You know how it is when you’re sitting in the beautifully warm sunshine of an Atlantic island, and at the end of December too! Your mind plays its usual tricks and your past, present and future all move around your brain inconsequentionally. People, seemingly long forgotten, suddenly appear; events nag their way into the memory producing a cocktail of smiles, feelings of sadness and guilt; and coupled with it all is that priceless feeling of well being . The sun’s rays do their trick and you feel so relaxed as you smooth your body blending together its mixture of sun tan oil and sweat. It has been like that for 10 years now and I happily tell myself that I am lucky, so, so lucky to be here on the island, and may it always be so.
This afternoon as I rub my chest and gently tweek my nipples, on my right side I feel something unusual. Just a small piece of a flower blown off a shrub by the wind, no doubt. I close my eyes and continue with the serendipity. A minute goes by and I brush myself but feel it again. It is different, and this time, there is no doubt – it is real. There it is, beneath my right nipple, something distinct, hard and not moving.
I remembered the same feeling on a November day some 18 years before. I had been listening to a radio programme broadcast during breast cancer awareness week. ‘Men get it too’ the announcer said. I felt myself then, and sure enough, there it was, a small lump. Panic! Total fear! But actually, after diagnosis, all was well. It was a fatty lump and was removed, and I never heard about it again afterwards. This time, however, there was something different about it.
On return home a visit to a consultant was arranged. He examined me and told me that he felt it could simply be the residue of my body’s reaction to some medication I was taking, but it was best to do some tests.
From now on my experience of diagnosis took me into a new world, and I had to get used to the fact that it was a world which was not a man’s world. As a gay man I had not previously felt what might be called a typical heterosexual gender divide, it had not previously been an issue but now, to my surprise, it did. Even the language I used about my body took on what I would have called a feminine aspect. What I had called my ‘chest’ now was called my ‘breast’. In the body imaging department I felt curiously out of place as I waited for my mammogram. The nurse taking the image clearly wasn’t experienced enough to cope either and she had difficulty suitably arranging a man’s body, whose nipples may have been slightly out of the ordinary, but whose breast hardly fitted a machine which was normally used to photographing something much more pendulous and flexible.
The resulting mammogram was insufficient and an ultra sound was called for, but that didn’t show much either, and a biopsy was next on the list. So with just a few bodily bits missing I prepared for another visit to the consultant. There we sat, my partner and me, two men, in a waiting room of women – a brave new world.
In he came, accompanied by a nurse. Smiles and handshakes. None of this, ‘how are you?’ business, which later I came to react to from others, quite a bit. Instead we went straight into it. ‘I thought you had the consequence of medication you were taking, but the biopsy has told me differently and I’m sorry to tell you that its breast cancer.’
‘What????’ ‘For fuck sake! I, me, doesn’t get potentially terminal illnesses! I’m here on this earth to be by the side of those who have things like that. I’m the buddy of the man with AIDS. I’m the friend who stands with the carers of those with dementia. I’m the one who conducts the funerals of those who didn’t make it. BUT I am not the one who gets the finger!!!! Hasn’t god ordained it to be like that?
Worse news was to come. A mastectomy would be necessary. Perhaps further surgery to remove lymph glands. Then perhaps radiotherapy, chemotherapy and god knows what else. Partner and I look at each other, unable to mouth what we are feeling, but at least we are together in our grim silence.
How on earth do single people; those without partners; those alone. How do they deal with that news? How do you focus, and even move forward following such news. It’s good having someone else there with you, better than nothing, but there comes a point when you are left alone, alone to cope with such challenging news. Your friend has their own home, their own life to lead; they cant stay with you for ever. How do you deal with the solitude after they have left, when the sympathetic phone calls haven’t helped, when you wake in the middle of the night and the horrors about your future hit you.
I immediately thought of my friend David who had lived with liver cancer for well over a year. He had not lacked visitors or phone calls, but who as I now realised, nevertheless, had much more time alone to cope with his condition after his visitors had gone.
Look, folks! There is an LGBT issue here. We are many – more of us in the 45+ bracket than in the 15 – 44 bracket. We are more than likely to be living alone. Perhaps a third of us will experience cancer. Many of us will die from it. Where are the mentors, the advocates, the befrienders, the social workers and nurses, who understand our distinctiveness, even our uniqueness, and can be there by our side to see us through. In the night watches, when I awoke and considered my position, I gave thanks that I had someone I could say ‘cuddle me’ to, and I thought of those others within our LGBT community who have to face all this alone because we have not mobilised our forces/resources to serve their needs.
I’ve always been different and so not surprisingly my cancer would have to be different too; wouldn’t it! There are only about 300 men per year who get it and I expected that this would mean being left without support, but, hooray, I was wrong. Our first meeting with the breast cancer nurse was accompanied by a superb and informative booklet on breast cancer for men and I soon gladly came to realised that I was not being treated as an honorary woman, with a women’s condition, but as a man who just happened to be amongst a very small but increasing number of other men who are succumbing to the same condition as thousands of women.
That is not to say that there are not psychological issues which may be peculiar to men . I was told that some men have real problems coping with the sheer fact of their different cancer. Perhaps even some might wish they had prostate cancer rather than breast cancer; they at least would have a ‘man’s cancer’. I noticed even within myself that when I told people I left a short gap between the ‘I have’ and the ‘breast cancer’ part of my speech. Perhaps even I felt something not quite right about having it. I was shocked after surgery by how unwilling I was to look at my new self in the mirror, and, when I eventually did it, how upset I was by the sight.
I meet people who still do not know that men can get it too, and I suspect that some might even feel that I had done something wrong, like smoking, to get it. I would love to meet other men in the same situation, but so far, I have found none. Perhaps the enormity of their burden has led them to go to ground. I wonder then if there are any other gay men with the same condition and wonder if I could even be only one in this country.
And so it has gone on. The surgery is complete and we (thank god its a ‘we’) have decided on the treatment which is best for us in our situation. From now on, every day will be a bonus day but these days will not be like the other days before the diagnosis. I’m still discovering how you think positively about the future most of the time; how you make a continuously proactive response to living ; AND how you confidently take your place within the male gay community with only one nipple!!!!!!! All things are possible, eh?