Real men wear PINK
Men are generally unaware that they can develop breast cancer, and while the lifetime risk for women of developing breast cancer is one in eight compared to one in 1,000 for men, male sufferers tend to be forgotten amidst the flurry of pink surrounding Oc
How did you first discover you had breast cancer?
The first indication was some blood on my shirt which I thought was a pimple that had burst and which I chose to ignore. Once I had blood the second day, I had a look and sure enough there was a growth.
What was the first thing that went through your mind?
I panicked but truth be told the idea that it could have been breast cancer didn’t even pass through my mind. I immediately met with the doctor and on closer examination he said it could have been one of two things – either breast cancer which is removable, or something else a lot graver.
How did you react to the news?
The first thing that went through my mind was shock. Till then, all I had heard was that men could not suffer from breast cancer. Then, which I think is the standard question everyone asks themselves is ‘Why me?’ I had just retired from the diplomatic corps; I was under the impression that I would live a happy life at a slow pace.
Once the news came in I was under severe stress; until the operation takes place, you don’t know the gravity of the cancer. Once the operation was done, I found myself under even more stress till I was told that everything was successful. If there is one positive about breast cancer, if there even is a plus, is that breast cancer is a growth outside you body, that is to say it does not touch the internal organs of your body, so if it is caught in time, and that is why I stress checking yourself regardless of gender, it is treatable and can prevent the cancer from spreading.
How did people close to you react to the news?
The first reaction was disbelief that I had breast cancer, because in Malta it’s only three or four diagnoses per year, and naturally people don’t understand how a man could get it. I remember meeting doctors who had been practising medicine for 30 odd years who had never seen a case of breast cancer in men.
What is the process like?
The process you follow is exactly the same as women, so you begin with a mammogram, which for men is extremely difficult and quite painful, they then saw the growth, and after conducting a biopsy, they confirmed that it was a cancerous growth that needed to be removed.
Well, first I did the operation, and since my case was not so severe, I did not require chemotherapy. Instead, I was placed on radium for about five weeks and then that was the end of it, but like women, I still have to take a preventative pill which some doctors say you have to take for a minimum of five years.
Two and half years later I had a strain all along my right arm, I was a sporty person and thought nothing of it; unfortunately the same cancer showed up in one of my lymph nodes under my arm, it was an outgrowth, and the radium did not clean enough the area of cancer that there was. I was operated on again and it was removed.
And how did that feel?
Well, its starting all over again I guess, but you just have to embrace it. It isn’t something you’ve caused to yourself, maybe diet has something to do with it, but it isn’t truly something you’ve inflicted directly upon yourself. Ultimately, there’s nothing else to do but fight it as hard as you can. Here in Malta we’re extremely lucky that we have some of the best doctors on the ground. Both my surgeon, Mr Gordon Caruana Dingli, and oncologist, Stephen Brincat, are some of the best doctors in the world. We’re also pretty lucky that we have the best medication over here.
The only thing that remains living with you is that you’ve been touched. Your body, twice, has had a cancerous growth, that obviously puts a shadow on your life; it happened twice, it could happen a third time or even a fourth time. Unfortunately, that shadow remains with you mentally, every time I hear a story about a person with cancer, it opens up that thought again, that the problem could come back.
The first reaction was disbelief that I had breast cancer, because in Malta it’s only 3 or 4 diagnoses per year, and naturally people don’t understand ow a man could get it"
Did any of this change your lifestyle in some way?
It didn’t really. The only way I think I have changed my lifestyle is that I now consider every day a new day, and whatever I can do on that day I don’t put off for the next, because you never really know where tomorrow will take you.
Why do you think men are embarrassed by breast cancer?
I suppose men who are very masculine associate breast cancer with women, therefore they probably feel that if they were to speak up, it would lessen their manhood one way or another, which I think is quite stupid, because at the end of the day health comes before any public image they have of themselves. Ultimately, you have a choice, you could either keep it in and refuse to discuss it until it spreads, or do what you have to do for yourself so you could have a life for years to come.
Do you think men struggle to share their experience?
No doubt about it. The truth is, if someone were to ask me if I knew of any other men who have suffered from breast cancer, I would say no, it’s such a minority. However, I know countless women who have been victims. It seems to me that men are less forthcoming about. I think it’s wrong, and the more we come together and as a chorus sing the same song, we could have a real impact on the future. If we remain an isolated voice, and only speak when we’re asked to, it just won’t work. This is why I am appealing to any man who has suffered from breast cancer, to come forward an speak publically, and if they think we could come together, form a group, do something together, we can raise awareness, and I am more than willing to join in an exercise.
How would you encourage men who are currently going through it to come forward?
Again, this is very important, I want to make myself available to anyone going through the process, so I could give them my advice, share with them my experiences, so they won’t feel lonely when confronting this disease. The thing is, because it’s so rare, there isn’t the comfort in finding another person who went through it, so you’re bound to feel alone, as I was alone since I had no references of people who had suffered from breast cancer.
Do you think that ‘Pink’ tag associated to breast cancer almost stereotypes the cancer?
Well, if you notice all the public campaigning or propaganda that is dished out in October, it’s solely directed to women. All the associations focus on the colour pink, which is purely associated with women. Men who cherish their manhood might almost be embarrassed to be associated with that colour. I mean, I do understand that its pink for a reason, a majority of the sufferers are women so that is who they seek to attract. It makes 100% sense, but it does indirectly exclude from its umbrella me. Then again, this is all cosmetic, the most important thing is always making sure to check yourself and doing what is right for you.
Do you feel that breast cancer NGOs like Pink October or Europa Donna unintentionally marginalize male breast cancer victims?
Without a doubt, but truth be told, men with breast cancer are such a tiny minority, so they focus all their energy in alerting women, that’s why the tiny minority tends to get over looked. Unless we raise our hands and be counted, and constantly remind people that this is a male issue too. In fact, I form part of the committee for action against breast cancer, and therefore I see to it in that each and every activity we do as an association, we make sure to highlight the male reality too.
What would you encourage people to do to raise awareness of this issue?
I would suggest that people, who are either victims of breast cancer or people who just want to help shed light on this issue, should give public lectures on it, even go to places where there are men. You could speak either as a lucky victim or somebody who is just aware of the issue. I also think there should be some videos which are directed solely to men and be made use of; either through public television or private television which is directed at a male audience.
What should the government do to create more support and awareness in male breast cancer?
I think that wherever the government is present in making women understand what they need to do, they should use that same enthusiasm and presence when talking to men. Even if they don’t waste a whole campaign on men, even just mentioning that even men can suffer from it will be important, and what I implore the current government to do is to create a page, directed solely at men, and whatever is on that page applies directly to you. It has to be specifically directed at me, not as a sub note in a whole group of material. It has to be on its own with a male graphic representation.
Do you think that the medical community can do more
The only thing is there are so few doctors know about it. For example, the pills I take every day are specifically designed for women, no one ever tells you what side-effects these pills could have on, we are obviously biologically different to women. Luckily, for me there haven’t been effects like there have been for others – some lose their hair and some get problems with their stomach, for example. Unfortunately, there are only pills for women, not for men.
This is because it is so rare in men, people don’t really spend as much on investigating breast cancer in men, and they do everything they can to help women, which I sort of understand because women are more prone to the disease.
That’s why it so important for people like me to speak up and say ‘Look guys, it’s not just a women’s problem’. The majority are women, but there is a minority of men who suffer from it, and therefore other men shouldn’t think it’s ridiculous when somebody like me tells you to ‘check yourself’ in the same way women check themselves.
Ultimately, it doesn’t make a difference if you’re a man or a woman, if you’ve got breasts or not, even if you’re flat-chested; underneath your nipple, that’s a breast. So you have to check from time to time, and the moment you feel something like a growth go straight to the doctor.
Dr Noel Buttigieg Scicluna