United States

Innovative Procedure Spares Breast Cancer Patient's Nipples

When a Pennsylvania man learned he needed a double mastectomy, he became self-conscious about how he would look afterward, but an advanced technique performed at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital allowed him to keep his nipples.

Breast cancer in men is extremely rare – making up only 1 percent of the cases in the U.S., but despite the odds, 480 men will die from the disease this year.

The most common symptom: a lump or swelling in the chest area.

Matt Sheads was in the best shape of his life, playing sports and running marathons, but in 2013, something wasn’t right.

“I was running, training for a half-marathon and I felt a bump on the left of my nipple,” Sheads said.

A doctor in his hometown of Gettysburg told him not to worry. A year went by and the lump was still there so Matt went back for a mammogram.

“You go from this high to a low, like, what's going to happen?” he said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty once you're diagnosed with breast cancer. In my mind I’m thinking to myself, I have a son, I’m worried about am I going to be here in a couple years?”

Sheads caught the cancer early, but doctors told him he needed a double mastectomy, and he worried about how he would look.

“I know it sounds silly for a guy to be worried about his nipples, but I was concerned about how I would look once I had the surgery,” he said.

“Women tend not to go out topless, men do,” MedStar Georgetown Chair of Surgery Dr. Shawna Willey said. “In men that I’ve done mastectomies on, they have scars across their chest and lost their nipples. They expressed to me how self-conscious they were and they would not go swimming with their kids.”

She said Sheads was a good candidate for a technique called "nipple sparing mastectomy" because of the location of his tumor.

“If the lump had been right below the nipple, we couldn't have saved the nipple,” she said.

A few weeks after surgery, Sheads had a clean bill of health.

Willey said men and women can have a nipple sparing mastectomy depending on where the tumor is located.

The general rule when finding a lump in your breast is that a hard mass that does not roll around under your skin is concerning while a soft lump that rolls between your fingers like a grape is less concerning. But the only sure way to know is to go to a doctor and get a test like a mammogram.

Reported by Doreen Gentzler and edited by Perkins Broussard.

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