Johan Basson shares the manly side of breast cancer

This article was first published in Buddies For Life 2016 March/April issue. Written by Elsje Smit.

The fight against breast cancer is a fight most men never think they’ll have to face. Although it’s rare, men can be diagnosed with the disease. Well-known Gauteng businessman and father, Johan Basson knows the reality of that.

In 2009, Johan and his wife were enjoying a short break, at their holiday home in Ballito, when the alarming discovery was made. “I was sitting on the patio when I inadvertently rubbed my hand over my chest and felt the lump just behind the right nipple,” said Johan.

Shortly afterwards Johan had it examined by a special surgeon. “The doctor didn’t like what he felt and an immediate arrangement was made for various tests be conducted.” This is when Johan realised for the first time that there may be more to this painless, unobtrusive little lump. “A feeling of dread started creeping into my mind; what if this was a cancerous growth? Does this mean that I might die?”

At the Linksfield Clinic, Johan had to undergo three procedures including an ultrasound, mammogram and core biopsy.  Waiting for the results was a rather stressful period for the Basson family. “Whilst trying to stay positive, there remains the lingering worry of the possible prognosis in the back of one’s mind,” said Johan.

After a few days, the test results confirmed a ductal carcinoma. The news was devastating. “My wife, Beverley, took the news badly and was very upset at the time. Nonetheless, she was wonderfully supportive from the word go.”

On 23 June 2009 Johan had a mastectomy. “I experienced very little pain and discomfort after the surgery, although the drain was a real inconvenience. For more than three weeks it was attached to my body!”

Following a short post-surgery recovery, Johan started with chemotherapy. The challenges he faced while undergoing chemotherapy treatment included oral thrush, tiredness and skeletal pain. “It would hit me on the third day after therapy and take about a week to start clearing,” explained Johan.  “I was determined to stick to my usual regime and continued to go to the office, albeit that I must’ve looked a rather sorry sight… Throughout this treatment I focused on positive progress and a full recovery. I believe that this was a key factor for success.”

During chemotherapy, Johan lost all his hair – “not just on my head, but over my entire body.” Upon completion of the chemotherapy, Johan had to undergo six weeks’ daily radiation programme.

Merely two months after radiation has ended, Johan noticed swelling of his right arm, accompanied by pain. He was then diagnosed with lymphoedema.

“The condition resulted from the removal of some lymph nodes during the surgery and damage to the remaining nodes during radiation. My lymphatic system in the upper right quadrant was compromised,” clarified Johan.

He underwent a programme of physiotherapy and started wearing a compression sleeve on the entire length of his right arm. “This was a permanent part of my attire for probably five years.” In addition, Johan did special exercises to stimulate more effective operation of his lymphatic system.

Looking back at two years of emotions, fears and medical treatment, some of the key elements of coping with this development in Johan’s life included the following:

  • An experience of spiritual peace and strength.
  • The gratification of constant love, support and encouragement of the most important person in his life, his wife, Beverley. “She had been phenomenal in every aspect.”
  • Loyal encouragement by family, friends, colleagues, and business associates.

Johan, who is the managing director at JB Switchgear Solutions, is convinced that it was the extreme stress and emotional trauma after losing his youngest son, aged 21, in a motor vehicle accident that triggered his cancer. “No doubt it was aggravated by work pressures as well,” said Johan. “My condition served a clear message that I need to make every effort to remove any unnecessary stress from my lifestyle, to eat properly and exercise regularly.”

Around 2,5% of breast cancer occurs in men, and that percentage is growing. According to Johan it does not mean you are any less manly, or that you have reason to feel embarrassed or inadequate. “This may have caused some stigmatism years ago, but we are learning more about these things every day.”

Every six months Johan has a sonar done and once every year he has his mammogram, while continuing tamoxifen. Johan’s mantra he’d like to share with other men being diagnosed with breast cancer is, physiologically we are no different to our female counterparts. We also have boobs, albeit that they look nowhere near as pretty as the ladies! Until I was diagnosed I had no idea that breast cancer can occur in men…we must create the awareness amongst men that this can happen, and that it is quite natural, with no need to feel embarrassed or ‘different.’ So, remain positive, believe in your recovery, be prepared to talk about it without feeling any embarrassment, and know that you are still the man you have always been!