A builder had to have a mastectomy after an ‘insect bite’ turned out to be breast cancer.
Male breast cancer rates are low in comparison to women’s, but men are 19 per cent less likely to survive five years post-diagnosis as they’re usually diagnosed later.
Around 400 men are told they have the disease in the UK every year but many are unaware they can even have breast cancer. This means they are less likely to see their doctor when early signs arise which can lead to devastating outcomes.
Late diagnosis may also mean cancer patients have to undertake tougher treatments.
This was the case with Keith Parker, 62, from Poole, Dorset who was diagnosed in December 2020. Mr Parker originally found his lump in October, but as a former pond builder, thought it was an insect bite.
He said it never crossed his mind that the small itchy red dot could have been breast cancer until in December, when he woke up with a “searing pain” in his chest.
After concerning blood tests, Keith was diagnosed within a matter of days after finally going to the hospital and in early January he had a mastectomy followed by several rounds of chemotherapy. By the time he had his mastectomy, his tumour had grown from 6mm to 32mm.
“Men don’t know they can get it until it’s too late,” he said. “Getting diagnosed earlier could’ve changed my treatment because I probably wouldn’t have had to do the harsh chemotherapy.
“I had no chance of going back to work in manual labour after my mastectomy. On a personal level, I’m half the man I was.
“Within a week of chemotherapy all my hair had fallen out, I had mouth and nose ulcers and a horrible taste in my mouth which left me struggling to eat – I lost about three stone in six months. As a result of treatment my fingernails and toenails also dropped off, I have severe nerve damage and I’ve lost my teeth. I feel that cancer has taken so much from me.”
Debi Richens lost her father, Peter Burns, to breast cancer in 2013 just 70 days after he was initially diagnosed.
Despite being a 78-year-old with Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, which increases the risk of having a BRCA gene fault and therefore developing breast cancer, Mr Burns was unaware he could have breast cancer and was never offered a screening.
Ms Richens said she thinks his outcome would have “absolutely” been different had he been more aware and diagnosed sooner.
“There was no way of going back,” she said. “It was too far gone by the time he was diagnosed. By that point it was sitting in his lungs.”
Ms Richens said she believed her father first began showing symptoms in early 2012 but had no suspicions of breast cancer. In January 2013 Mr Burns went to A&E as his umbilical hernia began to bleed and blood tests were carried out. After several months of testing, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in April 2013.
She added that even after diagnosis her father struggled with coming to terms with a male breast cancer diagnosis which impacted their relationship.
“He didn’t actually know how to tell me about it,” she said. “He didn’t know how to. He became very matter-of-fact about it and kept me at arm’s length because he was embarrassed to talk about it.
“He forbade me from going to see him so I didn’t see him until the day he was dying. It was very difficult for me as we were very close at that point.”
The reduced survival rates are not because male breast cancer is more aggressive.
Prevent Breast Cancer expert and consultant breast surgeon Dr Rajiv Dave told The Independent: “Stage for stage, male breast cancer outcome is similar to the female breast cancer, but men need to improve early pick-up.
“Stage means the extent of disease - so as long as you catch it early, then outcomes are the same as in women. This difference in outcomes is due to the fact that men present later.
“Male breast cancer forms one per cent of all breast cancer. But men are not encouraged as much as women to examine themselves,” Dr Dave said.
“Men will present at a later stage as they don’t check as regularly. Men will often have a tumour which is a lower grade but a larger size because it’s not found early enough.”
“If you have a larger tumour in a smaller breast you are more likely to have a mastectomy. Because it can present at a more advanced stage it might be more likely to be node positive and therefore more likely to get further treatment such as chemo or radiation.”
James Richards, 37, founded Moobs, an organisation dedicated to raising awareness and support for male breast cancer. Having been diagnosed with stage three breast cancer himself in February this year, James had noticed the lack of life-saving information for men available.
“I was doing my research and I realised the real problem is communication. You think about the language and the iconography around breast cancer and it’s got it’s own sort of identity, it’s very feminine in nature. And I thought, it’s no surprise that I didn’t know men could get breast cancer.”
Mr Richards discovered a small pea-sized lump in a work meeting when he folded his arms. Thankfully, a colleague encouraged him to visit his GP, but it still took him four weeks to think about booking an appointment as he thought it would be a “waste” of his GP’s time.
Following his diagnosis, he found all literature given to him by the hospital was aimed towards women.
“Comparing the numbers of men and women being diagnosed you can completely appreciate that all of those resources are aimed towards women. But each of those 400 men diagnosed is a story. It’s someone’s grandfather or father or son or uncle.
“No one should die of ignorance, particularly if it’s not of their own doing. So it’s important that these people get some support.”
He is now an advocate for changing the gendered language in breast cancer literature and hopes to raise more awareness of breast cancer in men and common symptoms.
Breast Cancer Now’s Senior Clinical Nurse Specialist, Louise Grimsdell says: “It’s important that men get used to checking their chest regularly and are aware of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer. The most common symptom is a lump in the chest area which is often painless.
“Other symptoms may include discharge from the nipple, a tender or inverted nipple, ulcers on the chest or nipple, or swelling of the chest area or lymph nodes under the arm.”
If you find a lump or experience any of the above symptoms, contact your GP as soon as possible.