Published: 05:00, 18 October 2021
| Updated: 16:11, 18 October 2021
A dad and breast cancer survivor says he doesn't want men to die of "utter ignorance" and is urging them to check their chests and ring the doctor if they have any worries.
Mark Winter, 56, from High Brooms, in Tunbridge Wells, had a mastectomy after he was diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 2020, and is now speaking out about his experience, to mark Male Breast Cancer Awareness Week, starting today, and taking place within Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Mark Winter urges men to check their chests for signs of breast cancer
The self-employed surveyor said: "I don't want men to die of utter ignorance. If you have got something there, don't feel like an idiot.
"I felt like a bit of a fool phoning the doctor but it was the best phone call I ever made. It probably saved my life."
Around 370 men a year are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK, with around 80 dying a year.
In comparison, around 55,000 women are diagnosed, with 11,500 dying.
Mark first thought something was wrong in May 2020, when he felt some pain under his left nipple while in the shower.
The dad-of-two said: "Initially, I thought I’d just scratched myself, but actually when I examined the area a little more closely, I discovered a lump which didn’t feel like a nipple at all.
"Although it felt unusual, I did what a lot of men might in a similar situation and ignored it.
"Up until that point, I’d been used to checking down below, so to speak, but I’d never checked my chest.
"A few weeks later, I was in the shower again and noticed that the lump was still there. It felt different – maybe a bit harder – and I realised that it wasn’t going away.
"It was on my mind, as earlier in the year I took a friend to the hospital after she discovered a lump on her breast which turned out to be benign. I had the mantra ringing in my ears – if in doubt, shout. I did just that and rang my doctor."
His doctor's normally chatty tone changed quickly as she examined Mark, and advised he should get it investigated further.
After an ultrasound at Eastbourne District General Hospital, he was immediately called back for more tests, and had a biopsy.
He then went to the breast clinic in Hastings, where he was the only man present.
"It was very strange for me, being the only man there. I went with a female friend, but I got the impression that everyone thought she was the person waiting for results, not me.
'I could have accepted cancer, but 'breast cancer' weirdly shook me even more...'
"Before that day, I hadn’t even considered that my lump would be cancer – I thought it would be benign. But the fact that both a nurse and consultant were in the room for my appointment began to ring alarm bells."
He was told he had grade two breast cancer, when the cancer is up to or bigger than 5cm.
"I was absolutely stunned, I sat there and the words breast cancer came out and I don't think I heard the next five to ten minutes of what they said to me.
"I couldn't believe the words they said to me, you know 'breast cancer', I'm a bloke, it didn't seem to be right.
"I could have accepted cancer, but 'breast cancer' weirdly shook me even more.
"Breast cancer wasn't even on my radar, for me as a bloke. I don't think I was even aware of it, in fact I'm going to say I didn't know about it at that time.
"You're not told to check up top, you're told to check down below. I was utterly stunned, I couldn't get my head round it, it took me ages. I still, every so often, can't believe what's happened in the last 12 months."
Shortly after, and following a review of Mark's test results, the cancer was moved up to grade three, where cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the armpit and sometimes other lymph nodes nearby.
In August, he had surgery to remove his left breast as well lymph nodes, where cancerous cells were found.
He had to self isolate for 10 days before the operation.
In October, Mark started chemotherapy and then radiotherapy in February.
He said: "Because I was a bloke in a department full of ladies, to start with I got very strange looks, as I was on my own and I did stand out.
"But on my second and third visits to the breast department, weirdly I almost felt special."
Mark was able to work throughout his treatment, and is now cancer free. He is taking a hormone therapy for five years and will have mammogram screenings for the same time period.
He says he didn't tell many people about his diagnosis at first.
"I found it a little bit embarrassing that I had breast cancer and I didn’t want lots of people fussing around me. I didn’t really know how to handle the news initially and when I did tell people, they were very shocked.
"I’ve now got my head round things a lot more and I’m really happy to talk about what’s happened to me, to help raise awareness."
Mark has two sons, one aged 22 and another 26.
He said: "My younger son, who lives with me, took the news really badly. He had lost one of his best friends in a car accident, not long before my diagnosis and was very worried that he was going to lose me too. He thought I was going to die – to him, cancer was death, in his state at that time."
Three months after his treatment finished, at a gathering in London, the 56-year-old met with other men who had breast cancer, organised as part of Walk the Walk's Men Get Breast Cancer Too campaign.
Walk the Walk is a breast cancer charity best known as organisers of The MoonWalk London, where women and men wearing decorated bras walk marathons through the streets of London at midnight.
However the charity also raises awareness for breast cancer in men, through their Men Get Breast Cancer Too campaign, launched in 2017, with the support of six men diagnosed with the disease.
The campaign has grown since then and the six men have become 24.
The project aims to encourage men to check their chests regularly for lumps which could potentially be cancerous and is also working with ten charities to raise awareness of the disease in males.
Mark said: "Up until that point, I’d not met or even spoken to another man with breast cancer. As soon as I met the other men, I didn’t feel so alone – we spoke about the good, the bad and the ugly experiences during our treatment.
"From that time on, I’ve known that If I need support, I can contact any of the group."
As well as the gathering, Mark now joins virtual online meetings with other men diagnosed with breast cancer.
He said: "As much as my friends listened and cared deeply for me when I was diagnosed, they couldn’t totally understand what I went through having cancer and being a man with breast cancer was even tougher."
Asked why he felt passionately about raising awareness of male breast cancer, he said: "I speak to male friends and they say 'you have been ill, what have you had?' and they look at me as I'm completely mad.
"Cancer is acceptable to people in a way but breast cancer for a bloke, people can't get their head around it."
He said that women know to check their chests and therefore spot something worrying earlier, whereas some men might not know to.
He added that some men also might not think to ring the doctor if they notice something.
"Check up here, make that call. Don't be a bloke, do it. Us blokes are a bit 'it will go away' and I am that bloke, but thankfully because I took my friend I didn't."
Stuart Weaver, from Maidstone, has been speaking about male breast cancer for years, since he was first diagnosed in 2005.
He was diagnosed with the cancer for a third time in 2017, despite a single mastectomy, after it moved to his lungs.
He still has treatment every three weeks and his latest scan showed that no cancer has grown back.
The Tonbridge Road resident attended the same gathering as Mark, organised by Walk the Walk.
He says awareness of male breast cancer has "very slowly improved", but he wants to see more coverage in the media about the issue.
He said: "When I was first diagnosed it was like 'oh, men don't get breast cancer'. I think more people know now but there are still some that don't.
"When it comes to Breast Cancer Awareness Month, there should be more items in the press about in and in TV shows they normally get women in to talk about it and don't have any men.
"I know it's very rare and a small percentage, but it's still there. So it has got better, but it's not brilliant."
To read more about Walk the Walk's Men Get Breast Cancer Too campaign, click here.