31, male, and diagnosed with breast cancer - Understanding life’s curveball
Chris Iverson, 32, moved with his family to Witney aged nine and went to the local Henry Box School. After sixth form, he pursued his urge to travel and worked at the Elephant Valley project in Cambodia for five years, moving on to become community eco-tourism manager for the Jahoo gibbon project, also in Cambodia. In 2021, at the age of 31, he was diagnosed with breast cancer after discovering discharge from his nipple. This is his story in his own words…
Halfway through 2021, and after five years of living in Cambodia, my body decided to throw up a red flag and alert me to some suspicious cellular activity in my left breast. The only sign was a slight discharge from the nipple. A shock for any man to look down and see fluid seeping out.
Breast cancer was not the first thing that sprang to mind. Or at least I didn’t register it. Cancer Research UK puts the number roughly at 350 men to be diagnosed each year with breast cancer, totalling only 1% of all cases in the UK. For women, the number is much higher, at around 55,000 cases.
Like most of us, my first thought was going down the rabbit hole of Google and self-diagnosis. A tumour growing on my pituitary gland I thought was the strongest contender. But not breast cancer, as the majority of cases are diagnosed in men between the age of 60 to 70 years according to Breast Cancer UK. The doctor at the clinic in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, looked just as confused as I was. The World Health Organisation puts breast cancer as the most commonly diagnosed cancer type in the world, with higher incidence rates in economically developed countries, but greater disproportionate deaths in lower economically developed countries. So hardly surprising the face of astonishment looking back at me.
Blood tests, and ultrasound scans of both breasts and testicles, gave me little information. I left as confused as when I arrived but thought nothing more of it. I continued to push and press my nipple, to see if one day it would stop leaking. It did not. My girlfriend at the time, exasperated at my newfound party trick, took it upon herself at the end of her scheduled appointment to bring this up with her doctor, who in turn recommended an oncologist.
One thing that amazes me in life is how one small action can produce a ripple effect that will reach out and change the course of events for the foreseeable future. Had it not been for my body to display one small warning sign, or for my ex to raise this topic with her gynaecologist, I have no doubt I would have continued sleepwalking well into 2022 and beyond without taking any real action. The oncologist, after a few short tests strongly recommended I return to the UK to seek out specialist treatment.
Breast cancer in men is of course, rare. So I didn’t quite know how to take it when I was informed that I was now a member of this highly unique and select group of men, due to the presence of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) found in one duct in my left breast after a biopsy and removal of the nipple duct.
I fell into a state of shock and disbelief, quickly to be overwhelmed by the whole process and found difficulty in comprehending what was going to happen next. Because of this rare find, the next order of action was a mastectomy. I do not doubt that the psychological effect of having a mastectomy weighs far more on women than on men. But this is just my own opinion. I have gynecomastia, so the fact that the surgeon removed one moob was fine with me.
Things I learnt:
- Breaking the news
You are going to be terrible at first in breaking the news to your family and friends. It will hit them as hard as this information hits you, as you clumsily explain and try to remember what the doctor said. But, practice makes perfect and by the fifth or sixth time, you’ll be a pro. Unfortunately then for my brother who was number one on my list and broke down in tears, and lucky for my mum who was sixth in line.
- Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best
Be positive, buy not too positive – meaning that any setback or bad news may send you spiralling into the abyss if you hadn’t thought about all outcomes. I fooled myself into thinking I was home clear after my nipple duct removal, preparing to book a flight back to Cambodia in a week. Only to be told there was a single trace of pre-invasive breast cancer and the next action needed was a mastectomy, not a flight out of the country.
- Your mental health is key
Keep your mind focused and composed. Meditate, read, journal, and meditate some more. I could only manage 20 minutes or so at a time, but it proved invaluable. Take a cold shower, or at least finish with one. Exercise. Eat well. Hydrate. All the things we have read repeatedly are good for us, our bodies and our state of mind. Do them all.
- Be in control
Large operations aside, I cycled to each appointment at Oxford’s Churchill Hospital. It gave me time to reflect and digest, whilst also avoiding the rush hour traffic, which is stressful at the best of times. I turned down many lifts from family and friends as I felt that I needed to control how I got to the hospital. Not everyone can cycle but don’t be pressured into anything. Find an action or part of the process and take control of it.
Sometimes there is no reason, logic or answer as to why you have cancer. With no history of breast cancer on either side of the family, a visit to the genetics lab revealed that I am simply an anomaly. A healthy 31-year-old male, that life threw a curve ball at.
- Mix the good with the bad.
Take the time before or after your appointments to go to your favourite café or restaurant. Plan to meet up with a friend for lunch or go on a walk together. It will give you a surprising mental boost. I found time to connect and make memories with my nephews, who I had not seen for years.
To say this was caught early would be an understatement. One of the few lucky ones out there, I did not need radiotherapy or chemo. I made a full recovery after the operation and did manage to make a flight back out to Cambodia two months after. For the next five years, I need to go for a mammogram for the right breast, and then I should be home clear.
Occasionally, I push my one remaining nipple to see if any clear discharge comes out. Holding my breath each time, knowing completely well what would take place next. Thankfully, each time draws nothing.