I had breast cancer, they thought I was having them on. I lost personal dignity. But when I spoke to the doctor, I was told that I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t need breasts, unlike women in this situation. Breasts are important for women. But I am quite self-conscious about swimming and being in changing rooms in the gym. I have a dip in my chest; it’s quite concave. I’m conscious of people pushing up against me or elbowing me in the chest.

I keep away from big crowds because my chest is now a tender spot. I have no flesh there. It’s quite close to my rib cage. But it’s nothing that a shirt or T-shirt won’t hide. When I go swimming, I generally wear a Lycra top. It could be very disconcerting for women to see the scars on my chest in the pool – and the absence of nipples.

After the mastectomy, I had a 12-week course of radiotherapy. It was very traumatic. My father was dying of cancer at the time. I was in radiotherapy one afternoon when he passed away. The whole thing was a real roller-coaster for me. You’re in this process that you can’t get off.

It felt a bit odd and difficult because I was basically in this clinic designed for women. The people working there were extremely aware of how I felt and made things as comfortable as they could for me.

At the end of the radiotherapy, I was quite sore because my skin was disintegrating and the hairs on my chest were gone. Luckily, I didn’t need chemotherapy because the cancer hadn’t gone into my system. It was caught very early. I haven’t met another man with breast cancer. I’m told I’m a very rare case. The cancer gene that I have is rare too. I agreed to allow CUH to use my case for research purposes.

I would say to men that they shouldn’t be shy about looking at their bodies. Men don’t discuss these things; women do. They’re generally more open and chatty. That’s probably why men die off quicker than women do.

Getting cancer has been a learning curve. It was time to look at the way I was living. I had weight issues. I’ve managed to lose about 22 kilos in the past few years. Because I’m self-employed, I’m able to make time to go swimming or to the gym every day and my eating habits are much healthier.

“My sons [aged 17 and 19] have told their doctor about what happened to me. I’ve also had to tell my brother [to be cancer aware]. The gene I have is a rogue one that has skipped from female to male. Like testicular cancer, what I had is something survivable once it’s caught in time. It’s important to develop a dialogue with your doctor and to talk to your wife or partner about health worries.

Colm Dalton will be taking part in the Kinsale Pink Ribbon Walk on March 4th. This 10km walk is part of a national fundraising initiative aimed at increasing breast cancer awareness and raising funds for Action Breast Cancer, a programme of the Irish Cancer Society.

In conversation with Colette Sheridan