Breast Cancer in men

Other people's reactions to breast cancer in men

Most of the men who were interviewed had chosen to be very open about having breast cancer. Their reasons for wanting people to know, or not minding if they found out, were quite varied. Many of them wanted to tell everyone and felt that they should ‘spread the word’ that men could get breast cancer because so few people, often themselves included, had known about breast cancer in men before their diagnosis.


David told ‘every Tom, Dick and Harry’ about his breast cancer so that they would know that men...

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Age at interview: 57
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 52

So once you told your family about… and you’d had the day here with the four of you, who else did you tell after that?

I told obviously my immediate family. You know, as I said, my mum is the only one alive now, so… tell my mum and she tells everybody, you know? It goes round. Yeah, I weren’t frightened to tell anybody. Told the work colleagues, you know? I’ve got a diagnosis. I didn’t want to… because I’d never heard of it, why should I keep it quiet? If it’s happened to me, it could happen to somebody else, simple as. So, you know, a lot of people I didn’t know, you know? I didn’t know. I told my man to check himself now, not only his nether regions but his chest as well, you know? Which is a good thing. So I tell every Tom, Dick and Harry. They bore me. They’ve made me a sort of, well, a cardboard box and put ‘[participant]’s soapbox’ so when I get going they just bring it out.
Was there anyone you didn’t tell?
No. I don’t think so, no.

Other men were quite happy for other people to know they had breast cancer, but they didn’t necessarily go out of their way to tell people. Derek said it ‘wasn’t something that you stood at the top of the street and shouted’, although the news could ‘spread like wildfire’. Others felt that it was just easier if other people knew. Some said that they shouldn’t need to keep it secret or feel embarrassed about having breast cancer.

Bernard was willing to talk to anyone who wanted to talk to him about his breast cancer. He found...

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Age at interview: 59
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 56

 And what about telling other people, outwith the family? Do you tell people?

Eh… Ach if I’m sitting at work and that and there’s maybe agencies in and they’ll talk about it, I’ve seen people talking about oh, such and such, they’ve got breast cancer, and I’ll go like that, “well I know how they’re feeling now, because I had it”, and they don’t believe me you know. I say “well I can assure you I did, I wouldn't lie about anything like that” you know. But, I wouldn't go about girning [complaining] about it or anything like that you know, just maybe- if anybody wanted to talk to me about it, I would talk to them you know.
So you’ve been quite open about your diagnosis then?
I mean people knew sort of in the area that you had breast cancer at the time, and you were getting treatment for it?
Oh aye, aye. They all knew, everybody round about. Well it’s like- just- you win a hunner pound the day and when you get to the end of the street it’s ten thousand pound, do you know what I mean? Know what I mean?

Michael found that his illness soon became public knowledge, and he found that people were very...

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Age at interview: 67
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 57

Were you able to talk to other friends or (overtalk) breast cancer?

Yes, one I… once it became fairly public knowledge because I didn’t actually hide it there was several ladies who, among our group of friends, who actually said, “oh we’d had it”, you know, and “I had it and I’m fine now so don’t worry about it and that’s… we’re still praying for you in the church” so that was you know, that was all more support. My wife was very supportive and my family who were really I think at one point, wanted to wrap me up in cotton wool and pack me off somewhere. That’s how I think they wanted to do.
Did you find that difficult or…?
No, no, no, no, they’re… I’m very blessed with my family actually, they’re lovely you know, two lovely grandchildren as well. So, yeah, it just… I think it probably would have been harder if I’d kept quiet about it and not actually told anybody and said, don’t tell anybody except the family.
So, did you consider that at all or did you
No I didn’t actually… I’m afraid…
…just decide almost immediately that you wanted to just tell people?
Oh, yes, yeah. Well, people you know, when I said, “I was going to have an operation”, they said, “what for?” And the men’s group that I belong to in the church, they were very supportive and (cough) they… everybody was actually. I didn’t even actually find anybody embarrassed to talk about it. I suppose if they had have been they would have spoken about it. Yeah, I found being open about it was a lot easier. I’m like that anyway, why hide it?
However, not everyone felt comfortable telling people that they had breast cancer. Some chose only to tell their close family and friends, and acquaintances did not know. Stuart was only happy to be open about his illness once he had had a chance to get over the initial shock of his diagnosis.

Bob thought it would be better for him if not too many people knew, and a lot of his friends didn...

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Age at interview: 67
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 63

So who was it that you told about the breast cancer?

Well, my wife did it, mostly.
And were you happy for her to do that?
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, let’s put it this way – yes and no. Yes and no. Because I thought it were a stigma, you know? As long as the… more people didn’t know much about it, it would be better for me. I mean, I were going backwards and forwards to hospital.
Why did you think it would be better for you?
Because I thought I like to keep things to meself, but I have to tell them why, because the point is she looks after me.
How did it make you feel as a man having breast cancer?
Well, like I say, I don’t like taking my shirt off in summer cos people look at you. It don’t matter what you got, people really look at you but you’re not bothered. I’m not bothered, it’s just embarrassment. And now I’ve got it, so what can I do about it? Just…
Is the embarrassment the worst thing about it?
Oh yeah. 
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Mohammad only felt happy about telling his family and a few close friends. He felt it would cause...

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Age at interview: 45
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 40

And did you tell anybody outside the family?

No, no. When I had the operation, my friends and relatives, they visit me in hospital. When they come up and see me they know all about this problem. Otherwise nobody knows. Nobody, no.
You prefer to just keep it in the family?
Yes. Some of my friends, they know. They know. But nobody, anyone else.
Nobody knows.
And do you think that’s easier?
That’s easiest way. Try to… keep with your family and your close friends. Share with them. Otherwise when you go like publicly, then you feel very frightened, and more stressful. Your family is all the times encouraging you, not worried. If it happen with you, you feeling very well. Next step is this and- might be you’re feeling very comfortable. If you’re telling like all the publics, I’ve got this problem, and then you feel very stressed.
So the more people you tell the more stressful-
Yeah, more stressful. If somebody know they ask you straight away. But problem I’m not taking very seriously, I’m taking very lightly, I’m feeling very well and this and this.
So that’s been very helpful for you to not tell too many people. Just your family and you’ve had a lot of support from them and from your religion?
Yeah close friends. They know what’s the problem with you and tell them. And if you share it with someone like I’m sharing it with my brothers, and we’re joking with that. 
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Mike C had had to let some people know that he had been ill when he went into hospital, but he...

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Age at interview: 70
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 66

I was just asking about, you were just saying sort of chosen not to tell many...

Oh yeah as I say, I had to take leave of absence from the rotary club, so I mean obviously they knew, I didn’t.
Because they, they depute somebody to check how you are, “Don’t make any fuss about it please, just say I’m ill and I can’t…” It sort of half got out I think so. But again, by not making a fuss, people just say “you alright now” and I say “yes” and that’s it.
Yeah, and that’s how… you just feel much more comfortable with dealing with it that way.
I don’t want any, I don’t want any fuss made whatsoever.
I mean I can’t, I just don’t, as simple as that, and the same as down the pub, because the landlord is also a member of this rotary club, so he knew that I’d just quietly said to, you know the, two or three very good friends, I’ve known 30 years, you know, “don’t make a fuss please, just, don’t tell everybody, just if people ask you, you can tell ‘em, but just don’t, generally keep it quiet.” And then as I say most people don’t know.
The men found that news of their diagnosis provoked some very varied reactions in other people. Most people were shocked or surprised because they didn’t realise that men could get breast cancer. Sometimes this shock took the form of frank disbelief.

David said that, even five years on from his diagnosis, he still finds that many people don’t...

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Age at interview: 57
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 52

 It’s never, ever… it were never, ever mentioned that men could get breast cancer. I know it’s a few years down the line, but no, it were just a general shock. Oh, didn’t know men could get it, you know? It’s still happening today. I didn’t know men could get it. I remember being on a course with Breast Cancer Care in Sheffield and we were staying at a hotel and having a drink at the bar and the guy went “oh, you know, are you part of the delegation?” and I said “no, I’m a patient”. “What? You have…?” “Yeah”. “I didn’t know men could get it”. So we spent an evening with him, telling him that men could get it, you know? Really, really strange. And they say we’re now five years down the line and people are still going “men don’t get breast cancer, I’ve never known that.” So it’s still shocking.

A few men felt that people didn’t know what to say when they heard about their illness and they worried about causing them embarrassment or discomfort. 

Robert didn’t want to make a big deal of his illness. He found that people were surprised when he...

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Age at interview: 70
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 70

 So how did you tell your wider family and friends?

Just when I met them – I didn’t make a big deal of it, you know?
And what was their reactions?
Probably quite, you know, the fact that it was – not the fact it was cancer, the fact it was breast cancer which surprised most of them, yeah. Again, coz it was a male – that surprised most, that surprised them all, probably.
So were they, how were they in their reactions when they were surprised – did you find them quite…
Quite quiet.
Quite quiet.
Not saying too much about it, you know?
Right – so they weren’t too inquisitive about it?
Didn’t say too much about it.
Right – do you think that’s because they didn’t know what to say, or they just couldn’t get over the shock themselves?
I think probably weren’t quite sure what to say because it was breast cancer, you know? And men don’t get breast cancer. They probably didn’t know what to say. But that didn’t mean to say that they weren’t supportive – probably just didn’t know what to say.

John had mixed feelings about telling people. Sometimes he thought people were embarrassed and...

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Age at interview: 65
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 63

But I have… mixed feelings telling other people actually.

Is that because you’ve got cancer or because you’ve got breast cancer?
I don’t know, I don’t know love, I wanted people to know, we’ve got some great friends across the road and I phoned them up actually and I said “can you come over I want to see you”, you know. I couldn’t tell them over the phone. And you know, they came over, but other people, I mean, we’ve got marvellous neighbours you know, I wanted them to know, but sometimes I had the feeling people were probably a little bit embarrassed that I’d told them. I got the impression sometimes you know, ‘what you telling me for? What do you want me to do or say?’ Well I don’t mean that in a nasty way. So certain people I did, I found it difficult you know, it was kind of brushed aside you know. So…
And again, do you think people were uncomfortable because they were sorry to hear that you had cancer… or…
Yeah well with hindsight, with hindsight maybe…
Yeah. Or do you think again, for a lot of people it was perhaps the first time they’d heard of men having breast cancer was it and so do you think part of their reaction was to do that?
No, I think with hindsight one or two people I can think of in particular, I think you know they did genuinely feel sorry for me – they didn’t know what to say, it’s like when you lose someone you know – someone’s died you know, what do you say “oh I’m sorry” you know. Of course you’re sorry they’ve gone. But, one or two people I did, I thought I wish I hadn’t said anything actually, even though I want everybody to know, men do get it, type of thing. But, as I say, occasionally I wished I hadn’t had said anything. But, you know…
And that’s because you were having to deal with their discomfort or just....
Yeah whether you know, I think well you know should I have said anything? Or, you know, have I ‘caused them embarrassment, they don’t know what to say, or they don’t know how to react… but getting back to your original question, I remember telling my sister and the first words out of her mouth were, “oh my God I didn’t know a man could get it!”

Sometimes people took some convincing that they actually did have breast cancer initially, but then were very supportive.

Steve had known men could get breast cancer but he found 95% of people initially disbelieved him....

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Age at interview: 58
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 58

And is that both men and women that you’re working alongside?

Yeah. Yeah, yeah. And again, I mean, I spoke to quite senior people in the hospital, and a lot of them were quite surprised that men could get breast cancer. That was an issue, to me, I thought, “Well, people must be told about this.”
So how about you, yourself, before you got your symptoms and everything – were you aware of the fact that men could get breast cancer or…?
Yes, I’d actually worked for a cancer research institute, so, you know, a private cancer research institute, and I, because of my work, I’ve been involved in giving that sort of information out. So I was quite au fait with that.
Right. So it wasn’t, you know, a complete shock to you that men could get breast cancer, obviously being diagnosed yourself is an entirely different thing.
Well, I think the blow was definitely lightened because I was aware that men could get it. It wasn’t a wow factor. It was a “oh” factor, I think is how I saw it.
But would you say the majority of people that you came across then were really surprised to find that you as a man had got breast cancer?
I would probably say about 95 per cent of the people I spoke to, yeah.
Some didn’t believe me! And I actually, I was on a bus, coming back from town, met a friend of mine who I hadn’t seen for a long time, and he said, “Oh, I haven’t seen you for a long time,” I said, “No, I’ve been, I’ve had an operation, had breast cancer.” And he looked at me, and he said, “Nah,” just didn’t believe it. So I actually took my shirt off and showed him. And then he believed me!
So did he you know just openly challenge you, did he... how did he express that disbelief?
He did challenge me, yeah, he said, “Nah, you can’t have,” and I said, “Yeah,” I just showed him the scar – and that was a wow factor for him. He was really nonplussed by that.
So how did he react once, having disbelieved you, and then seeing the scar? Did he...?
He... every time I saw him since, he was really keen to find out, you know, how my treatment was going, and, you know, how I was feeling, and everything. So, you know – I think, when you have something like this, it brings friends out of the woodwork that you don’t, you know, you don’t realise you’ve got. Certainly the, my close network of friends living around here, I mean within, probably, a day, everybody in the neighbourhood knew that I’d gone in. So, you know, jungle drums were working! And I had, you know, it was really nice, cos when I came back, everyone was really surprised that I’d come back so early.
I’m not surprised!
And, yeah, the support was fantastic, really.
That’s great.
And again, my family rallied round, and I was looked after very well by my son and daughter, and my other friends. I mean, they just, you know, endless queues of people coming to see me, so that was nice.

Tom had very supportive reactions from everyone. People were sympathetic and concerned about how...

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Age at interview: 54
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 50

And did you choose to share your diagnosis with people at work from quite an early stage?

Yeah, I was never remotely furtive about it. I… everyone was totally supportive. I mean I told you that there was the odd person who for some reason didn’t get to know, but I don’t quite know how- but I think you know, it was very- you know there are networks around the school so within a short space of time everyone… you know most people knew. And people were very- I think people handled it really well. So there wasn’t the sense of, there wasn’t the sense of going over the top. To being you know terribly sympathetic and worrying and caring, that they were just very supportive. Which is exactly what one would want of course.
It’s quite interesting that a number of people, a number of colleagues from out- some of them outside [place], or old friends, took to ringing me up. You know I hadn’t heard from them, but I was exchanging Christmas cards or whatever, and they took to ringing me up to see how I was. And I think it’s actually been quite upsetting to me that they’ve stopped ringing me (laughs).

Many of the other men had also received supportive reactions from friends, colleagues and neighbours.
Some of the men had had different reactions to their illness from men and women. Some found that other men were uncomfortable talking about it. They tended to change the topic of conversation when their breast cancer came up, and they seemed not to want to know that men could get breast cancer. 

When Eric tried to raise awareness that men could get breast cancer, men didn’t seem to want to...

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Age at interview: 78
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 70

When you were… first got your diagnosis, who did you tell?

Everybody I come into contact with. Spread the word that men can get it.
And what was the reaction of other people?
Other women listened with interest. Men just didn’t want to know. “Oh, that’s a woman’s disease, men don’t get that.”
Right. Were there any men that were interested?
Never found one except this man from [city].
I’ve never found one.
You’ve never had another man apart from that man you met who’d had breast cancer himself, you’ve never had a positive experience of telling someone “I’ve had breast cancer” and they’ve been interested, like a man?
Not really, not really.
When you tell people they say “oh” and that was the end of it. Whether they thought about it when they got home, I don’t know.
How did that make you feel?
Very alone. Very alone.
Who… was there anyone that you didn’t tell?
No, I don’t think there was. Everybody I come into contact with. Just to spread the word, men can get breast cancer.

David chose not to tell a few men who might have a ‘nasty’ reaction. He was pleased when women...

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Age at interview: 72
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 71

 No – I have found that males just say, “oh yes,” and change the conversation. They’re either not interested or they don’t want to know. I think they’re not interested. Females are entirely different – as soon as they hear about it, they’re almost invariably horrified and interested as well too, and supportive.

Did they ask you more questions than men did?
Oh yes – the men didn’t want to, most of them didn’t want to know.
Right – how did that make you feel?
A bit annoyed. As I say, I’m trying to get over to the males to be careful of these things – but they’ve got it in their minds now, so I would imagine that if they do have a problem there, they’ll think back on the conversation and do something about it.
What sort of questions did the women have?
Well, one wanted to feel my seroma, she’s a nurse and she wanted to feel it – she was fascinated by it. I know one or two nurses, and they’re all fascinated by this sort of thing. They just asked me about the side effects of tamoxifen and, you know, the radiotherapy and all that sort of thing.
Right, so they like the gory details, did they?
Yeah, uh huh yeah, because they could very easily have the same problem at some point.
Do you think that’s why they were asking, because they could identify that something…
Oh yes they could yeah. Yes. It always shocks them when I tell them about that.
And how does that make you feel, when they’re asking you these questions?
I’m interested, I’m interested in lots of things.
So are you quite pleased, then, that they take an interest and they’re willing to sort of talk about things?
Yes, uh huh yeah, yes. And some people, when I’m telling, they suddenly disclose that they’ve had cancer of some sort or other, which they normally wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t approached the subject.
Right – so this is people that you’ve known for a while, that you didn’t realise they had been going through cancer at some point?
Why do you think they hadn’t disclosed that?
They probably wanted to keep it to themselves until I triggered it off, and they said, “Oh, I’ve had that problem.” Not male breast cancer, various other types of cancer.
Is this men and women?
Men and women, yeah.
I think you being so open about having breast cancer is a great thing because, as you says, it starts conversation and…
Mm hmm, awareness.
Uh huh, awareness about it. Do you ever not tell people?
No, well there’s one or two people I know perfectly well, if I told them that, they’d probably laugh, you know. There’s some nasty people in the world, as you may know? I don’t tell them. Obviously I keep them at bay.
Do you think they would make jokes because you’re a man with breast cancer?
Yeah. They would, but that’s life. There’s some nasty people, as I say.

Is that men and women like that?

No, no – just men, I would imagine.

And why do you think they’re like that?

Because they’re unpleasant people and they’re always trying to be nasty, and that’s one good way of being nasty. But I haven’t had anybody being nasty to me so far.

Ok – so there are some people, then, that you’ve chosen not to tell?

Em… Yes. I would say yes, uh huh.

Right. Are these men that make jokes, I mean, you’re saying they’re just very unpleasant people, but do you think they’d want to make jokes because you’re a man? You know, they would try and pull you down, take your self esteem away?

Mm hmm.


So we just don’t bother about them at all.

A few men even described how they had had, or feared they might get, openly hostile reactions from other men. By contrast, these men had found that women were often keen to hear more about their illness and wanted to find out how they were feeling.

Tom told people about his illness to let men know they could get it. Women asked questions. Men...

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Age at interview: 65
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 60

 Do you tell people you’ve had breast cancer?

Oh, yeah. I’ve showed many men, many men, cos they didn’t believe me.
And I showed them it. And when they saw it they are, they said “must be right”. You know what I mean? Showed many, many men it, cos they’re embarrassed about it.
They’re embarrassed?
They was embarrassed cos they didn’t believe me at the time – “oh no, no, men can’t get it”, you know what men are, but men can get it, yeah.
Was there anyone that you didn’t tell?
No. I’ve told everybody, told everybody. Even when I was working for a weekend, all the lassies knew. Some of them didn’t believe me. I showed them…
So how were your work colleagues, then, with you?
They was alright. They didn’t believe me when I went back, “we can’t believe it”. I said, “Well, you want to believe it” and like I say, I showed them. I wasn’t embarrassed about showing them and they was really, really surprised men could get it and I think they was really shocked cos it was like a new scar, you know, red like they was more shocked by that.
But a lot of women where I used to work before retiring, there wasn’t, but there was more shocked that men can get it, but no, there’s more people understanding, well, mostly women understanding men can get it, where men can’t believe it, and like I said, yeah, they have to believe it.
Did they ask you questions about it?
The women?
And men.
Yeah, they just asked how I knew it was breast cancer. I said, “At the time I didn’t”. Said, “I didn’t know it was”. I said, “When I walked in the timber it was one of those… it was an accident, I walked into it and then it started swelling and swelling” and I said to them, like I told you, “My wife spotted the nipple going inwards and if it weren’t for her spotting that, I don’t think I’d be here”, cos I would have just left it or it would have got really bad, but she spotted it.
Did you find the reaction between men and women was different or the same?
Yeah. Women was more understanding than men was.
Right. How did they show that?
By, you know, talking to you and asking questions to you. They asked me questions where men didn’t.
Men never asked me questions but women did.
Did the men sort of shy away from it and change subjects or how, did they just…?
Well, they didn’t just ask me the questions, just, you know, there was mostly surprised men get it. Mostly.
So do you feel now you go round educating people?
Oh I do, yeah, cos I’m not embarrassed showing it there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It educates them to show them, fair enough, they might realise and then they might not, might just walk away think nothing about it, but men has to be showed they can get it and they have to be groomed. Men can get breast cancer!

Do you tell them what they should be looking out for? Do you…?

I always tell them, “look for lumps”.


I said “it could be a cyst, it could be gristle, go and check. Just go to your doctor’s and check”. It happened once in the pub with me with a chap about two months ago, and he come over and he said “I don’t want to embarrass you but”, he said, “you had breast cancer.” I said “yeah, yeah.” He said “well, I’ve got a lump here” so I felt the lump… but it weren’t hard. And I said… “are you booked in for owt [anything]” and when he went to the doctor’s and checked it, it was gristle.


But he did go to the doctor’s.

After you…

And he asked me questions like, you know, is it… “What’s the operation like if I’ve got it, and all this and that”. I’ve told him, “Go to your doctor’s, get it seen to”.

Roy had a few ‘snidey’ comments from other men. He challenged one man’s ignorance of breast...

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Age at interview: 67
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 65

I said, “Well, how else can you explain it,” you know? Yeah, I’ve got cancer, you know? They diagnosed I’ve got breast cancer. That was the biggest shock was the breast cancer.

Yeah – for other people or for you?
I think for everybody – breast cancer? You know? And then, obviously, you get the snide remarks, “Oh, must be a bit effeminate or something like that,” you know what I mean?
Did you get that kind of reaction from a few people, then?
From one or two, yeah – one or two. I didn’t take any notice, you know?
Was that from people who had never heard of breast cancer?
Well no, I mean, most men don’t know, really don’t know anything about it, you know women do, obviously, because it’s, you know, like most women, when they get to forty, they start having their mammograms and stuff like that. See, what they’ve done – my daughters can have mammograms now, if they start as soon as they like, and whenever they like – well, virtually now, and they’ve said, you know, if they feel they need to have them done, just come and we’ll do them, you know? But no, I mean, you had one or two snide, silly remarks, really – not snidey, but just, you know… I said to one bloke, I said, “What are you thick? Are you ignorant or something, mate?” You know what I mean? I said, “So if I got testicular cancer, I’m more of a man than coz I’ve got breast cancer? What difference does it make?” You know? And he went, “well,” I said, “Well what difference does it make?” I said, “Whether I’ve got it here, or whether I’ve got it here? It’s still the same thing,” you know? I said, “What difference does it make? I can’t see what difference it makes,” you know? I mean, I didn’t think it was effeminate, at all – I didn’t feel effeminate coz I’d got it, you know? Just one or two sort of silly remarks, you know? But not…

Last reviewed June 2017.
Last updated October 2013. Donate to healthtalk.org
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