My shameful condition requires a simple operation, but few in Nigeria can afford it | Michael Adebisi

YoIt was a few days before my 21st birthday in 2017 when my mother pointed out a small lump on my breast. At the time I was lifting weights and often walking around the house shirtless. Three weeks later, the lump had doubled in size. I went to a hospital, where a doctor diagnosed me with gynecomastia, a benign condition in which an imbalance between the hormones testosterone and estrogen causes excessive development of breast tissues.

The irony was not lost on me: I lifted weights because I aspired to the kind of masculinity typified by a chiseled chest and bulky muscles, but instead I had acquired a distinctly feminine trait.

The doctor assured me that it was common, although it typically occurred in newborns, teenagers, and men over 50 years old. He promised it would go away eventually. It didn’t, and the following year when I started studying at Lagos State University, it had become embarrassing.

In Nigeria, where I live, a man who has feminine qualities exposes you to ridicule and even physical harm. Many associate “unmanliness” with homosexuality, which is illegal.

I changed my lifestyle radically. She wore loose clothing made of thick fabric, even when it was hot. In my second year, I started wearing a girdle that made my chest hurt.

I avoided activities and places like swimming pools, where I had to be bare-chested or be the center of attention. I passed up the opportunity to play on my university’s soccer team and avoided making presentations in class. Not once during our six-month relationship did my girlfriend see me bare-chested. I shared an apartment with two other male students and gained the reputation of being the only person they knew who got dressed in the bathroom.

I felt miserable. I was living my life hidden. Living so cautiously meant having only a few friends and not enjoying the wild, spontaneous existence that most people have in college.

Once, while walking around campus with a friend, she joked that I needed to buy a bra. Her words hurt me so deeply that I avoided her for the rest of the term.

A student routinely pulled on my chest whenever he saw me. Another made a pun on my last name to rhyme with the Yoruba word for “breast.” But even when people weren’t openly commenting on my condition, I could feel their judging eyes. I became socially anxious. My self-esteem was shattered.

However, this cross I have carried for the past seven years could be relieved in a matter of minutes with a subcutaneous mastectomy, as a surgeon at the Lagos State University teaching hospital recently told me.

The surgery is prohibitively expensive: almost 1.9 million naira (£1,000). My monthly salary is 132,000 naira.

The current economic crisis has reduced the purchasing power of many Nigerians. In January, the inflation rate reached 29%, further driving away thoughts of surgery.

I recently spoke to two young Nigerians with this condition who see surgery as the Red Sea standing between them and salvation. One of them spends hours watching surgery videos on YouTube, wishing he could be him.

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I met these two men, and many others with this condition, through a Nigerian chat room. I found hope and comfort in knowing that my experiences were not unique and that other people who had previously had gynecomastia had led full lives after surgery.

It has helped me to hear testimonies from those who have chosen to live life fully even without surgery. I still wear baggy clothes, but my social anxiety is less crippling. I’ve learned to love my body just the way it is, even as I dream of the day I finally have surgery.

There are no official figures on the number of Nigerian men with gynecomastia and it rarely appears in the media. There are not enough support groups to ensure the mental well-being of people with this condition.

The Nigerian government and health organizations must do more to raise awareness about this disease. These efforts will not only help destigmatize gynecomastia, but will also provide sufferers with the support they need.

Michael Adebisi is a journalist based in Lagos

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