Five years ago, at the age of 79, Sheffield Edwards was told he had breast cancer. Edwards, a retiree who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. had recently undergone a double bypass heart surgery and developed a small lump in his left breast that he assumed was a side effect of the surgery.
“Honestly, I used to play with it. (Later) when I went to the doctor, he was examining me and asked, ‘What’s wrong with that?’” Edwards recalled. “When I explained, he took me to get a mammogram and they found out it was cancerous.”
Like most men, Edwards never thought the lump could be breast cancer. Upon receiving his diagnosis, he set up an appointment with a surgical oncologist and was scheduled for a mastectomy.
“It was a surprise because I never knew or heard of men with breast cancer,” he said. “To me, that was something women got but they had to operate and cut the whole thing off.”
While Dr. Ralph George, a surgical oncologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, says some men may feel emasculated by dealing with what is often regarded as a female disease, Edwards approached the situation in a different manner.
“I didn’t get any ill feelings about it. I was just interested in seeing if I could get rid of it,” he said. “I just took it as it came. Everything went well and after the surgery I started getting chemo.”
One per cent of all breast cancer patients are male. Every year hospitals in Toronto see a handful of men who are diagnosed with the disease. These men, who usually range from the ages of 60 to 70, may have discovered a lump or had an inverted nipple and thought nothing of it. A routine check-up at the doctor’s office can result in a breast cancer diagnosis.
“It’s generally not well known that it’s possible,” George said. “I think some of them feel that their masculinity itself has sort of been challenged by getting a female-associated tumour.”
George says the biggest issue with male breast cancer is that most men don’t feel supported as a man dealing with this disease.
“In our cancer centre there’s nothing (specific) for men,” he said. “We have the support we have for women but there’s nothing specific for men. They’re just plugged into the system we have for women.”
The main reason for the lack of male-specific support is simply because of the low numbers of men who are diagnosed yearly as well as the way men are raised in western culture, he says. The majority of men simply don’t address their health issues early.
“Men are a little harder to reach in these situations,” George said. “It doesn’t mean they won’t benefit from it, but they’re harder to reach. It’s probably more cultural … Men aren’t ‘allowed’ to be needy.”
Virginia Yule, executive director of Willow Breast Cancer Support Canada, located in Toronto, says that men who are diagnosed with breast cancer aren’t necessarily looking for emotional support from an outside source.
“Men seek support differently than women do,” Yule said. “The support they are looking for, a majority of time, concerns information to help them make decisions or to understand information that they are receiving from their oncologists.”
The reason she believes men are looking for information more than anything else is due in part to the unfamiliar territory they’re now in.
“Anybody diagnosed with cancer suddenly enters a whole new world with new terminology,” she said. “You have a limited time with your doctor and so often you have questions afterwards.”
While most women with breast cancer seek support through a group forum, which Yule says can be considered an important step in the healing process, Edwards didn’t feel as though he needed it. He was invited to a support group through the Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, and even though he says he received useful information, he wasn’t seeking emotional support.
Edwards has now been cancer-free for five years and continues to focus on leading a healthy and positive life.
“I don’t allow it to bother me,” he said. “I try to put it out of my thoughts and go along with the doctors and hope that everything works out all right.”