I'm 43, I'm a father of two and I've got breast cancer
Stephen Smith didn't believe men could get this form of cancer, even when he discovered a lump on his chest, writes John CostelloMen are shocked they can develop breast cancer, but the fact is they can because they have breast tissue
Millions of men around the globe have recently been embracing their inner Tom Selleck and sprouting a moustache for Movember. But as they cultivate their upper lip foliage to support prostate cancer awareness, few realise they are also susceptible to a cancer that has plagued women for generations.
Stephen Smith from Celbridge became only too aware of this four years ago while brushing his teeth after his wife noticed one of his nipples was inverted.
"She told me it was a very bad sign," he recalls. "I hadn't a clue what she was talking about so I said, 'A very bad sign for what?' She immediately replied, 'Breast cancer.' I remember saying, 'Men can't get breast cancer.'"
But the 43-year-old father of two was in for a very sudden wake-up call.
"My wife went with me to the GP the next day, which was a Monday," says Stephen. "We were referred to a specialist on Tuesday. On Wednesday he did a biopsy and reassured me that 90pc of these lumps and bumps generally ended up being nothing. He said it would be two weeks before he had the results."
The specialist rang Stephen on Friday morning asking him to come to his office at 5:30 that evening.
"That's when I was told I had breast cancer," says Stephen. "I was shocked."
There are between 20 and 30 cases of male breast cancer in Ireland every year, according to Dr Janice Walshe, Consultant Medical Oncologist at St Vincent's University Hospital and Tallaght Hospital. So, for every 100 women, one man is diagnosed.
That's 1pc of all cases.
"It is extremely rare, so there is a lack of awareness," says Dr Walshe. "Men are shocked they can develop breast cancer, but the fact is they can because they have breast tissue."
Due to the small number suffering from the disease, relatively little is know about it and how it may differ from the female form. However, exposure to radiation or a family history of the disease is thought to play a part. But while male breast cancer is rare it can be just as lethal as its female counterpart.
"I had developed a lump the size of about half a kiwi fruit on my chest, but it was not sticking out or painful so I really paid no attention to it," says Stephen. "To be honest I am not someone who avoids going to the doctor but I just did not think it was something to worry about because it was not sore. My family have no history of the disease."
However, the biopsy revealed Stephen had "an infiltrating ductile carcinoma", which in layman terms is breast cancer.
"I was told by the consultant that I had HER2, which is a very aggressive form," says Stephen. "I was probably the only man in Ireland who had developed this form of breast cancer that year. So I was thinking, why didn't I win the Lotto instead!"
Luckily, over the last decade this type of cancer has become highly treatable thanks to advances in medication.
"The consultant said that if he had told me this about nine years ago it would be quite bad news, so I knew I was lucky," says Stephen. "On the Friday when I found out I knew I had to tell family and friends. It was quite hard saying to my parents, and the kids. At the time one was doing their Junior Cert and the other the Leaving Cert. But there is never a good time. They focused on the fact it was cancer – didn't really care it was breast cancer. To be honest, once I found out it was treatable I was not worried."
However, five days later, when Stephen had the lump removed the surgeons discovered complications.
"As well as removing the lump they also found two nodes and one of those was cancerous," says Stephen. "So a second surgery was needed for them to remove all the lymph nodes from under my left arm. That has left me with lymphedema, which is a swelling of the arm. I have to be constantly careful about infections and I am constantly fatigued, but you just have to get on with it. So while the cancer has cleared, the lymphedema is a constant reminder and something I have to live with for the rest of my life."
In January it will be four years since Stephen was first diagnosed.
"I see a doctor every six months now I have the all-clear and they check me out," he says. "I am much improved but I will never get back to the way I was before the cancer. But I am glad the chemotherapy is all over. I lost all my hair, which isn't as bad for men as it is for women, but I did look weird with no eyebrows [laughs].
"From an awareness point of view I just hope more men realise that they not only have to look out for prostate, lung or skin cancer. I was pretty shocked I suppose because I had no idea men could get breast cancer. It is a stupid thing to say but you would not think twice about men getting skin cancer, because men and women have skin. But men have breasts as well and therefore we need to be very aware that it is a possibility."