Male breast cancer survivor urges other men to be vigilant

Nigel Barker, 51, who has had breast cancer
Nigel Barker, 51, who has had breast cancer
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It’s not just women who get breast cancer - although far rarer, men get struck by the disease too.

Aasma Day talks to Nigel Barker who knows only too well that male breast cancer exists and now wants to urge other men to be vigilant for symptoms.

Nigel Barker, 51, who has had breast cancer

Nigel Barker, 51, who has had breast cancer

Only blokes enjoy watching footy; all women are obsessed with shoes and handbags; little girls love frilly pink dresses and dolls ... and only women suffer from breast cancer.

There are many gender stereotypes which bear no resemblance to reality - and Nigel Barker knows from first hand experience that breast cancer isn’t just confined to women.

Nigel, 51, who lives in Chorley, says he didn’t even know men could get breast cancer so was full of shock when doctors diagnosed him with it.

Nigel, who works at a call centre, was a regular gym goer and it was during a gym visit that he first became aware of a problem with his left nipple area during 2011.

Everyone knows men get prostate cancer and testicular cancer as these are publicised, but not many people know that male breast cancer exists.

He explains: “There was a machine where you pull the weights towards you and rest your chest against a pad.

“When I used this, it felt a bit uncomfortable. It wasn’t painful - but just like itchiness on the nipple.

“I thought it was caused by rubbing against the machine’s pad or by a reaction to deodorant or something, so I ended up leaving it about six months before going to the doctor.”

Nigel’s itchy nipple started becoming constant until he felt like he was scratching it all the time.

At first he thought he had an allergy, but when the problem persisted, Nigel felt his breast and discovered a lump and thought he should seek medical advice.

Even then, Nigel never imagined it was anything serious.

He confesses: “I just thought they would give me a tube of cream and say: ‘Rub this in four times a day’.

“I only went to the doctors as the itchiness had started becoming a nuisance and when I had a bit of a rummage, I found a lump behind the nipple.

“It never entered my head it could be cancer. I didn’t even know men could get breast cancer. I had no idea.”

Nigel made an appointment to see the practice nurse. Luckily for him, she immediately recognised it was something serious and got the doctor straight away.

Nigel says: “The doctor took one look at it and told me: ‘You’ve got male breast cancer.’

“When I heard those words, I couldn’t believe it. I just walked out of the surgery, went to my mum’s house and sat in a chair curled up with shock.

“My initial thought was: ‘I’m going to die.’

“Finding out you have any kind of cancer is a shock. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had been told I had prostate cancer or lung cancer, I would have had the same feelings.

“But because I didn’t even know men got breast cancer, it was a huge shock to find out this is what the doctor strongly suspected I had.”

Nigel was sent to see a specialist at Chorley Hospital and underwent a mammogram and a biopsy. A few hours later that same day, it was confirmed he had breast cancer.

In December 2011, Nigel had a full mastectomy on the left side. At first, specialists told Nigel he would need radiotherapy and chemotherapy following the operation, but the surgery went so well, he only ended up needing radiotherapy.

Nigel explains: “The lump was 15mm big and the doctors told me if it had been anything smaller than that, they wouldn’t have recognised it so I caught the cancer at the earliest stage.”

Nigel had 15 sessions of radiotherapy over 15 days at the Rosemere Cancer Centre in Preston.

Nigel, who was married to ex-wife Shar for 19 years, but got divorced 13 years ago, is still really good friends with her and says the whole family received a lot of support from Rosemere.

Shar, 51, who has two children with Nigel and already had two children when she met him, says: “When Nigel told me he had breast cancer, I was really worried about him.

“But I didn’t panic as I had faith in the NHS to do the best they could possibly do for Nigel.

“Our priority was to work together and tell the children in a way that wouldn’t overly worry them.

“Cancer has affected our family a great deal over the years. My mum died of lung cancer and my 17-year-old brother had a brain tumour and the impact of his treatment led to his death.

“My dad is living with leukaemia and Nigel’s mum had ovarian cancer and his dad has had surgery and repeated treatment for a brain tumour.

“We kept the children fully informed as we wanted to be open and honest with them and we talked openly as a family.”

As well as performing a mastectomy, surgeons removed 11 lymph nodes from under Nigel’s left armpit.

Soon after the surgery, Nigel, who had a drain in his chest, found it kept filling up with fluid.

He was then told he had developed lymphoedema, a secondary condition which can affect people after cancer treatment.

It causes swelling in the body’s tissues and usually develops in the arms or legs.

Nigel recalls: “When they first told me I had lymphoedema, I felt like bursting into tears.

“I thought: ‘I’ve been through all that, and now there’s something else.’

“But the breast care nurse assured me it wasn’t life threatening.”

Nigel now has to wear a special sleeve to control his lymphoedema as well as massage his arm and rub cream into it.

Nigel is also on the cancer prevention drug tamoxifen.

He says: “As I am the only male with breast cancer on Chorley Hospital’s books at the moment, they are not sure whether to keep me on tamoxifen for five years or 10 years. They have told me they will tell me at my next appointment.”

Nigel initially had check-ups every three months, then six months and is now having yearly check-ups.

He is looking forward to December 2016 as this will be five years since his breast cancer surgery and when he gets the all clear.

Nigel jokes: “I remember thinking at the time that if I die, that’s when my passport runs out anyway.

“If the cancer comes back, it comes back. There’s no point worrying about something you have no control over.

“I always make a joke out of everything in life and refer to my breast cancer by poking fun at myself.

“This is my way of dealing with things.

“However, I do have my sad moments as well and sometimes sit at home and have a cry.”

Nigel wants other men to learn from his experience and to raise awareness that men can get breast cancer too.

He says: “I think it should be on billboards that men can get breast cancer so they are encouraged to check themselves.

“Everyone knows men get prostate cancer and testicular cancer as these are publicised, but not many people know that male breast cancer exists.

“If my nipple hadn’t been itchy, I would never have known. The cancer could have got a lot bigger and then it would have been game over.

“Everyone gets different symptoms and not everyone will experience the itching.

“People need to check under their armpits too, not just their breasts.

“If I can save even one other man’s life by telling my story, that will be an achievement.”

Nigel wanted to enter Cancer Research UK’s Race For Life, but was taken aback to find it is only open to women - even though he has experienced breast cancer himself.

Nigel says: “A friend of mine rang them and was told only women can take part in the walks and runs, but men are welcome to make a contribution.

“But that isn’t the same as making a difference by actually being part of something.

“I did get on my high horse for a bit and I thought: ‘Why can’t men enter too?’

“I do understand that far more women are affected by breast cancer than men.

“If I was a woman and had breast cancer, it would have been far more devastating to lose a breast as it is part of being a woman and their sexuality.

“It would have hit me a lot harder if I had lost say a testicle.

“But everyone reacts differently and just because breast cancer might not have the same impact on a man, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t affected by it too.

“As far as I am concerned, the more people that take part in an event, the more money will be raised for the cause.

“Men might want to take part because their wife or partner has breast cancer or in memory of a family member.

“It is not a competition about men vs women. Cancer doesn’t choose who it affects or what sex or age you are.

“It can affect anyone and I want other men to know it’s not just women who get breast cancer.

“I would like to see no divide and awareness of every type of cancer.

“Just because I have had male breast cancer doesn’t mean I only want to raise awareness and money for that type of cancer.

“I want to raise awareness and funds for any type of cancer. It is about fighting cancer in general.”

When Nigel had his surgery, he was offered a reconstruction but said no. He says he is not ashamed of his scar or of taking his top off as he knows doing so raises awareness.

He explains: “I see my scar as a talking point and I’m not ashamed of it.

“When people see it, they ask about and that in itself raises awareness.

“I want to help other people and for me, the most important message is alerting other men to the fact that male breast cancer exists.”