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3 Things to Know About Breast Cancer in Men

One man for every 100 women is diagnosed with breast cancer. We bring you two true cancer survivor stories in Singapore, within the same family.

 

In 1994, the father of former singer-actress Lim Hui Hui (aka Foyce Le Xuan) became the second man in Singapore to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Now, like her dad, she too has survived the disease, she tells Her World.

I was just 14 when my dad, now a 62-year-old retiree, was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in 1994. “Back then, he had noticed a lump and darkened skin on the right side of his chest, and had experienced constant pain for several months. He saw a few doctors, but none were able to pinpoint what was wrong with him. “Finally, he was referred to an oncologist who confirmed the breast cancer diagnosis after a biopsy.

“Everyone, including my dad, was shocked. Back then, we never knew that men could get breast cancer (we were told that he was only the second man in Singapore to be diagnosed with it). And although he didn’t say much, we knew he felt slightly embarrassed since the illness was usually associated with women. “However, despite his own fears, my dad took his doctor’s advice to stay positive and calm. He was always the one reassuring us, telling us not to worry, when everyone else in the family was shaken as we hadn’t expected his illness to be something this serious.

“My siblings (my brother is two years older and my sister three years younger) and I sobbed non-stop at the hospital when we found out. I was shattered and in shock – the thought of him passing away terrified me.

 

Fear of losing my dad

“As my dad’s cancer was caught late, surgery was essential. The following day, he underwent a mastectomy, which involved removing the nipple, areola, surrounding breast tissues and lymph nodes. The surgery went as planned, and he continued with radiotherapy for a few months on an almost-daily basis after he was discharged from the hospital.

“The ordeal took a toll on my dad. He suff ered from skin discoloration in the areas targeted by the radiotherapy, and was often very tired and weak. Yet, he always put on a strong front, and never complained.

“It pained me to see him suffering, and I told myself not to make him feel unhappy as often as I had – I was the most rebellious of his children and frequently defied his instructions. Coming so close to losing him made me cherish him a lot more.

“After recuperating at home for six months, my dad went back to his work as a manager in a printing company. Although he suffered a relapse in 1996, he was declared cancer-free in 2012.

 

The start of a new battle

“You would think I’d have been more vigilant about my own health, since having a close relative with breast cancer greatly increased my own odds of contracting it. My dad’s doctor suggested that I do a check, but I never did… until 2013, when I was 33
years old and experienced abnormal bleeding and irregular periods.

“The doctor recommended a fullbody check-up, and it was during the breast examination that he felt hard masses in my chest.

“‘I need to refer you to the hospital for tests,’ he said. I immediately suspected breast cancer, but remained surprisingly calm. Perhaps it was the knowledge of my dad being a breast cancer survivor that gave me strength.

“The test reports confirmed that I had two malignant lumps in my right breast. But instead of dwelling on the diagnosis, I was optimistic. Unlike my dad, I had been diagnosed early. I also had no symptoms like pain or swelling, and the abnormal bleeding I had experienced earlier turned out to be due to uterine polyps, which were later surgically removed.

“My dad became my source of strength. He had a chat with me one night and shared a list of specialists whom he heard had good reviews, and suggested I contact them. Being a typical Asian father, he didn’t express his concern explicitly, but I knew this was his way of showing he cared.

“The next three weeks passed in a flash. I underwent two surgeries. The first was to remove the lumps and confirm the diagnosis – it was Stage 1 breast cancer. The second was a partial mastectomy to remove the remaining cancerous breast tissues. “The operations went well, and I was put on hormonal medicine to lower my level of oestrogen, which can promote the growth of some cancers.

 

Life goes on

“Although I had been largely optimistic up until that point, I realised that I was emotionally and physically drained. The hormonal medicine was also causing weight gain and mood swings. To make matters worse, my doctor discovered 10 new lumps in my breasts, which he suggested could be due to stress, just six months after my surgery. Although none have shown signs of being cancerous, I have to be mentally prepared for a relapse.

“Going through this ordeal has changed my perspective on what I want out of life. As a former gold trader turned singer-actress, I craved media attention and was always attending events so I could be in the limelight. I had also signed on with a Taiwanese artiste management company and was even preparing to launch my first music album.

“But all that changed after my treatment for breast cancer. I wanted a care-free lifestyle, so I decided to leave the entertainment industry. These days, I keep a low profile and am hardly even on Facebook. I keep in touch only with a select group of friends and am happy to stay at home, managing my portfolio of funds for a living. Ultimately, I’ve come to realise that what’s important is being with my loved ones and staying healthy. And yes, all this has made my whole family more health-conscious – my sister now goes for annual breast checks too.”

 

Are you or somebody you know at risk?

1. Symptoms are similar to those in women. 

These could include a lump, fluid discharge or a rash. However, while lumps are more easily detected in male breasts (which tend to be flatter), many men may not be vigilant enough to notice them.

2. Fathers and mothers with a breast cancer gene have an equal chance of passing it on to their children. 

Fortunately, the incidence of hereditary breast cancer is low – it is estimated to make up only five per cent of all newly diagnosed breast cancers.

3. Men are at a lower risk of developing breast cancer. 

One man is diagnosed for every 100 women with breast cancer. This is mainly because men have much lower levels of oestrogen, which drives the growth of some types of breast cancer. In men, the role of the breast cancer gene is more predominant.

 

Expert source: Dr Veronique Tan, consultant, Division of Surgical Oncology, National Cancer Centre Singapore

 

Lee Xin Hui, Her World, October 2015

 

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