“Breast cancer in men” seems an oxymoronic phrase, but it’s a sad truth: men do get breast cancer, and usually fare worse than women after being diagnosed. This Father’s Day, think about whether your breast cancer experience translates into increased risk for the men in your life – and what you should do about it.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer 11 years ago, my first thought was for my then-14-year-old son.
Would I live to see him graduate from high school? Heck, would I even be around for his next soccer season?
Like most women, I knew very little about breast cancer back then. I recognized the pink ribbon was its symbol, of course; how could I not, with it being slapped on everything from breakfast cereal to used cars every October? But beyond that – yes, 1 in 8 women would get breast cancer, but not me.
Then, suddenly, it WAS me. And I learned a lot about breast cancer in a very short time, because knowledge is power, and suddenly information acquisition became a matter of life and death: my life, my death.
I read books; I tried that newfangled search engine, Google; and I listened to other survivors: friends of friends, a couple of my son’s teachers, women I’d never known had dealt with breast cancer.
I made all the tough decisions; went through the treatments; and, like so many millions of us, I moved on. Cancer will always be a part of my life; as survivors, it changes us permanently. But it’s just a piece of background scenery now, not part of the main act.
Except, recently, I’ve been thinking about my son, Nikolai. Now 26 years old, he’s the picture of health: strong, athletic, tireless. He’s currently somewhere in eastern Europe, having left his job in China to gradually make his way home before heading back overseas for grad school.
If Nik had been a daughter, we would have discussed long ago how my cancer diagnosis increased his (her) risk of breast cancer.
But I didn’t learn, until several years into my survivorhood, that men could get breast cancer, too. And at that point, with my family still slowly recovering from the experience – “Is she going to die?” – I didn’t want to reopen raw wounds.
So Nik and I never had the discussion. Does he realize his breast cancer risk is higher than that of most men? Does he even know breast cancer’s a possibility? I don’t know.
A recent study of men with breast cancer – the largest study of its kind yet undertaken – made me think again about what Nik knows, and what he doesn’t. And I think it’s about time we had that discussion.
While only about 1 in 1,000 men will get breast cancer sometime during their life (the risk for women is 1 in 8), those who are diagnosed will generally fare worse than their wives and mothers and sisters. Analyzing 10 years of data, researchers found that male breast cancer is usually diagnosed later; involves larger, higher-grade tumors and more advanced disease; and has lower survival rates.
Researchers theorize that at least part of the difference comes from lack of knowledge. Most men don’t realize breast cancer is even a remote possibility; if they feel a lump in their chest, they’re likely to ignore it, or dismiss it as a harmless cyst. Unlike women, men don’t panic when they discover a lump under their nipple (the most likely spot for men to develop breast cancer).
Should men be screened for breast cancer, just like women? No; it’s way too rare to warrant regular screening, with the expense and risks mammograms entail.
But should doctors discuss the possibility of breast cancer with their male patients?
Yes, especially if those patients are at increased risk. Heavy drinking, growing older, genetic mutations, and a family history all increase breast cancer risk in men, just as they do in women.
And, just like women, men can lower their breast cancer risk by following a healthy lifestyle: regular exercise, weight maintenance, a good diet, limited drinking, no smoking.
Since my healthy son never sees a doctor, it’s probably time he hears that he could get breast cancer from someone who’s been there: his mother.
And when Nik resurfaces in America, one of these months, I’ll give him a big hug; then sit him down for a brief but very important discussion about his health.
Melville, N. A. (2012, May 09). Male breast cancers less common, more advanced at diagnosis. Retrieved from http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/763567
Tanner, L. (2012, May 04). Breast cancer is rare in men, but they fare worse. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-501367_162-57428246/breast-cancer-is-rare-in-men-but-they-fare-worse/
Published On: June 17, 2012