Married couple Neil and Pam describe how both of them coped with a breast cancer diagnosis

Our daughter Charlotte’s immediate reaction was simply “Oh no, not you as well”!

Neil’s story:

“I first realised something was wrong when I discovered what felt like some gristle under the skin of my right breast – the lump wasn’t much bigger than a pea. I kept an eye on it and it didn’t get any bigger, but I had a niggling feeling that I should get it checked out.

I was working as a Business Manager at the United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust and one day not long afterwards, I bumped into a surgeon I knew on the hospital corridor. I mentioned my lump and he told me I should go and see one of the hospital’s breast surgeons. It was a couple of months later that I eventually did this – in hindsight obviously, I should have gone sooner.

I had a number of tests and was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, I don’t think I was really aware that men could get breast cancer. In some ways, I guess I must have realised it was possible, but I’d never given it much further thought to be honest. When I was told about my own diagnosis, my immediate reaction was to just get on and deal with it – it was only later that I really had the chance to reflect on how serious the situation was.

My treatment was a mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy. During my surgery, I also had a number of lymph nodes removed –  cancer was detected in a few of them, but it hadn’t spread any further, which was a huge relief.

Going through my treatment was very difficult mentally. I did fall out quite a bit with my wife Pam and it was a very strange time in our relationship. You could almost guarantee that we would have an argument the night before I had a chemotherapy session! A lot of the time, my family just didn’t know what to say. I admit that I did try to protect my family and confided more in a few work colleagues who were very supportive. Pam said I was difficult to understand during this period of time and felt I was spending too much time at work.

Unbelievably, a few years later, my wife was also diagnosed with breast cancer. When she was ill – based on my own experience – I left her to make her own decisions as to how she was going to deal with everything. She admitted that she now totally understood what I’d been through! It’s always harder for the person watching on, when someone close to them isn’t well – it often feels that whatever you say or do isn’t right!

My cancer journey didn’t end there – I’ve also been diagnosed since with prostate cancer and bowel cancer, but have recovered well from both, although I still have regular tests. All my cancers were totally separate.

Up until relatively recently, I’d never even talked to another man diagnosed with breast cancer, but I finally did as part of “The Men’s VMU”, an online meet-up for men with a history of breast cancer diagnosis, which Walk the Walk helped to found. It was so helpful speaking to people just like me – it felt like the other men totally understood”!

Pam’s story:

My breast cancer diagnosis came seven years after my husband Neil’s. I’d gone through a period where I was feeling very tired. I knew I wasn’t very well, but couldn’t find a lump in my breast. I’d also noticed my reflection in the mirror a few times while I was naked and thought that my breast looked odd. One night, I was so exhausted, I got home from work, went straight to bed at 6pm and slept for about three hours. When I woke up, I felt again for a lump and finally found it in my left breast.

Early the following week, I rang the doctor’s to make an urgent appointment. I then told Neil about the lump. Our daughter Charlotte was there too and her immediate reaction was simply “Oh no, not you as well”!

I was urgently referred to the hospital, where the lump didn’t show up on the ultrasound. However, the surgeon told me that he was 99% certain that I had breast cancer and did a biopsy, which proved that I did. I had chemotherapy before my mastectomy to shrink the lump. During my surgery, they took out all 31 of my lymph nodes. Even though I had chemotherapy before my mastectomy, cancer was still present in 27 of them.

I lost all my hair because of the strong chemo I was given and it hardly grew back – I now wear a wig. But I still feel like I’m the luckiest girl alive. I also had radiotherapy as a belt and braces treatment and took the hormone therapy Letrazole for five years. It must have all worked, because over a decade later, I’m still here!

Neil and I both dealt with our breast cancers quite differently and it’s interesting that my memories of Neil being diagnosed with breast cancer differ from his! I actually discovered Neil’s lump. We were in bed having a cuddle and I mentioned to him that I could feel a lump, but he denied that he had one. A few weeks later I mentioned it again and urged Neil to go and get it checked out. I already knew at that time that men could get breast cancer.

When he was diagnosed, he was very difficult and he actually thought it was my fault that he hadn’t gone to the doctor’s earlier. He said I should have insisted that I make him get it checked out earlier.

When Neil was diagnosed, he cut me out, he cut his friends out. All he wanted was his work and his work colleagues. The partners of people who go through cancer have my utmost sympathy. How we didn’t split up I don’t know. I think that if we hadn’t had children, we would have.  He said to me at one point that if he could have gone away for six months and come back when it was over, he would have done. He said it was his way of shielding me from it, but it was quite cruel.

Neil did say to me when I was diagnosed that I had to do things my way. My way was quite different to his! I had a friend who came to check up on me every day and who came to chemo with me. I also took up my passion of gardening and since then I’ve literally grown thousands of plants. One thing I didn’t understand at the time Neil was diagnosed was the emotional effect it had on him. It wasn’t so much what he was exposing physically, it was what he was feeling inside.

Hearing Neil chatting to other men during online meeting for The Men’s VMU has been a real eye opener. I  hadn’t realised that he was feeling so insecure. I thought he was just trying to punish me. I now know it was his way of trying to shield us all. The VMU has helped me too! When he’s online I can hear what he’s saying from the next room and I think, wow, it’s taken you 20 years to admit that! I’ve never heard him talk about his breast cancer like he does on that call. My message to anyone with breast cancer  - man or woman – is to try and find someone to talk to, like Neil has finally done.

After everything we’ve been through, Neil and I are now both incredibly passionate about raising breast cancer awareness across the board. After all, a lot of men find their wives’ lumps and a lot of women would find their husbands’ lumps!

Thank you Neil and Pam for sharing your experiences with us. 

This Breast Cancer Awareness Month register your interest for The MoonWalk LondonThe MoonWalk Scotland or The MoonWalk Iceland, make a difference to those with breast and other cancers! Or make a donation today!


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