The other day when I was leaving the grocery store, I came across a car covered in pink. Pink ribbon bumper stickers, pink beads hanging from the rearview mirror, and a great big pink “Feel Your Boobies” sticker across the back window. Breast Cancer supporters are everywhere—and that’s fantastic! But it got me thinking, have you ever noticed how breast cancer campaigns are targeted almost exclusively toward women. While this is not a bad thing, of course, because the incredibly vast majority of breast cancer sufferers are women, it leaves out half of the population that is also at risk for developing breast cancer.
That’s right! We often forget that men can develop breast cancer and face some of the same problems with diagnoses and treatment. While less common, it is still a cause for concern and here is why we need to care more about breast cancer in men?
How does it work?
Most common forms of breast cancer, in both men and women, are found in the tissue in the breasts. Both men and women possess these tissues. In women, when they are exposed to estrogen, these tissues grow and develop into full breasts. While in men, these tissues generally remain dormant due to lower levels of estrogen and higher levels of testosterone in the body.
Because the tissue is present in both men and women, the threat for breast cancer exists in both sexes as well.
Only about 1% of breast cancer cases are found in male patients; that’s about 2,350 cases per year, or one out of a thousand U.S. men. While that doesn’t seem like a lot of cases, an estimated 440 of these men will die from breast cancer in that time.
Most men diagnosed with breast cancer fall between the ages of 60 and 70, but it can affect men of any age. While there are no specific causes for this cancer that have been determined, many risk factors can make a man more predisposed to developing breast cancer, including:
- Genetic predisposition: The presence of the BCRA2 gene mutation, which also makes women more likely to develop breast cancer in their lifetimes.
- Estrogen: Treatments that require the introduction of higher-than-normal levels of estrogen in the body, as well as conditions that cause the body to produce excess estrogen.
- Radiation exposure: Excessive exposure to radiation, not generally including normal exposure in medical settings.
These are just a few of the risk factors. As with any medical diagnosis, the cause and treatment will vary slightly from patient to patient.
A light at the end of the tunnel
Breast cancer, for both men and women, is a severe diagnosis, but as with most cancer, the key to successful treatment is early detection.
The 5-year survival rate for breast cancer in stages 0 and 1 for both men and women is 100%. For stages 2 and 3, the survival rate is 72%. With that high survival rate for the earlier stages of the disease, why are so many men each year dying from breast cancer?
The answer to that is many men don’t realize that they can get breast cancer and even if they do, they aren’t on the lookout for any symptoms that would lead to early detection. In a poll conducted by YouGov, approximately 73% of men polled realized that they could get breast cancer, but 73% didn’t regularly check for symptoms of the disease.
We’ll say it again because it is so important to remember. Early detection is the key to successful cancer treatment.
If breast cancer is suspected, the first step is for the affected person, man or woman, to have a mammogram. Once a diagnosis is complete, the treatment options are the same as breast cancer treatments for women.
Early-stage cancers are treated with surgery, either mastectomy or lumpectomy and radiation. For later-stage cancers, chemotherapy and/or hormone therapy are also an option, depending on if the cancer is hormone receptor positive or hormone receptor negative.
Things to remember
Remember, the key to cancer treatment is early detection. We know that we’ve already said this twice, but it bears repeating once more. We need to care more about breast cancer in men, and the first step to doing that is removing the stigma that breast cancer only affects women.
Once we do that, it’s important everyone, man or woman, learns how to recognize changes in their bodies. Often, breast cancer symptoms are painless and only noticeable if you learn to recognize things out of the ordinary—a lump that wasn’t there before or a nipple that looks odd.
Finally, and possibly, the most important thing to remember is to report anything out of the ordinary to your doctor immediately. Even if all they do is put your fears to rest, it’s important to get into the habit of bringing these things to your doctor’s attention.
Any cancer diagnosis is a serious one. But with early detection and treatment, it’s not a death sentence. Enjoy your life and take care of yourself, men and women alike, and everything else will fall right into place.