Breast Cancer in men

Experiences as a man in various breast cancer treatment settings

Breast cancer in men is rare.There are about 390 men diagnosed each year in the UK. This compares to around 54,800 cases in women. (Cancer Research UK November 2016). Many people do not know that men can get breast cancer (see 'Other people’s reactions'). In most cases, the men that we interviewed were the only male breast cancer patient to be treated at their hospital. It is perhaps not surprising then that many of the men felt that they had ‘stood out’ in the hospital when they were having tests or treatment for their breast cancer. It was very common for them to come across the assumption that, as a man, they ‘couldn’t’ also be a breast cancer patient. Some men felt embarrassed whilst they were waiting to be seen in the breast clinic and very often medical staff assumed that it must be their wife who was attending the breast clinic as a patient.

Some men also felt self-conscious amongst the other patients, because all of them were women. Michael had had ‘odd stares’ when he was called for his appointment, and other men felt that patients were wondering what they were doing at a breast clinic or would assume that they were accompanying a woman who was waiting for an appointment.
Just one man said that his hospital was starting a special clinic for men with breast cancer. He thought this was “really good” because there would only be male patients in the waiting area and it would give men a chance to talk to each other.
When the men were admitted to hospital for their mastectomy, only a few of them were on the breast care ward (and all of these men were given a private room on the ward). Usually men were admitted to a general male ward, although some men had been admitted to other wards, such as an orthopaedic ward or a ward specialising in treatment for bowel problems. Derek (Interview 24) was told that other patients may be embarrassed if he was on the breast care ward.
There were many circumstances, in both hospital and other settings, in which the men were the first male breast cancer patient that someone had seen. When men had to repeatedly deal with people assuming that a man ‘couldn’t’ have breast cancer some felt angry, frustrated, embarrassed or upset when they had to explain time and again that they had the disease. Tim said that he appreciated the surgeon’s use of humour when he told him that he was the first male breast cancer patient he had operated on. He said he would get a ‘rugby playing doctor friend to come on the team to help pull’ because ‘male muscles are stronger’ .
It was not only at the hospital that men came up against the assumption that a breast cancer patient ‘must’ be a woman. Several had been challenged in other circumstances (see also ‘Other people’s reactions’). For example, Robert had got a funny look from the pharmacist when he took his prescription for tamoxifen into the chemist and he found it ‘frustrating’ that ‘you’ve gotta start explaining yourself’, as he had to do when his optician asked why he was taking tamoxifen. When Michael took his tamoxifen prescription to the chemist, the pharmacist had ‘sidled up’ to him to whisper, “Are you sure this is for you?” Sometimes men were dealt with less sensitively in these situations.
Because they knew that breast cancer in men is rare, some of the men wondered whether they had got the same treatment as women with breast cancer. Some felt that they had been at a disadvantage, particularly because there were not any research trials available for men. Several were aware that research on the best treatment for breast cancer had been conducted on women and so the findings might be less applicable to them.
Being the only male patient with breast cancer was not always seen as a bad thing. Michael appreciated that the staff took a great deal of trouble to explain everything to him and that they ‘didn’t treat me as a freak’. A few of the men felt that they were almost treated like a celebrity and were given special treatment.

Last reviewed June 2017.
Last updated June 2017.
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