Sunday 24 March 2019

'The doctor said, while breast cancer in men was unusual, it wasn't unheard of' - Seamus Bennett on his shock diagnosis

When Seamus Bennett was diagnosed with breast cancer, he was stunned. He tells Joy Orpen he had no idea that men could fall victim to this form of cancer. But having had a mastectomy, he is now doing well again

Seamus Bennett. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Seamus Bennett. Photo: Steve Humphreys

What does Portmarnock resident Seamus Bennett have in common with TV personality Sharon Osbourne, and actors Richard Roundtree (Shaft), Angelina Jolie and Kathy Bates? He, like all of them, had to undergo a double mastectomy. That men can even get breast cancer comes as a total surprise to most people. But unfortunately, not so long ago, Seamus found himself in that unenviable position. Nonetheless, he has chosen to talk openly about his difficult ordeal so that other men's lives can be spared, and because he's so grateful to all the nurses and doctors involved in his recovery.

Seamus's ordeal began in August 2017, when the seatbelt in his car began chafing the left side of his chest. Then, two weeks later, he felt a lump in the breast area, so he went to his GP, who referred him to the Beaumont Hospital Breast Centre. "I was surprised," says Seamus. "But the doctor said while breast cancer in men was unusual, it wasn't unheard of. He said about 20 males present with it in Ireland each year."

Just five days later, Seamus had a mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy. A week later, he and his wife, Judy, met consultant surgeon Colm Power, who confirmed that Seamus had breast cancer.

"He was also concerned - given that there is a strong history of breast cancer in my family, and the fact that I was a male with breast cancer - that I could have a BRCA [genetic] mutation. If that was the case, he suggested I might be better served by a double mastectomy, as the chances of a breast cancer on the other side were as high as 40pc," Seamus says, adding, "He was also of the opinion that I would probably need chemotherapy, and, most likely, radiotherapy."

This was all earth-shattering news for this 73-year old father of four. "I was completely shocked," he says. "I had always been careful to have tests every year to identify if I was going to get prostate cancer. But to be honest, I never thought breast cancer could develop in the male. I decided, at that meeting, I would have a double mastectomy. I felt, rather than go through the pain twice, I would rather go through all the suffering at the one time."

Seamus, who is generally speaking, quite reticent, also made the decision to talk openly about this difficult time in his life. "I'd seen others who'd had cancer who didn't talk about it, and I didn't think that helped them," he explains. "Within a day or two, we had told the family, who were naturally very shocked."

A fortnight later, Seamus was admitted to hospital. When he came around from the anaesthetic, he was somewhat disorientated. He also realised that it wasn't his chest area that troubled him, but his lower back.

"They thought that might be due to the hardness of the operating table," says Seamus. "But that soon disappeared." He also had to get used to the fact that he had drains in both breasts. They were needed to prevent a build-up of fluid which could hinder healing, and to prevent infection. Once he was discharged from hospital, Seamus had to return every few days to have the site drained.

Following surgery, which also entailed the removal of a number of lymph nodes, further concerns were raised about the possibility that Seamus had inherited a defective gene, known as the breast cancer BRCA gene. Having BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 means there is a greatly increased risk of developing this form of cancer. While Seamus was shocked, he wasn't totally surprised. "Cancer is very prevalent in my late father's large family," he volunteers. "Probably half of them died from cancer." He is currently undergoing genetic testing to get more insight into the matter.

He also learned that 25 of the 30 lymph nodes removed during surgery were diseased, so he needed to begin chemotherapy as quickly as possible. Specialist oncologist Patrick Morris offered him two forms of treatment, and he chose the more aggressive approach, as it was deemed to be the "Rolls Royce" of cancer treatments.

Once it began, Seamus struggled. "I found it very difficult," he admits. "I lost my appetite for all kinds of food, and I couldn't sleep. I'd sit at the table, but I just couldn't eat the dinner. So I'd have to come back later and try again." He did so because he had been warned that he should do his very best not to lose too much weight, as that could impact on his recovery. Following four months of chemotherapy, Seamus got a two-week break before beginning radiotherapy five days a week for five weeks, under consultant radiation oncologist Clare Faul at St Luke's Centre at Beaumont Hospital.

Then one Sunday, a week into the treatment, he felt fluid building up in his ears, so he consulted an emergency doctor, who prescribed medication. Later that day, Judy went out on an errand. When she returned a few hours later, she found her husband in a coma on the floor.

Having called emergency services, Seamus was rushed to Beaumont Hospital, where he was very quickly diagnosed with meningitis. A deep line was inserted in his neck to make absolutely sure drugs needed to save his life were delivered safely. Seamus woke up two days later. He was feeling surprisingly well, given that he'd been at death's door. "I never realised you could die without knowing it," he says enigmatically. He says his recovery may have been assisted by the fact that as an "added precaution", his GP had given him a shot of vaccine to prevent pneumonia when he was giving him his flu jab. "I was told that probably reduced the impact of the meningitis," says Seamus. So for the next couple of weeks, he was ferried from his bed in Beaumont Hospital to St Luke's Centre to complete his essential radiotherapy.

And even though Seamus could hardly walk following the meningitis, he's now up and about, looking surprisingly fit and healthy. This whole experience has undoubtedly been difficult and life-changing for him and his family. But what is very apparent is the gratitude he feels.

"The treatment I got at Beaumont was second to none," he says emphatically. "The porters, physios, nurses, doctors and consultants were all absolutely outstanding, in both the private and the public sectors. They looked after me brilliantly. But what most impressed me, was the empathy that they have for patients - it's quite outstanding."

Beaumont Hospital Foundation has launched a €1m fundraising appeal to complete a standalone breast clinic. To support the campaign, see beaumontfundraising.ie

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