Every year around 55,500 women in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer.
But as intensive care nurse Kizi Kamasho discovered, the disease also affects approximately 380 men. Kizi and his wife Emma share the challenges they faced when he was diagnosed with a cancer that predominantly affects the opposite sex: a whirlwind of change and female-centred care.
From nurse to patient
While Kizi, 52, was saving lives during the COVID pandemic, underneath the layers of PPE, a cancer was quietly developing that the father-of-one never realised could affect him.
“Male breast cancer? Does it even exist?” said Emma as her husband of 25 years was diagnosed. “We’ve worked with a lot of females who’ve had it but not in my wildest dreams did I ever think my man would get breast cancer.”
It was Emma who first discovered the hard lump in Kizi’s right breast as she patted his chest during a moment of laughter. Within two weeks they were thrust into a whirlwind of appointments and found themselves in a world of female-centred care.
“When I arrived at the breast unit, the waiting room was full of women,” remembered Kizi. “I walked up to the reception area with my wife Emma and our son Tendai and the receptionist asked me to wait outside.”
“Because I was a woman, they automatically assumed I was the patient and I remember explaining, ‘My husband is the patient, not me’. Even the receptionist looked shocked.”
Kizi recalled: “It was a surreal moment because everyone around me was a woman and even though they were probably all there for the same reason as me, I did get the feeling they were looking at me wondering ‘what is that man doing here?’
“I just pretended to be going through my phone hoping they would call me through quickly.”
The elephant in the room
Kizi was eventually called to have an ultrasound, a biopsy and a fine needle aspiration of his lymph nodes.
“There was a sign that said ‘no males beyond this point without a nurse’,” he remembers. “It made me take a second look because there I was – a male, a nurse and now a patient wondering if it was ok to go past that point?
“During the procedure I was told the lump was suspicious and it then entered my mind that it could be breast cancer. When we got the results and the diagnosis was confirmed, it was all a blur but the fact that I was a man with primarily a female cancer was like the elephant in the room. Nobody mentioned the fact that it was unusual.”
“Even the literature he received when he was diagnosed was aimed at women with one leaflet labelled ‘Your guide to a well-fitting bra.’,” Emma added.
I hear a lot about women needing to check their breasts, but now I know that men need to check themselves too.
“I lost my dad to prostate cancer so I was vigilant when it came to checking things like my prostate and even requested a wellness-check, but it was never mentioned to me about checking myself for breast cancer.
“Knowing how your breasts or chest normally look and feel can help you spot any changes that are unusual for you. Symptoms of breast cancer in men include a lump or swelling in the chest or underarm area, discharge from the nipple or a nipple that’s pulled into the breast (‘inverted’) and a rash around the nipple or a sore on the skin of the breast.
If you notice any changes that aren’t normal for you, even if they’re not on this list, it’s important to get them checked by your doctor. In most cases it won’t be cancer, but if it is, finding it early can make all the difference.”
Julia Cotterill, health information officer at Cancer Research UK.
Hope from HER2
By the time Kizi was diagnosed, the cancer had already spread to his lymph nodes, lungs and into the bones.
But tests revealed the cancer showed high levels of a protein called HER2 receptor which meant his cancer could potentially be controlled by a targeted treatment called Herceptin. Cancer Research UK made important contributions to the understanding of HER2’s role in breast cancer, helping to build the case for developing drugs to target it.
Kizi became one of the 8,146 patients every year to be prescribed Herceptin which attaches itself to the HER2 protein and stops the cancerous cells growing and dividing. He’s been receiving it alongside chemotherapy and last month scans showed there was no evidence of any new cancer forming.
“The treatment was like an oasis in a desert – a lifeline,” Kizi said.
“Now I want to use my second chance to support other men. We are terrible at getting things checked but I hope my story will encourage them to reach out and realise they too can be affected by breast cancer.”