Living with breast cancer
The diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer causes changes in your life, and can change how you think and feel about things. These changes and their effects will not be the same for all men.
It’s not always easy, but over time, most men do adjust to changes caused by their experience with breast cancer. Over time, most men find they are able to return to doing the things that are important to them.
Some of the feelings experienced by men diagnosed with breast cancer are outlined in this section. Most men find that, over time, distressing feelings ease. Sharing your thoughts and feelings with others, even painful feelings, can help you cope with your diagnosis. You might find it helpful to talk with one or more of the following: your specialist; breast care nurse; GP; psychiatrist; psychologist; counsellor; or other men who have had breast cancer.
“I was very open about having breast cancer right from the start, and that helped me deal with it.”
It is common for men with breast cancer to feel anxious. Anxiety or fear is often felt in distressing situations. You could find yourself feeling anxious while waiting for test results, anxious about your treatment and its effect on you and your family, or anxious about the future. Other symptoms of anxiety include:
- frequently have worrying thoughts that interfere with your daily life or relationships
- feeling tense or irritable and finding it difficult to relax
- having difficulty concentrating and making decisions
- having difficulty sleeping
- feeling that things are just too difficult, or even hopeless at times.
If you have experienced some or all of these symptoms, you could be suffering some anxiety. Talk to your doctor, nurse, or other health care professional as soon as possible.
Feelings of sadness or depression are a common reaction to serious illness. A person may be depressed, if for more than two weeks they have felt sad, down or miserable most of the time and have experienced some of the following symptoms:
- loss of interest and pleasure in work or other activities
- feeling a sense of worthlessness
- having negative thoughts like “life’s not worth living”
- difficulty sleeping
- withdrawing from close family or friends
- feeling less motivated to organise activities or be involved in the regular daily activities
- feeling irritable, frustrated, guilty or unhappy.
If you have experienced some or all of these symptoms, you may be experiencing some depression. Talk to your doctor, nurse, or another health care professional about how you’re feeling. Treatment for depression is available, and can help.
For more detailed information about depression go to www.beyondblue.org
Fatigue, or a lack of energy, is a common side effect of breast cancer treatment. You may feel tired or exhausted some or all of the time. Fatigue can affect concentration, and the ability to complete simple everyday tasks, creating feelings of frustration and anger. Rest may not always help; light exercise like going for a walk may improve energy levels.
“The treatment made me tired and cranky, although my wife reckons I’ve always been cranky.”
“I had a total loss of interest in anything, it really knocked me for six, I felt so lethargic and I didn’t feel like eating, I had to push myself to carry on as normal as possible.”
Loss of libido/sexual interest
Some men who have been treated for breast cancer find that they lose interest in sex. This may be due to the side effects of treatment, feeling worried or concerns about body image after surgery. Even if it is difficult, try and be open and honest with your partner about your concerns and feelings. Your doctor can give you more information on what's causing any loss in libido you're experiencing. If you do not feel comfortable talking to your doctor you can ask for a referral to a health professional who specialises in this area like an oncology or sexual health counsellor, psychologist or therapist. For more information and referral options for sexual concerns you can contact the Cancer Helpline on 13 11 20.
Self-esteem body image
The physical changes resulting from treatment for breast cancer may affect how men feel about themselves and their bodies. Some men feel self-conscious about exposing their chest and mastectomy scar or wearing tight fitting shirts after surgery. It may take time to adjust to the changes.
“I have a big scar across my chest, I think twice about taking my top off in public now.”
Breast reconstruction for men is not common. However, breast reconstruction may be possible, talk to your surgeon before surgery to discuss your options. Nipple tattooing is also possible; this gives the effect of a nipple and areola on the chest.
Impact on family and friends
Your breast cancer diagnosis and treatment will affect others in your life, such as your partner, your family and close friends. They may feel worried, powerless or not know what to say. They could have similar emotions to you, such as shock, sadness, depression, fear, anxiety and anger. Every person is different and will have his or her own way of coping with your breast cancer. To help you cope with your breast cancer and resolve any problems, good communication between yourself and others is important.
Many hospitals and community organisations provide support groups and information for family and friends. There are also a range of print and online resources that provide practical information for those affected by someone with cancer. For more information and resources or support groups you can contact the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20.
“The hardest part was telling the family.”
A diagnosis of breast cancer does not mean your daughter or son will also develop breast cancer. Your doctor will be able to provide you with information about the risk of cancer in your family. For men diagnosed with breast cancer, referral to a family cancer clinic for genetic assessment should be considered, particularly if there is Jewish ancestry, a family history of breast or ovarian cancer or if the family history is unknown.
Impact on social activity
Having surgery and treatment may affect your ability to participate in some physical activities. It may take time to adjust to not being able to play sport or being as active as you were before having breast cancer. This is temporary and most men will be able to participate in sport and other social activities after a period of time. Talk to your doctor about what you can/can’t do.
“I haven’t stopped playing golf, can only play 9 holes instead of 18 but I still play.”
“I’ve lost a bit of strength in my arms, and can’t reach as high as I used to, but I still play tennis, still play squash, no worries at all”
How to tell others
As breast cancer is often seen as a ‘woman’s cancer’ some men find it difficult or embarrassing talking about their breast cancer. You may want to start by telling close friends and family and then once you feel more comfortable and confident talking about your cancer, let other people know. The more open you are about your breast cancer, the easier it may be for others to support you.
“I have never tried to hide the fact that I had breast cancer. I have received a lot of support from my family and friends”
Impact on work
For most men, work is a large part of their life and identity. Some men are able to work during their treatment, but for others this is not possible. It may take time to adjust to not being able to work and support your family during treatment and to having others support and look after you. Talk to your doctor about when you might be able to return to work. A loss of strength in your arm resulting from surgery may affect your ability for a while to work in positions requiring heavy lifting or use of your arms. Talk to you doctor about how you can manage this.
“I’ve gone back to work part time on reduced duties because there are certain things now that I can’t or don’t want to do just to be on the safe side.”
Coping with financial issues can also be a concern. If you have concerns about your work or financial situation you can ask to meet with a social worker or counsellor.
“I guess we were lucky because my wife had a job, and we still had an income coming in, but if my wife didn’t have a job, I would have been worried about how we were going to survive.”