Hope amidst stigma: Male breast cancer survivor says there's no need for shame

Nersan Govender was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2013, an experience he said altered the course of his life forever.

Male breast cancer survivor Nersan Govender. Picture: Supplied.

JOHANNESBURG – A male breast cancer survivor is urging society to create safe spaces for men to openly talk about the disease.

Nersan Govender was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2013, an experience he said altered the course of his life forever.

Speaking to Eyewitness News, Govender said: “Society must accept that male breast cancer is a reality and create spaces for them to talk about it openly. The macho male society especially needs to be educated.”

According to CANSA, male breast cancer is rare and accounts for 1% of all breast cancers; it is a hundred times more common in women than in men. And that is perhaps why most believe it is a “women’s disease”.

But Govender is on a mission to share his story far and wide in order to change that narrative and encourage men to check themselves, seek help and openly talk about it.

“Checking for symptoms is similar to [how] women [do it]. Get to know your body; the easiest is when you’re showing or taking a bath, look for anything that is unusual, such as boils or pimples around the breast area. If found, get it checked out.”

Other symptoms, according to CANSA, may include a painless lump under the nipple or areola, an inverted nipple, swelling of the breast tissue, a rash around the nipple, discharge or bleeding from the nipple and a swelling or lump in the armpit.

Following his diagnosis in 2013, Govender began his treatment journey: “Over 10 months, I had surgery to remove the tumour, followed by radiotherapy and then chemotherapy.”

This came with physical and mental challenges.

“What made things even tougher was that male breast cancer is so rare, that my oncologist and her colleagues weren’t sure what the best course of treatment would be.

“Once it was confirmed that chemo would work for me, I began the fight of my life. I fought hard despite the fact that my prognosis wasn’t very good and while I went into it prepared to fight a physical fight for my body, I soon realised that the real fight was a mental one. That’s where you have to win this battle.”

The notion that ‘men don’t have breasts and can’t have breast cancer’ is what brought on the emotional turmoil for Govender.

“Real men do cry. Being afflicted with cancer humbles you quickly. I and others have literally cried many days and nights from the pain and the chemotherapy. One is so vulnerable at the time as mortality comes under the radar.”

Almost eight years later and now in remission, he’s part of a support group that has about 3,000 members with branches in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. He is chair of the Wings of Hope Cancer Support Group and a member of the Momentum Force, a group of experts geared toward giving breast cancer-related advice to men across the country.

“There’s not enough advocacy and awareness around male breast cancer. It is still regarded very much as a woman’s disease and I’m hopeful that the support of big businesses and support groups would be able to demystify the incidence of male breast cancer.”

And with what now feels like a second shot at life, Govender celebrates two birthdays every year: “My biological birthday in July, and then my second life birthday on 21 June [the day the doctor broke the news to him]. I feel like I’ve been given a second chance in life and that’s why I tell people to live their best lives. You cannot give up; you have to have hope.”

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