“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.