In 2019, 164 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia. That means that 1 in 675 men will be diagnosed in their lifetime.
More than 3000 Australians will die from the genetic disease this year, including 32 men.
Which is why breast cancer survivor Mark Martin is teaming up with the National Breast Cancer Foundation to raise awareness about the disease that, despite popular belief, can still affect men.
In 2012, Martin was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 46 after discovering a growing lump on his chest. The father-of-three actually had scar tissue on the side of his nipple from when he had a boil lanced at 12-years-old.
“It had always been quite lumpy as I grew up and over 5-6 months in 2012 I’d noticed it getting increasingly larger. An off chance comment to a GP led to a needle biopsy and subsequent diagnosis,” explains Martin.
With so little education around breast cancer in men, Martin was in shock following the revelation.
“Disbelief. Even 12 months or so after the mastectomy I still struggled to believe that is what had been chopped out. There was one side which said – the medical profession got it wrong,” he continues.
“They simply chopped out the old scar tissue from when I was 12-Years-old, and there was the other which said ‘no, you’ve a pathology report’ which confirms it was cancer.”
In men, causes typically stem from other conditions such as Klinefelter’s syndrome (a rare genetic condition), cirrhosis (severe liver disease) or testicle abnormalities. Like women, family history also plays a huge role, as does any hormone treatment. But the cause of Martin’s diagnosis is still up in the air.
“I’m learning stuff all the time. Recently a new GP suggested my cancer was due to trauma because of the scarring. That is the first time I’d heard that as a possibility. Helps me understand maybe why I got it as there has never been any real reason suggested.”
In Martin’s case, treatment fortunately wasn’t complicated. But the process took a huge mental toll on him.
“I got a mastectomy with four sentinel nodes removed. No radiotherapy as I had a clear margin and no chemotherapy as my nodes were also clear. I was told to watch and wait with the treatment, which in itself is a mind game. This was the biggest side effect – challenge. It takes about 6-7 months to get your head straight.”
Despite the support from his family and friends, Martin still felt alone in his treatment. Which is why he wants to awareness for a disease that men don’t think twice about.
“You do feel a bit odd and isolated. At the time I did not think men could get it and still 7 years after the event I have never come across or met any other man who’s had breast cancer.
“I’m afraid to say the facts speak for themselves. Ninety-nine per cent, it is a women’s disease – those are the stats. However I’ve drawn immense strength by standing alone. It has given me an inner strength where I had a challenge thrown down.
“There is nothing you can do other than tackle it head on. Embrace it, take day by day, and draw strength by defeating it. I would say to any man – you are more of a man by defeating essentially a woman’s disease than defeating a man’s disease.
“Unlike other men tackling say prostate cancer, you are tackling a disease essentially associated with women. That adds the additional dimension of having to get your head straight, and deal with any adverse implications that maybe you are not as much of a man as the next. Once time has taken you through the worst you feel stronger on a daily basis,” he adds.
“I have not only got through it – no other choice really, but I am ready to tackle any roadblocks thrown down and smash them out of the way. I am stronger because of my experience. Others should feel the same.”
Symptoms to look out for
Dr. Kristen Fernandez previously told Men’s Health that guys are quick to dismiss lumps on their chest, often putting it down to a knock while doing some hard yakka.
Although initially painless, lumps can become more tender. If the cancer begins to spread, you’ll notice swelling in the lymph nodes (typically located near your head and neck region, as well as in your armpits and groin area), or around the collar bone.
Perhaps a more obvious symptom. If you start to notice abnormalities around the nipple, it could well be a sign of tumour growth. When the tumour expands, it can actually pull on ligaments inside the breast, explains Fernandez. This can cause inverted nipples, typically surrounded by dry, scaly skin.
While it’s not uncommon to spill some water on your shirt, if you notice stains appear on the same mark every time, this could well be nipple discharge, Fernandez continues. It’s possible for your nipple duct to leak if there’s too much fluid built up in the tumour.
This is an extreme case. According to Fernandez, you may develop open sores on the nipple if the tumour is “almost growing through the skin. That’s a cancer that’s sort of been ignored.” Usually, these sores will look like a picked pimple, she adds.