I didn’t think a man could get breast cancer.” That was how most people reacted when Michael Rubenstein told them about his illness. Not that their surprise was the first thing on his mind. “I was too worried about having cancer to care too much about the fact that, usually, my illness only affects women,” he says.
The 59-year-old father of two from Enfield, north London was diagnosed with the disease in 2008. Male breast cancer is rare — there are only 300 new cases a year in the UK, compared to over 45,500 female cases.
At first he noticed a painful cyst near his left nipple. “Every five or six weeks it would appear on a Friday and be gone by the Monday. I ignored it because I assumed it was stress related, since at the time I was being made redundant. But when it appeared a fourth time, I got worried and went to my GP.”
His doctor sent him for an ultrasound test, which was followed by a core biopsy, an operation to remove tissue around the cyst for examination. “I became nervous,” he says, “it sounded like I could have a major health problem.”
“I was half-expecting bad news,” his wife Susan says. “The only thing keeping me hopeful was I thought the chances of a man having cancer in that area were impossible.”
Two days after the operation, Michael was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I was stunned,” he says. “A voice in my head was asking: ‘how long do I have left to live’.”
Only after the initial shock of the diagnosis did the unusual nature of his case hit home. “The first thing that showed me just how odd my situation was, was the fact that all the leaflets in the hospital dealing with breast cancer were written for women. There was no literature in the hospital, and very little online, for male sufferers.”
A full-body scan determined that the cancer had not spread to his other organs, but Michael still had to undergo a full mastectomy. Seventeen lymph nodes were removed from underneath his left nipple, seven of which had been identified as cancerous. “The left-hand side of my chest was completely flattened and I was left with a large scar across it,” he says. “The doctors also removed the nipple. In women, it’s a common procedure to do reconstruction surgery, but with men I don’t think they are as conscious of the cosmetic issues. Only after all my treatment had finished and I mentioned that I felt strange with the way I looked, did they offer me any remedy. I still feel self-conscious about my appearance, but I haven’t taken them up on their offer because I just can’t face going back to the hospital.”
News of Michael’s illness was met with disbelief among family and friends. “Most people couldn’t believe a man could suffer breast cancer. Our two sons were devastated,” he says.
“Between the operation and beginning chemotherapy. I looked for a support network, but there were no groups that dealt with men with breast cancer. In fact, my doctor told me that he had seen only one other man that year with the same condition and in his experience, seeing two male victims in one year was rare. In the end I went to Chai Cancer Care and they really helped me during the chemotherapy.”
Michael was treated with the same drugs as given to women sufferers. “I lost all my hair except my eyebrows, but since I was practically bald anyway I was more perturbed by my toe nails which went black,” he says. “But I began to suffer from severe pains in my joints which got worse with each cycle of chemo. Even now, months later, my fingers and feet are still numb from the damaged nerve endings. The pain got so bad that by my last treatment I told the oncologist that I didn’t know if I could cope any more. He gave me three options: to continue as I had been, to reduce the strength of my medication or to stop the treatment. Because it was male breast cancer, and therefore relatively uncharted territory, the doctors could only give me options rather than being more prescriptive. I chose to have my medication reduced to 75 per cent strength and went ahead with my last cycle.”
But all the discomfort, which included a course of radiotherapy which left his skin burnt, became insignificant when he was told that the treatment had worked and he had a clean bill of health. “I have since had check-ups and am waiting for a mammogram, but for now they feel I am all clear,” he says.
“It was a very difficult journey, made harder by the fact that there were so few other people having gone through the same thing. That is why it is so important for me to reach out to others going through what I did and let them know that they can survive it.”