Personal Story of Male Breast Cancer

Sean Cooper - Male Breast Cancer Survivor

Sean Cooper, Male Breast Cancer Survivor
Sean Cooper, Male Breast Cancer Survivor. Photo © Lisa Cooper
Sean Cooper and I met via email in February, when he wrote in asking about male breast cancer. Sean was in treatment for male breast cancer, having just completed chemo and beginning radiation treatments. I asked if he would allow me to interview him, and he impressed me with his willingness. Sean wrote, "I would only be too pleased to do an interview for you, as I would like to help other men with breast cancer." Sean Cooper is now finished with chemo and radiation, and he is starting Tamoxifen.

Sean is a telecom engineer who lives in England. He is married and has two children. Today, he lives a full life and loves to spend time going to music festivals, watching soccer games and traveling.

Sean's Male Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Age at diagnosis: 43
Type of breast cancer: invasive ductal breast cancer, hormone receptor positive
Lymph node status: 5 of 23 lymph nodes involved
Tumor description: 13mm diameter, grade 3 tumor

Q: How were you diagnosed with male breast cancer?
A: I first found a lump on my right breast in May 2007, and it took three visits to my doctor before they referred me to the hospital. The doctor thought at first [that] it was just fatty tissue and would go [away] in time. The lump was the size of a small pea (13mm), quite hard and didn't fade, hence my continued visits to the doctor. Even the breast cancer specialist at the hospital didn't think it was cancerous, as there was no history of breast cancer in my family both on my mother and father's sides. And cancer was a rarity in the family. Only after an ultrasound caused concern and a following biopsy revealed that it was cancer did I get a clear diagnosis.

Q: How did you react when you first learned that you had breast cancer?
A: I was told before my [biopsy] results that they thought the chances of them coming back positive were slim, so on the day I felt reasonably confident, although obviously a niggling worry at the back of my mind. I would like to point out that only 5 days before the results were out we had moved house from Norwich to a small town in the county called Aylsham, so everything was a bit chaotic.

My initial reaction on being told that I had breast cancer was a stunned one. Was I the person being told this news? Surely not! It was so uncommon in men, although I was aware even before I found the lump that men could develop breast cancer or MBC (male breast cancer).

Tell me about starting treatment.
A: I was told that I would undergo a full mastectomy the following week. My wife and I were taken into the Breastcare Nurses' office to talk and ask questions about the news I had just received. The first five days after diagnosis I was in a kind of daze, and sleeping was near impossible. My son was on holiday on the other side of the world and, since we're very close, this was hard. But the rest of my family and a few close friends did as best as they could to take my mind off it and to reassure me that things would turn out OK. The support from family and friends was so important -- after all, I was facing my own mortality.

Q: How did you deal with the emotional impact of diagnosis?
A: After all, these [family members] were the people I loved and cared for greatly.

I feared that if I were to die, they would be the ones to suffer. The thought of not being around to look after them really scared me. I started to think every little ache or pain was the cancer -- that it had spread. After all, I wasn't sure how long this cancer had been growing in me. I remember being unable to sleep, and driving to the coast at 4 a.m. and standing on the beach, looking out to sea, trying to come to terms with cancer and getting no answers, not that I expected any.

Did you eventually come to terms with it?
A: Talking to everybody I came in contact with helped a great deal -- it was my own therapy, in a way. I didn't feel embarrassed at all that here was a male with breast cancer, and I was surprised by the number of both men and women who thought men couldn't get breast cancer. Then, approximately five days after diagnosis, I came to terms with the cancer. Only one word describes [this], and that is acceptance. I had a kind of an epiphany in a non-religious way. I accepted the fact that there was nothing I could do, apart from having the operation and any treatment there after. It was that simple, and I became very positive from that time on. This helped [me] tremendously for what was to come.

Next: Dealing with health care and treatment

In England, where he Sean Cooper lives, male breast cancer cases number only 200 to 300 per year, with the average age of diagnosis being 64. Sean was just 43 when he was diagnosed with male breast cancer. I interviewed him about his diagnosis (see page 1), as well as his treatment and survival.

Q: Did you feel that health professionals treated you well and were supportive during diagnosis and treatment?
A: The doctors and nurses at all stages of my treatment have been fantastic -- hats off to the U.

K. National Health Service, even if they are overstretched and underfunded in areas. The only issue that gives me concern was that I had to visit my [general practitioner] three times before being referred to the hospital. This may be [due] to the fact that the statistics for male breast cancer are so low, and that I was 20 years younger than the average age of a male breast cancer patient. The support I've received from the breastcare/oncology nurses throughout has been superb, and [it has been] reassuring to know that help or advice is only a phone call away.

Q: What kind of treatment did you have to go through to survive male breast cancer?
A: Following diagnosis, as I previously mentioned, I had a full mastectomy six days later by consultant Gabor Peley. He started and introduced the dual-agent guided sentinel lymph node biopsy for breast cancer. While in the operation theatre, these came back positive, so all [of the] lymph nodes on the affected side were removed -- 23 in all.

It turned out after a two-week wait that five of the 23 nodes were infected. The tumor was 13mm in diameter and grade three. So, chemo and radiotherapy (radiation) were the next stage of my treatment. I took eight treatments of FEC (Fluorouracil (5FU), epirubicin and cyclophosphamide) chemotherapy followed over a 6-month period.

I've now finished 15 treatments of radiotherapy on the area covering my operation and around the right-hand side of my lower neck. I have also started a 5-year course of Tamoxifen.

Q: How did treatment go for you? Did you experience any side effects?
A: During chemo treatment, I found the first few days fairly OK, mainly due to the steroids given on the day of treatment and the following three days. Apart from that, the strange taste, and my body seeming to smell different, I had no bad side effects. Following these three days, fatigue set in varying degrees for the next two weeks; sometimes I was unable to do much at all due to just general tiredness. The anti-sickness drugs worked well, as I was never sick from chemo. I would take fatigue over sickness any day.

The radiotherapy was a much easier treatment to take compared to chemo. The only real side effects were sore skin (like sunburn) and blistering under my armpit the week after the last session.

Q: How has breast cancer affected your everyday life? Does this diagnosis affect your self-image?
A: Aside from the treatments, everyday life certainly changed, my perspective on life has changed, and the appreciation of how precious life is has been strengthened.

I feel I'm now a more thoughtful person, maybe a bit calmer too.

I don't feel that male breast cancer has affected my self-image, although I've yet to go topless on a beach or in a swimming pool. I have put on a bit of weight, which I was told could happen due to the steroids. The reduced [physical] activity hasn't helped. I feel more conscious about the weight than I do of the scar from the mastectomy, and I am now stepping up exercising and watching my food. But most importantly, things are getting back to normal.

Q: What gives you the strength to face this hardship in your life?
A: This question is easy to answer -- the love for my family, my love of life and wanting these to continue for years to come. As I mentioned earlier, accepting the fact that you have cancer after a diagnosis is a big help and [it] helped me be positive about the treatment ahead and the outcome.

Q: What advice would you give to other men who may be at risk of developing breast cancer?
A: If there is a history of breast cancer in your family and you become aware of irregular lumps around your armpit or any lumps on or around the breast or nipple, have them checked out as soon as possible. Don't be embarrassed, as there's nothing to be embarrassed of. Lumps on the breast can be fatty tissue; these normally disappear in a few weeks. So get it checked out. I heard a story of one man who put off going to the doctor [because of] embarrassment and being too macho...and he is now dead.

Q: What kind of supportive things can family, friends, or coworkers do for a male breast cancer patient?
A: Talk about it! Be positive toward the patient, even if you don't feel it yourself, and just be there -- it's all you can do.

Q: How would you sum up this experience?
A: Breast cancer is not a death sentence. Most people survive -- I have. Through having a positive attitude, openness and love, I feel my life has been enhanced. It hasn't been easy, but I'm here and that's what matters.

Previous page: Diagnosis and Personal Details

Sean Cooper, correspondence with Pam Stephan. May 12, 2008.

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