I had my breasts removed to beat cancer


Last updated at 16:58 19 October 2004

Ian Bentley, 40, a driver from Macclesfield, Cheshire, has watched breast cancer kill his mother, grandmother, aunt and brother. And last November his sister Alison was also diagnosed with the disease, which propelled Mr Bentley to make a radical decision.

Here, he tells Angela Epstein his story.

Most people are unaware that men can develop breast cancer. After all, only 200 cases are diagnosed in this country each year and most of those are men aged over 60. Until a few years ago, I would have been equally ignorant. But I have watched the agony of the male form of this disease strike at first hand.

My family already had a tragic female history of this terrible illness. Yet none of us could have believed that when my brother Kevin was troubled with an itchy left nipple in March 1999, it could possibly be breast cancer. Men still have breast tissue and it is this area than can be affected by cancer. They also have breast duct cells which can also undergo cancerous changes.

Normally male hormones produced by the testicles prevent increased growth of breast tissue. And that, coupled with the fact that women have much more breast tissue and are constantly exposed to tumour-feeding oestrogen, means that men are at much less risk of getting the disease.

But tests revealed Kevin had a form of cancer invades the breast ducts. The family looked on helplessly as he was treated with a single mastectomy and radiotherapy. It was a terrible time and though he fought bravely, Kevin died in 2002. He was 39.

And so there was no agonising when, two years later, I decided to have a pre-emptive mastectomy last August. The operation involves removing all the breast tissue and in some cases the nipple, too.

Breast cancer has dealt my family some terrible blows. My mother was 50 when she died from it. She had lost her mother and sister at similar ages.

For this reason, long before Kevin's untimely death, my sister Alison was having mammograms at a family history clinic called the Nightingale Centre based at Withington Hospital in Manchester.

Until a few years ago, doctors could decide whether a breast cancer was hereditary only by looking at family patterns. But a major breakthrough came when it was discovered that a defective gene called the BRCA1 could be passed down through families.

Given our family history, doctors expected to find that my brother carried this gene. Astonishingly, the results were inconclusive.

Deciding that living with the unknown was worse, Alison arranged to have a preventative mastectomy.

A month before Alison was due to have her double mastectomy, she discovered a lump on her left breast. Her last mammogram had been clear but when doctors went back to re-examine it, they found some signs of changing cells. She went ahead and had the operation.

Her diagnosis was like a wake-up call to me. Alison was 38. And I was now older than Kevin had been when he was diagnosed. How long would I have to wait before cancer struck me, too? Alison's blood was analysed to see if she carried the defective gene. Like Kevin's blood sample, her results were inconclusive. I knew the cancer had to be hereditary.

And like my brother and sister, I had a partner and children to consider. A mastectomy was the only option.

My wife and family fully supported me but I wasn't simply given a green light for surgery. At first I was given a mammogram but with insufficient tissue to 'get hold of' in the male form the results were impossible to read. I remained steadfast.

The operation at Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester didn't scare me. I knew what Kevin had endured. When I had the bilateral mastectomy in August, in which the tissue and nipples from both breasts were removed, I was home a few days later.

I supposed I should have been overwhelmed with relief after the operation. A sample of breast tissue from the surgery has been analysed and pronounced clear of pre-cancerous cells. Thankfully my sister now has the all-clear too.

But the relief I should feel is tempered by fears for the next generation of my family. I worry for my children, my son is 20 and my daughter, 15.

It's for this reason that I'm backing a campaign - led by breast cancer charity The Genesis Appeal - to raise £10million to build Europe's first breast cancer prevention centre at Manchester's Wythenshawe Hospital.

I can only enjoy my future if I can safeguard one for my children, too.

To donate to the appeal, call 0845 704 5453 or visit www.genesisuk.org.