LET’S face it, breast cancer bears the face of a woman, right? Wrong!
Finding a man fighting breast cancer is akin to finding a hen with teeth — less than 1 percent of all breast cancers recorded globally occur in men.
Which is why the story of 71-year-old Mr Itai Mabasa Bopoto is as intriguing as it is startling.
About 2 620 men are expected to be diagnosed with the disease this year, while an estimated 520 men are expected to die from it.
This is out of a male population of over 3,9 billion, roughly 50,4 percent of the global population.
Mr Bopoto first suspected he had breast cancer after he started experiencing symptoms he had read about the disease.
He says that he took an interest in researching on non-communicable diseases after his friend had confided in him that he was suffering from liver cancer.
An economist by profession, Mr Bopoto had just returned to Zimbabwe from abroad in 2017 when he made the disconcerting discovery.
“After coming back home from Namibia where I had been working, I phoned my friend who had returned to South Africa to find out how he was doing,” Mr Bopoto began his narration.
“He said he had been bedridden for three months due to liver cancer. My heart sank with sorrow. My friend spoke jokingly about the disease but I did not know he was beyond redemption.
“He complained about delays in getting results from the laboratories. I came home trying to research on the internet about cancer of the lungs. So it was in October of 2017 when I bumped into an article about this breast cancer.”
The following month Mr Bopoto developed a lump below his breast and remembered what he had read earlier.
However, the article had highlighted that it was rare in men, so he dismissed the thought.
After visiting Highlands Clinic, where he trusted the guidance of mature medical personnel there, he was referred to Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals.
They took a sample from the affected area he was told to go back home.
Despite chasing the results anxiously, Mr Bopoto got them in March 2018, more than three months after initial samples had been collected.
While the results stated that the lump was non-malignant, it started growing about two months later.
The fact that the lump had been described as non-malignant kept Mr Bopoto in a comfort zone.
It was only after the lump had started growing at an alarming rate that he returned to Highlands Clinic.
Mr Bopoto was referred back to Parirenyatwa hospital, where the doctor who attended to him used a surgical needle to prick the lump.
“By now it was painful. The doctor ordered me to look for a biopsy needle. I spent three to four weeks looking for that needle but I couldn’t find it locally. I got a call from Namibia in the fourth week where someone was saying they had gotten the needle but before shipping they needed to know if it was the correct one.
“I rushed to Parirenyatwa to ask the doctor if I could ship in the needle. She said she did not know what a biopsy needle was, therefore, she could not give me any advice on whether to purchase or not. Meanwhile, the lump was growing,” Mr Bopoto said.
In the fourth week, he was attended to by a doctor who told him they already had a biopsy needle, and a sample of his breast tissue was finally taken.
Worried about the delays in the processes, he followed his results to the laboratory.
He was diagnosed with invasive carcinoma.
Thoughts of his friend who had succumbed to liver cancer flooded his mind.
After presenting the results to his doctor, his worst fears were confirmed: He now required urgent attention.
“I had an operation called grand mastectomy and the bleeding was severe. The only person I remember who had something like that was my grandfather’s brother.”
For some time, the samples could not be accounted for, threatening to derail Mr Bopoto’s next move — beginning chemotherapy.
“With chemotherapy, everything went on well, but I was prescribed a lot of drugs which when I carried them looked like a shopping bag.
“One of the drugs was not available locally. Fortunately, my wife attends church with a lady whose husband is in India. And she had the drug flown in from India.”
Mr Bopoto had four cycles of chemotherapy and he completed them by the beginning of 2019.
His hopes to commence radiotherapy were further dented when he was told the machine at Parirenyatwa hospital was not working.
With his finances exhausted, Mr Bopoto tried to sell one of his assets but could not find a buyer. Assistance came through his children who flew him to Namibia where he went through four weeks of radiotherapy.
Currently, he is on a drug called tamoxifen, but the doctors said he would be declared cancer free after five years — this will be in 2024 if the cancer doesn’t recur.
Talking of lessons learnt, Mr Bopoto said ignorance kills, hence everyone has a role to play in researching and sharing information about health.
He belongs to the Reach for Recovery, an arm of the Cancer Association of Zimbabwe, where people share information.
He said more needed to be done to revamp the health sector so that lives would not be lost. In order to boost his diet, he grows a variety of vegetables and grains on his small plot.
“If a man has a lump, why not remove it, whether it is non-malignant or not. If mine had been removed, it could have saved me thousands of dollars, frustration, travelling and everything.
“And to the men, don’t think you are special, men must also test their breast. If there is a small lump go for a test, it’s very important that one does it.
“At a Reach for Recovery meeting, I met my high school friend’s wife. When she phoned her husband, he said to me, ‘what are you doing there with women, breast cancer is for women?’ I told him I also have breast cancer and it awakened him.”