Male breast cancer: ‘When the doctor told me . . . I found myself looking for a hidden camera - I thought it might have been a joke’

Father of three Dara McDonough urges men to get suspicious lumps checked following his shock diagnosis

With one in nine women developing breast cancer in Ireland every year, most people are aware of the disease and know what the warning signs are. But although it is very rare, men can also get breast cancer and the outcome and treatment can be just the same.

Dara McDonough was one of the many people who assumed that the disease only affected women, so when last year, he discovered a lump on his chest, he didn’t for a moment think it could be breast cancer. However, being someone who is vigilant about his health, after a few days, he made an appointment with his GP who referred him on for tests.

“In February 2021, I was washing myself in the shower one morning when I noticed a significant lump on the right side of my chest,” he says. “I knew it probably shouldn’t be there, but there was no pain at all, so after drying myself off, I forgot all about it until the following morning in the shower when I felt it again.

“This pattern continued for a few days – I would shower and notice it and then forget about it again – until, after talking to my partner, Tracy, I decided to make an appointment with my GP so he could take a look at it. I told him I had found a lump and when he inspected it, he said that it was probably just a cyst, but I should come back in a couple of days when the scanning technician was there so they could do a scan of it and send it off to the Breast Cancer Centre to be examined.”

A few days later, the 59-year-old went in for the scan and a fortnight after that, got sent an appointment for a breast clinic in Dublin. Again, he didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary, even when, upon examination, he was told he would need a mammogram.

“Obviously, I knew breast cancer existed, but as far as I was concerned, it was a woman’s disease and as there has never been anyone in my family with it, I had no experience of it,” he says. “I was totally unaware of the other people in the waiting room and didn’t notice that I was the only man there, but I could sense some of the other patients looking at me. Before I had a chance to think about it, I was called into the consultant who, after taking a look at the lump, said he would like to send me on for further tests, which would include a biopsy and a mammogram.

“So, I went off and had the tests done and went back to the doctor two weeks later for the results, again not paying too much attention to the other patients, although I did notice people looking at me. When I went into see the doctor, there was a breast care nurse there and I remember that she put her hand on my shoulder as if she was comforting me. I was beginning to wonder what was going on, when the doctor told me that I had breast cancer and suddenly everything was a blur. I was completely shocked because I didn’t think it could be possible for a man to get breast cancer. I didn’t ask him anything about it at all as I just didn’t know what to say – in fact, I found myself looking around for a hidden camera as I thought it might have been a joke – I don’t have breasts, I thought to myself, so how could I have breast cancer?

“The doctor told me that I would need to have the breast and the nipple taken off and he actually said I needed a mastectomy. I just couldn’t understand it and asked him what he was talking about as I did not have a breast. But sure enough, there I was a few days later, lying down in the operating theatre and having a canula inserted. That’s all I remember before a nurse asked me if I was feeling any pain – and at that point the surgery was all over.”

Dara, who runs his own transport company, says although the mastectomy had been successfully completed, his journey wasn’t over and he was told that tests would need to be done to see if the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes.

“After the surgery I was told that some of my lymph nodes had been taken out as they needed to be checked to see if the cancer had spread anywhere else,” he says. “At this point, I had a lot of questions, which the doctor answered and then told me to go home and rest. He said I would have the results within two weeks, but I couldn’t sit still and started googling male breast cancer, which of course led me down a rabbit hole of information which was all negative. I was convinced that I was done and dusted and that I would have less than five years to live, so although I only got out of hospital on the Saturday and was told to rest, I went into work on the Monday to keep busy and take my mind off things, otherwise I would have gone mad.

“But thankfully about a week later, I got the news I had been hoping for – which was that the test results showed there was no trace of cancer in the lymph nodes. I was told that I was in remission, but they would be keeping a close eye on me – I have never been happier to receive test results. And on top of that good news, I was also told that I wouldn’t need further treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation, and instead, would just need weekly drainage [at the mastectomy site].”

Luckily for the father of three, his cancer was detected early – but things may have been different if he hadn’t visited his GP to get the lump checked out. He didn’t know that men could get breast cancer and says he was definitely not alone in this – so he wants to spread awareness to alert other men about the importance of seeking advice if they notice anything wrong.

“Most people think that men can’t get breast cancer,” says Dara, who lives in Gormanston, Co Meath. “And this explains the looks I was getting from women in the waiting room, which occasionally bordered on aggression – I think they thought I was a man waiting for my partner, which of course, during Covid wasn’t allowed. And when I told friends and family that I had breast cancer, everyone was shocked – so I really do think it is important for men to know that they can get it too.

“If I had not gone to the doctor when I did, I would most likely have had to undergo chemotherapy and radiotherapy and the tumour would probably have grown and possibly spread to other parts of my body, so it is really important not to ignore anything which doesn’t seem right.

“A lot of men don’t know what to look for or say they wouldn’t have the time – but it’s the same for men as it is for women. So, I would say to everyone that all it takes is a few minutes in the privacy of the shower to have a bit of a poke and a feel around and if anything suspicious is found, to get it checked. Also, I think a lot of men are reluctant to go to the doctor about anything so if they found a lump, they might not think it is worth getting checked, or they might be embarrassed. But I dread to think what would have happened if I hadn’t gone to the doctor when I did.”

ABOUT MALE BREAST CANCER

  • 1 in 1,000 breast cancer diagnoses are male
  • It is important for men to self-check the chest or breast area regularly and seek medical advice if any concerns.
  • Early detection is key and can make all the difference to outcomes

Symptoms include:

  • A lump in the chest, breast, armpit or under the nipple
  • Puckering of skin in the breast area.
  • Nipple retraction or inverted nipple
  • Any change in the skin around the nipple.
  • A rash or redness of the skin
  • Bloody nipple discharge
  • Changes in size or shape of breast area
  • Pain, fatigue, and unexplained weight loss

If any concerns whatsoever, seek medical advice – it may not be breast cancer, but the sooner it is checked out the better.

For more information visit breastcancerireland.com

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in health, lifestyle, parenting, travel and human interest stories