Les Thompson & John Thackery

Did you know that men can also get breast cancer? Male breast cancer may only account for 1% of cancers in men, but it still happens. In fact, two Puffing Billy volunteers have been diagnosed with male breast cancer and have shared their stories in support of Male Breast Cancer Awareness Day.

John & Les


"I was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2012. I thought it was a little unusual when I noticed the small lump, only a few millimetres in length, on my breast and wasn’t sure what it could be. My wife, Ruth, also had a look and was concerned, so we sought a medical opinion.

The doctor diagnosed me immediately, and within a week I was in surgery having the cancer removed. I was incredibly lucky that the assistant surgeon was none other than my friend and fellow Puffing Billy volunteer, Peter Donald. Peter made me feel comfortable about the surgery and was the first person I saw when I woke up in recovery.

Fortunately, they were able to remove the cancer and I did not require chemo therapy treatment. Prior to my diagnoses, I was about to take on the role of acting traffic manager at the railway. This had been announced in the weekly newsletter to all volunteers and staff. When the second notice was sent out to announce the change in staffing due to my surgery, I wanted everyone to know exactly why I was not available. I wanted to create awareness that breast cancer can happen to men as well as women, and that men need to be doing regular checks for lumps and cysts in the breast area. My surgeon apologised that much of the information and support services surrounding breast cancer were predominantly directed towards women. Breast cancer in men may not be common, but it does happen and it is important to spread the word in order to increase awareness.

I underwent hormone therapy and attend yearly check-ups which include a mammogram and ultrasound.”

John Thackeray

"I was working at Puffing Billy when Les was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was curious about the disease, his diagnosis and treatment, and had spoken to Les about it quite a bit. A few years later, in February 2016, I was in bed and rolled over to check the time and felt a pain in my chest. I realised I had a significant lump at the origin of the pain, and visited the doctor as soon as possible. I was sent for an ultrasound and mammogram and received a call from the doctor the next day to tell me the unfortunate news; I had breast cancer.

Coincidentally, I was at Puffing Billy on a shift when I received the call – and Les was standing just across the platform. I was shocked by the news and my initial thought was that I wouldn’t make it to my next birthday, however seeing Les reminded me that if he was ok, then I might be ok, too. I went in for surgery later that week to have a single mastectomy, but unlike Les, I also had to undergo both chemotherapy and hormone therapy. The chemo made me quite ill and it was a very unpleasant time. I was very lucky that I knew Les and his story, as this provided some comfort in knowing that it could all be okay.

Four years earlier my sister had also been diagnosed with breast cancer, so when I was diagnosed my doctor suggested that breast cancer may run in the family and genetics may have played a role in our mutual diagnosis. He referred us to the Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation so we could undertake genetic testing to see if we were carriers of the defective gene that can cause breast cancer. Fortunately neither of us were carriers, which was great news for our families.

I still have check-ups every three months, which I can happily say have all had positive results to date."

Both men were thankful for the Puffing Billy Railway Carer’s group, which was established to provide support to volunteers in any way they need it. When John was diagnosed, his wife Ann called the carer’s group to let them know the news. The group put Les in contact with John, who was able to provide support and comfort to John and share his experience. Les’ wife, Ruth, also provided support for Ann, which was invaluable.

Early diagnosis is crucial to prevent the spread of breast cancer and increase the survival rate of both males and females. Just like women, men should not neglect to have a doctor check any unusual lumps or pains in the breast area. Nor should they assume that it is a women’s disease or presume that it cannot happen to them. Although genetics can play a large role in men and women being diagnosed with breast cancer, it is not always the case. There are people who have no genetic history of the disease who unfortunately will still be diagnosed. On the upside, there is an 85% survival rate in males diagnosed with breast cancer, so be aware and check for lumps as early detection is the key.