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Roger was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. He talks about his experience as a gay man going through treatment, and why there needs to be better support for men diagnosed with breast cancer.
I tell my story, because someone is going to turn up who needs to know that another gay man has walked this path before them.
In December 2015 I felt a lump on my chest. I went to my doctor, who referred me to a specialist. They suggested the lump might be a side effect of some medication I had been taking, but to be sure I was to undergo tests.
I had a mammogram, then a biopsy. Following that, I had another appointment with the specialist. My husband was with me when I found out that I had breast cancer. I heard all the words that were spoken to me, but I was too shocked to take it all in.
I was told I would need to have a mastectomy and a lymph node removal. We returned home in a stunned quietness, taking stock of the news. What was clear from the appointment was that I wasn’t going to have to go through this alone. I felt grateful.
Following my mastectomy, the second operation for lymph node removal involved a longer stay in hospital. I was placed in a ward surrounding by loud men. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to be so openly out and gay in front of them.
To my shame I asked my husband that when he visited, he shouldn’t kiss me. I wasn’t in the situation where I felt safe to be myself. It would have been helpful to have some LGBTQ+ staff around to make me feel supported.
A course of radiotherapy followed. Travelling to the hospital was tiring, but I was hopeful that I was keeping the cancer at bay.
I felt strong enough to start exercising again, which did my mind and body a lot of good. I felt the need to search out others in the same situation as me, but I was unsuccessful.
I knew that around 370 men were diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the UK. There would be value in us all sharing our experiences and supporting each other. I also hoped that I would find other gay men to connect with. I got in touch with a lot of breast cancer charities who were helpful. My Macmillan nurse told me about a handful of other men in Kent with the condition but for reasons of confidentiality it was not possible to arrange contact. I started to think that I was the only gay man in the country with breast cancer.
I know other men might have felt ashamed of their diagnosis. Breast cancer is still perceived as a women’s disease, and some men might find it difficult to discuss the side effects of treatment. For example, tamoxifen can cause side effects ranging from hot flushes even to erectile dysfunction and this may not be easy for men to talk about.
As a gay man, I felt like the health professionals around me could have engaged a lot more with my sexuality. It meant a lot to me when my Macmillian nurse started every conversation with the words ‘How’s Nigel?’, asking about my husband. I didn’t want to be treated the same as everyone else, I wanted to be treated with my gayness as a feature of how they considered me as a patient.
I think that men with breast cancer need to attempt to co-ordinate as a group. We need each other and it’s insufficient to see us as honorary members of the larger group of women who have also been diagnosed.
We are not just a small part of a larger whole. We need to be clearer about the nature of male breast cancer. Breast cancer charities and organisations need to be proactive in showing concerns for the needs of men with the condition.
Men with breast cancer are not an adjunct. They are separate and distinctive. They need to have their place acknowledged.
You can find more information and support on male breast cancer on our information pages.