June 2019, aged 41, I discovered a lump on my right nipple as I was parking my car. After speaking about it with my doctor, she thought there was nothing to be worried about. Some days later, I felt something was not right and went for the first mammographic scan. The technician looked at the scan and said, “You should show this to an oncologist”.
I got the news in the worst possible way by a doctor who did not explain me anything to me and simply dropped the bomb: “this is cancer and we need to cut it off your body otherwise things will get pretty serious”. My reaction was to think I was going to die as I was mis-lead by that first doctor. This made me look for a second opinion and that was when I met Dr. Fatima Cardoso. She and her team at Champalimaud Clinic made sure I was well informed about MBC and told me I was not going to die of it, at least not this time. Everything improved tremendously from that point on.
Diagnosed at Stage 3, I had neo-adjuvant chemotherapy followed by a conservative tumorectomy, and then radiation. I am now on hormone therapy; five years of tamoxifen. I handled the treatments very well. Besides losing my hair, and feeling sleepy during the day after each chemo, the rest was irrelevant and had little impact on my life. I continued to work and do high-energy outdoor sports throughout the whole process. I was treated in the Portuguese public free healthcare system to whom I am very grateful.
A few people from family and some friends were very helpful in those early days. My mother was amazing. She went through breast cancer treatment 20 years before me and she knew how I was feeling. Both of us had negative results for the genetic tests BRAC1 and BRAC2. I also tested negative on a second batch of 16 genes. It all looks like things such as stress, pollution, or unhealthy diet may have been the main causes of my cancer. One thing I learnt is how bad sugar is for humans. And how much tumours love it.
The majority of the people close to me were very supportive and gave me strength. I felt they tried to understand the situation, my situation, instead of reacting to things they had heard before about others. However, there were a couple of people who reacted has if I had been given a death sentence. Some thought this was a taboo subject and that if you have cancer, they say you are sick and walk away. My girlfriend broke up with me the week after I got the bad news, although our relationship had been going downhill for a while. Losing the person I loved in that context truly knocked me down and I only managed to overcome that phase with the help of a psychologist.
As I started the treatments, knowing I was not going to die and that I could even keep my body unaltered by avoiding a mastectomy, I started to relax. After the first chemo, I realised it was neither painful nor difficult and would not cause any of those side-effects you hear about. Losing my hair was not a big deal. Once I realised that I could continue to work – this was very important to me – and that I could do the things I loved – like bodyboarding and watching live music – I forgot what I was going through. Except when I looked at a mirror!
I’ve been an ocean lover and all my life is about the sea. All the big decisions I made had the ocean as an important factor. I love my job as a marine science communicator. Working, for me, is a pleasure and that is why it was so important for me to keep working through chemo and everything else. I got medical leave that would put me away, at home, doing nothing for six months. I refused it and moved the chemo sessions to Friday so that I sleep on weekends and work from Monday to Thursday.
What I Learned
Number one, all humans have breast tissue and therefore all men can have all breast tissue diseases.
Number two, there is not one cancer nor one breast cancer. There are countless diseases we call cancer and they are all different, have different behaviours, and impacts on our lives. In the case of MBC, I was told by the experts that there are at least four main types: two are relatively easy to fix, one is kind of tricky, and one is quite bad. Depending on what tumour type you have, that can mean a minimum impact on your life – as long as you do things right, ASAP, and with a positive attitude. Meaning, we should not react to cancer always in a negative mode. Sometimes, there are worse things in life that affect your mental health that are much more complicated to handle than some cancers. My way to positiveness was to look for the right doctors that took their time to explain everything to me and made me feel safe.
Number three and final message, do not hide it! Hiding your disease, your treatments, your hair loss, etc, will only make you feel alienated. No one is supposed to go through oncology treatments alone. You need others, people who love you, to feed your self-esteem and inner energy. It’s somehow a selfish attitude but, hey, you have cancer, it’s okay to focus on yourself for a while. Do that and you might have a chance to payback later.