By Johan Basson
It was a pleasant sunny afternoon in May 2009. My wife Bev and I were spending a few days at our holiday home in Ballito on the sub-tropical north coast of Kwazulu Natal, South Africa. I had just come out of the swimming pool to settle into a deck chair on the patio and wiped excess water off my chest with my hands when I felt a lump just behind the right nipple. I had never noticed it before. It felt reasonably hard, but it was painless and not real obvious.
I asked Bev to examine the lump, since she was a qualified scrub sister for many years. I thought she might be able to determine if it was just a fatty lump. She was not sure, so we decided to have it checked out by a specialist surgeon as soon as we got back home.
After the examination, the surgeon said he did not like the feel of the lump at all, and dismissed our speculation that it was a harmless fatty lump. He arranged for me to proceed immediately to a nearby hospital where relevant tests were to be conducted.
It was at this point I realised there may be more to this unobtrusive lump and a feeling of dread started creeping into my mind … what if this was a cancerous growth? Does this mean I may die? It did not make sense to me at all, because up to that point I had never heard of breast cancer occurring in males. Surely this must just be a harmless growth?
It was with some trepidation that I drove to the hospital where they performed an ultrasound, mammogram and a core biopsy. Arriving there it was clear this was not a typical male domain … I was the only one there. Whilst sitting in the waiting room, the women continuously glanced at me sideways as if to say, ‘You are in the wrong place, Mister!’
However, when my turn came I was treated very professionally, The radiographer took time to re-assure me and make me feel more comfortable. The mammogram was painful … trying to clamp enough man-boob was not easy and we had several attempts before getting it right. The core biopsy was also a bit painful and I watched how the procedure was performed on the monitor.
Then followed the wait for the results which was very stressful. Although one tries to remain positive, there is always the lingering worry of a possible cancer diagnosis in the back of one’s mind. My wife constantly supported me with encouragement, care and love.
After a few days came the call to make an appointment with the surgeon. The results were back. The moment I walked into his consulting room I knew the news was not good. His body language said everything yet hearing it spoken was rather daunting. The tests had confirmed a ductal carcinoma in my breast. Oh dear … what now? Strangely, there was this calmness that descended on me even though my heart was racing and a thousand thoughts flashed through my mind.
My wife took the news badly and was very upset and emotional. I was able to cheer her up a bit afterwards not really understanding how I managed it. Definitely some higher help, I think! I was then sent for further tests, i.e. x-rays of the chest and abdominal areas, and ultrasound tests of other organs such as the liver and pancreas. During these tests, the lady doing them seemed unsure of exactly what she was observing and went out to fetch someone else to get a second opinion.
Outside the room, I heard them talk about the ultrasound test results and I immediately started worrying there may be other complications. Once we got the report we hurriedly read it and found to our relief it was just a matter of gas causing an unclear picture. The consulting surgeon then referred me to Dr. Carol Ann Benn, one of the leading breast cancer surgeons in South Africa. It was quite funny how every time we went to a new place they automatically assumed the appointment was for my wife, not for me! Carol Benn was superb in the way she made me feel at ease, explaining the various implications, procedure and resultant lifestyle changes. She was very professional in every way and I often think how instrumental that was in preparing me for what was to follow.
An MRI scan was then scheduled, as well as pre-surgery Isotopes. My mastectomy was arranged for 23 June 2009 still about two weeks away. At first I was desperate to get the tumour out of my body as quickly as possible. The next day would have been good! But, as Carol explained, further tests removed uncertainty over concerns there may be something on the other breast as well. Plus, she didn’t want to have the risk of more surgery one or two years down the line in the event of missing any other growths. She also explained this type of cancer may be hereditary and a genetic test should be performed. I will have the BRCA tests soon, then we’ll see if my two sons Desmond and Johan need to follow. Last year, Johan was diagnosed with some form of leukaemia. He had a fairly long programme of chemo, and is now in remission.
The MRI scan was an unpleasant experience simply because of the physical discomfort of lying dead still on my stomach, arms down my sides, for what felt like the longest two hours of my life. I had suffered a shoulder injury some six months earlier, which had not healed, and I was in absolute agony. The pain was just so severe. The MRI result of the left breast was clear, so that made up for the two hours of hell.
One day before the scheduled surgery, I had to revisit the hospital, this time for the Isotope injection into the tumour, and the subsequent scan to trace and mark the positions of the connected lymph nodes.
Then came the BIG DAY. I checked in early, settled in the ward and mentally prepared myself as best I could. Of course, I was very nervous. I was an almost 60-year-old man about to have a mastectomy. My wife was there with me providing emotional support and my sons popped in to wish me well for the surgery.
Waking up after the surgery I expected to be in pain, but the painkillers did a good job. I felt just fine. After one night in hospital, I was keen to go home in the comfort of my own environment. Besides, I knew I would be in good hands with my wife being a highly qualified theatre sister. I was duly checked and released after the doctor made sure I understood the required protocols associated with the drain attached to my body.
My next visit to Dr. Carol Benn was a relief when she confirmed the margins and lymph nodes were clear. She then referred me to a well-known oncologist. He explained to me the treatment programme ahead, which included chemotherapy, radiation and a five-year course of Tamoxifen, a hormone-blocker medication, which has the nasty side-effect of compromising the natural lubrication of the joints. In my case, it certainly did just that, as I would discover over time … There was some uncertainty over which chemo treatment was in store for me pending the outcome of tests to indicate whether I was HER2/NEU negative or positive. Fortunately, the tests proved negative.
Although I experienced very little pain and discomfort after my surgery, the drain was a real inconvenience. It was bulky, heavy and certainly not a fashion accessory! Sleeping, showering/bathing, getting dressed and driving were all simple tasks which became a real hassle sometimes.
Following a short post surgery period, I started chemotherapy. I had been warned about the side effects, so I was mentally prepared. The usual symptoms include nausea, oral thrush, tiredness and skeletal pain. With the exception of nausea, I had to contend with all the others and boy did I have a tough time … it would hit me on the third day after my therapy and take a week to start clearing. I was determined to stick to my usual regime and continued to go to the office every day. I was managing director of a large electrical switchgear company, which I had owned, but sold to an international group two years earlier. Subsequently, I left them and started a new company again in 2012, which has grown into a strong player in the marketplace, within the space of 4 years. I must have looked a rather sorry sight. Some days I battled to climb the stairs or walk around the office and factory without getting dead tired.
During my chemotherapy, I was really inspired by the staff at the treatment centre, and the courage of many patients who were in a worse situation than I was. My treatments took around four hours per session. The one vivid memory that still lingers in my brain, was the frozen gloves I had to wear to prevent my fingernails from going black and falling off. I did lose quite a few nails on my feet though.
Throughout my treatment programme, I focussed on positive progress and a full recovery. I firmly believe this was a key factor in my case and I am living proof of the impact a positive mind set has on one’s recovery process. During this time, I lost all my hair … everything! Not just on my head but also my entire body. It felt really weird at first, but I got used to it after a while. I decided to enjoy the ‘smooth’ look rather than be stressed about it. After all, some people even said being bald made me look younger! That was so funny sometimes and I still have a chuckle about my temporary appearance.
After completion of my chemotherapy, the oncologist arranged for my radiation programme to commence. My radiation was done at a local hospital and again I found the staff to be friendly and compassionate at all times. It made me realise their job is a calling, not just a means to earn their salary. I had to undergo thirty daily radiation sessions, which took no more than fifteen minutes, so I arranged my time slot first thing in the morning to enable me to have a normal day at the office afterwards. The side effects were nothing like the chemo … apart from tiredness and shortness of breath, I suffered no significant discomfort.
Prior to the programme, the overseeing doctor explained the process and possible side effects. She said my right lung may be compromised and I would have a permanent ‘tan’ mark over the radiated area. My chest hair would also disappear. During and after the programme she monitored my condition on a regular basis. Some six years later, I can confirm my right lung was compromised quite a bit. I get short of breath a lot quicker than before and I easily get chest colds, which was never the case before.
After the radiation programme was completed, I had to undergo regular ultrasound/mammogram tests. Initially I went every six months, but after two years only an annual ultrasound test. This is still ongoing, and thank God I remain clean as a whistle. On advice, I continued to use Tamoxifen past the five-year mark, and will use it for a toal of 10 years post surgery. It reduces the risks even further and my body and mind have adjusted to all those nasty side effects anyway.
Approximately two months after radiation, I noticed a swelling of my right arm accompanied by some pain. I was diagnosed with Lymphoedema, a condition which resulted from the removal of lymph nodes during surgery, and damage to the remaining nodes during radiation. My lymphatic system in the upper right quadrant was compromised. I underwent physiotherapy and started wearing a compression sleeve for around four years until the symptoms subsided. My arm has been fine ever since and I have been able to resume my regular activities.
I’m an avid outdoors enthusiast, love camping, 4 x 4 adventures, and spending time in nature. As a keen motorcyclist for more than 50 years, taking an extended motorbike tour through the United States is just one item on my bucket list. I also want to travel in Africa where it is still wild and relatively untouched, visit places where I can see clear night skies, nature in its purest form, and where I can get in touch with my inner self. I want to enjoy life with my wife Beverley Heléne and our children. I want to spread goodwill and love.
So, looking back over seven years of emotions, fears, medical procedures and recovery, what were the key elements in coping with this development in my life?
- Faith was probably my strongest support mechanism. As a firm believer in God, my faith helped me to cope and accept what happened, and it bolstered my own personal belief that I am going to come through this setback stronger than ever.
- I enjoyed the constant love, support and encouragement of the most important person in my life … my wife Beverley.
- I came to realise how much caring there is around me … family, friends, colleagues and business associates, everyone rallied to encourage me.
- It was a wake-up call that made me realise just how vulnerable our lives really are and that we need to take time to smell the roses … NOW.
- I came to realise that I have the inner strength to remain positive most of the time. A positive attitude toward life is imperative for the long and difficult journey to a full recovery.
- I am committed to spreading the good news … breast cancer is not always a death sentence! Believe in yourself, focus positively and dance as if no one is watching. See yourself come through this ordeal to a new place … that of being a survivor.