Breast cancer is a disease that does not discriminate.
Although rare, men can get breast cancer. About 1 in 833 Zimbabwean men are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, that’s about 1% of all breast cancer cases.
Robert Taylor is one of those men who has survived breast cancer, and he was proud to share his story during the Zimbabwean Men’s Health Month meeting and bust the myth that men can’t be diagnosed with breast cancer. This is his story.
Whilst bathing one evening in 2006 I felt a pea-size lump next to my right nipple.
I called my wife and asked her to look. She agreed something was not right and that I should see the doctor.
My male stubbornness kicked in immediately, You know what I mean, we men know much better than any doctor and I informed my wife it was nothing and I was fine.
About six months later I was at the doctor for a general check-up and showed him this painless pea size thing. He gave me a letter of referral to a surgeon in our area and suggested I make an appointment and see the surgeon. Again the male instinct kicked in: “lag it af” – I am not in pain don’t need to see this guy, it’ll just be a waste of money.
Not only that I had asked another friend about lumps and bumps, etc and he agreed it was probably just a small gland and would go down sooner or later.
By the end of 2008 this little lump had not only grown, but was also oozing slightly, each morning I would rub a bit of Reparil Gel on it, as the cell phone in my pocket would irritate it no end.
On the 28th December the same year my wife had an appointment with her doctor and I just happened to pop in to tell her I would be waiting in the car park when she was done. She asked if her doctor could just take look at the “little lump”. I said nothing to worry about, but the doctor insisted on seeing it, so I opened my chest up.
One look at it and the doctor ups and says that’s cancer
She did not touch it or even look closely, so I was furious with the doctor, who gave her the right to say I had cancer? The fact that I had an inverted nipple and the orange peel symptoms meant nothing. Again I tried a feeble “it’s nothing” only this time no one was listening to me, the doctor gave me a referral to the surgeon, and made the appointment for me.
There seemed no way out of this for me.
Here this lady doctor was telling me, a man, that I have breast cancer.
How ridiculous is that, I don’t even have “breasts”!
I could only see the surgeon on the 17th January 2009. While I waited to see the surgeon, I was convinced that everyone was making a huge mistake, and that it was impossible that I could have breast cancer. Although my grandfather had passed away at a ripe old age from prostate cancer, and my father had passed away at the age of thirty-five from lung cancer (both were smokers), I had never touched a cigarette in my life. So how could I possibly have cancer?
My thoughts at the time were that this was a huge inconvenience to me – not only did I not have cancer, but I was running my own business and had wages to pay and many things to organize. I was totally convinced it was just a storm in a tea cup, I did not have cancer period.
Finally the day of the appointment with the surgeon arrived.
I can tell you that I was so grateful to my wife, Linda, who went with me, because when I heard the words “you have cancer” it felt as if the surgeon had started speaking a different language, one where I could only understand a few words. The next surprise was that he wanted to operate the next day and he wanted to push a needle into my lump, to extract some fluid. I was not about to let that happen. (As a child I had to receive a few lumbar punches, this put the fear of God into me as far as needles were concerned). However, unless I did this procedure, our medical aid would not pay, as they didn’t cover “boob jobs” on men! My poor wife and the surgeon managed to get the medical aid to agree to a mastectomy instead, which was done on the 4th February 2009.
The surgeon had explained that they would go into the lump and take a piece out that would be sent off to the lab for analysis.
If positive for cancer, they would check the lymph nodes under my arms. When I came round I felt the drain, and then I felt a second drain. I realized then that it had been cancer all along. An absolute calm came over me. I had no pain and tried to see if they had in fact done a mastectomy.
The surgeon popped round in the afternoon and bla bla’d about cancer and the lymph nodes under the arm being affected, and therefore having been removed and that should I have any pain, there was a morphine pump attached to the drip that I could just push to alleviate the pain. He told me that it was stage 3 cancer. That evening he popped round again and asked if I had been to the loo for a leak, I told him it was not necessary as I never had the need. Next thing I know he wanted to put a catheter in. Well that was a real no no! He told me he would give me 30 minutes to go and then he would be back. Man that was the worst 30 minutes ever, I stood at the loo trying to go but nothing happened. I started praying that the surgeon got held up somewhere so that he’d forget about me. No luck. Thirty minutes later there he was ready to insert this jolly thing. It was the most humiliating thing for me, but necessary, and so began the process of letting go of self-controlled life.
I was allowed home a few days later with the two drains sticking out of my body.
I started coughing and told my wife that these drains would fall out. There is nothing worse than a sick male believe me, my poor wife called friends of ours in the medical profession to please come and help her make sure the drains did not fall out. They showed her how to change the dressing, empty and count the contents of the drains and assured both of us that all was as it should be.
The following weekend my wife’s family arrived out of the blue for a visit, mother-in-law included! Then I learned my family would be coming up during the next two months for a visit. I kept very quiet after that, I just sat there letting my frustration build up inside. By the time everyone had gone home, I asked my wife why no one had the guts to tell me I was going to die, and how long had I actually been given? The poor woman was so taken aback by my thoughts that she had no answer.
How selfish I was at that time; I never thought that maybe she also needed support; it was not all about me.
After having the stitches removed, it was time for our visit to the oncologist.
This would not be a problem, I had everything worked out, I would do the chemo thing, and he would just have to give it to me in pill form. Ha Ha how they laughed, this was not the way it was to be. He then suggested that I have a port inserted and that the chemo be administered this way, so it was back to the hospital for this little procedure. This was a dam sight more painful than I had thought it would be. But I was now ready to get my chemo. My sister came up to be with me on the first round. My wife had spoken with the oncologist about my phobia for needles and he had prescribed several pills, as well as an anaesthetic type of cream to rub on my skin around the area of the port. I sat there in a daze and received all my little bags of chemo, after which I was taken home. I fell asleep for the rest of the day, and the following day I felt fine and decided to go to work the following day. My wife would not hear anything about it, so I spent another boring day at home. I was now convinced I would not have any reaction to the chemo, just goes to show men can handle anything.
That night however things took a definite turn.
I started feeling flu symptoms and got this terrible pain in my chest, I thought okay this must be what dying is about, the pain got worse and I started breathing with difficulty. I started looking at my situation, here I am dying, my wife is fast asleep, snoring next to me. Lord how unfair is that, does no one care about me? In desperation I thought let me try a bit of bicarb, amazing how that worked. The following day it felt as if all my joints were seizing up, I would have to go and see the oncologist, because he must have done something wrong. While there, an old lady who was on her third round with cancer told me to try some citric soda before and after each round, as it would help. After I had been told I would make it, I felt much better and went back to my old routine.
Fourteen days after my first round of chemo I woke up and saw my pillow full of hair, went to wash and took out fistfuls of hair as I washed it.
I then decided to have what was left shaved off. Seeing myself with no hair was to say the least, frightening, who was this ugly dude in the mirror, that coupled with this dent in my chest and this scar line through its centre was to say the least horrid to look at, I had been stripped of my dignity in just a few short weeks.
All too soon it was time for the next round, Linda woke me up extra early so that the pills could work before we got to the oncologist. One nurse would lay across my legs, and my wife would hold my hands down, whilst another nurse would hook me up. All the time I would be shouting “take it out, take it out”.
After being hooked up I would sit there in a daze passing comments to other patients like “Ag shame that red devil is going to give you the best haircut of your life.” Day three was the worst, I tried to throw up and it felt as if I was summoning the stuff from somewhere well below my knees. After my fifth round of chemo the oncologist told my wife that he felt I did not need the last round of chemo.
During this time I took it upon myself to totally revamp my garden, this kept my mind busy and I think it was a saving grace in its own way.
My experience of radiation was more relaxed
Before the radiotherapy treatment I had to go for “simulation” which is where they measure you up and draw lines on you and set the radiation computer to radiate the exact points and determine the degree of intensity. The bed felt like a tiny little bench on which you are precariously placed. All was well and relaxing until they came to tattoo me, I almost leaped off the bench. I was gathered up and told to return and lie still it was just a two tiny pricks. This is true and I felt a fool for the scene but could not help it.
I then completed 6 weeks of radiation Monday to Friday each week. It was only in the last week that I started getting sores under my arms, where I would sweat. These were in fact rather painful and another patient advised me to put Gentian violet on these sores. This worked very well on the sores, but messed up any “designer shirts” I might have chosen to wear! I was advised never to get the radiated area wet during the radiation treatment, nor to put any creams or perfume on. I stuck to these instructions and am grateful I did.
This treatment was followed by five years of Tamoxifen tablets which are basically hormone blockers. As a result of these I had the pleasure of experiencing hot flushes. This, together with the annual mammograms, have given me a great respect for our female counterparts.
Despite all this I believe that my journey with cancer has been one of the greatest blessings in my life. And YES men can be diagnosed with breast cancer and overcome it.
Sabastian Kanhema works as a producer/presenter for Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation from 2003-2015. He is married with two kids.