His and hers

Posted on 15 September 2015

Husband and wife Graeme and Jeannie Comrie discovered breast cancer isn’t just a women’s disease – when they were both diagnosed with it on the same day.

For about two years Graeme Comrie had felt a small, hard lump on his upper chest. It felt like an extra rib. He knew that couldn’t be what it was, but he had no reason to think it could be anything as serious as breast cancer. Unfortunately, as Graeme would discover, breast cancer is an equal-opportunity disease that doesn’t discriminate against age, race or gender. According to the Breast Health Foundation, two out of every 100 South Africans who are diagnosed with the disease are men. In November 2009, at the age of 65, Graeme became one of them.

‘The GP didn’t suspect a problem,’ he says, ‘but he suggested a needle aspiration by a local surgeon just to discount any concerns. The needle aspiration confirmed malignancy.’ And that was just the start of it. On the day that Graeme received his test results, his wife Jeannie, then aged 56, came out of a routine mammogram with bad news of her own. Same day, same diagnosis: stage one breast cancer.

‘Neither of us were significantly negative about the news,’ Jeannie says. ‘In many ways the blow was softened because we had both been diagnosed with the same illness at the same time, both were stage one, both had lumps removed by the same surgeon (we even shared a unit in hospital), both were admitted and discharged at the same time and both required similar (but not major) post-operative treatment.’

Husband and wife recuperated at home at the same time, with similar recovery times. Neither needed chemotherapy, but Jeannie underwent six weeks of radiation treatment while Graeme was prescribed the oestrogen-blocker Tamoxifen for five years. ‘We both found that our greatest strength was our mutual support, along with that of friends and family,’ says Graeme. ‘There was some questioning – why us? – given that we both follow a reasonably healthy lifestyle: non-smokers, limited alcohol, regular exercise, weight control, healthy diets and so on. But our response was more philosophical, and there were very few sleepless nights.’

You couldn’t really blame them if they had cursed their bad luck, though. The odds of any man being diagnosed with breast cancer are slim – and the odds of that diagnosis coming on the same day as a matching diagnosis for his wife are… well, that’s the stuff magazine articles are made of.

‘Male breast cancer is rare,’ confirms Justus Apffelstaedt, associate professor of surgery at the University of Stellenbosch, and the surgeon who operated on the Comries. ‘For every 100 women, I see one man with breast cancer. Often it indicates a disease-causing gene defect and a high risk of breast cancer in the women of that family. The treatment is similar to that given to women.’

Like many men who develop breast cancer, Graeme simply hadn’t seen it coming. ‘Graeme had been following an extensive annual medical checkup regime for the past 20 years,’ Jeannie says. ‘This included all the detailed routine blood tests, stress ECG and so on, plus a GP physical examination. Never once in all those years was the issue of possible male breast cancer raised. The discussion with Graeme’s GP was always about cholesterol, weight, kidney function, liver and the like. There was never any mention of breast cancer or self-examination.’

Both Graeme and Jeannie are recovering well now, safe in the knowledge that their tumours have been completely removed, and with a positive prognosis for the future. And – if nothing else – they have an incredible story to tell.

How often do men get breast cancer?
‘Male breast cancer is very rare but unfortunately it’s every bit as dangerous as when it’s found in female patients. I don’t see more than one case of it every year or two, and when I do, it’s usually in men who have palpable lumps. They tend to ignore it at first but will eventually go to the doctor if the lump does not go away by itself or if it becomes painful.

‘Early detection is just as important for men as it is for women. I think education is crucial, since many men (even health-conscious ones) do not know that they can get breast cancer. Any man with a palpable nodule in his breast tissue should go to his doctor for evaluation.’

– Dr Michiel Botha, radiation oncologist at Mediclinic George

The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.

Published in Cancer

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