The month of October is marked by all things pink to increase awareness about breast cancer, to show support to breast cancer survivors and generally to celebrate the strength of women through pink power. These symbols are usually associated with women and consequently breast cancer is not usually associated with men. But men get breast cancer, too.
Even if only one percent of males get it, they face the same challenges as women once they are diagnosed. The difference lies in what prompts them to seek medical advice and therefore how early they are diagnosed.
Aging is the single biggest risk factor for developing breast cancer in both males and females. Having a family history of breast cancer is also a risk factor for both men and women. Men who have taken drugs with estrogen (e.g., hormonal therapy for prostate cancer), have liver cirrhosis, are obese, have Klinefelter’s syndrome (a genetic syndrome which produces more female hormones than male hormones in boys) and have had previous surgery on the testicles or a disease of the testicles are at a greater risk of developing breast cancer.
Women are usually advised to undergo an annual mammogram and ultrasound from the age of 40 because “your best protection is early detection.” Because men do not have breasts like women, they do not normally get the same advice. Men should examine their breasts once a month and should be able to feel a lump if one develops since their breast tissue is usually flat. When a lump is felt, he should consult a breast surgeon and have an ultrasound done. But in reality, when a man develops a lump in his breast, it usually grows quite large as it is ignored out of shame and embarrassment. It is only when there is pain that they consult a doctor. At this point, it is often no longer an early stage detection.
The treatment of male breast cancer is the same as that for females. However, more often than not, it is not possible to conserve the breast in men because there is usually not enough breast tissue to conserve the breast and the tumor is already quite large. Doing a mastectomy on a man is surgically the same as a woman and the impact on their lives is equally as great. Men share the same feelings of embarrassment and insecurity when losing a breast, often made worse by the added shame of having a “woman’s illness.” Male survivors are also not celebrated in the way that women are, often because they don’t admit to being one in the first place.
The effects of chemotherapy and hormonal therapy impact men and women in different ways. Most women experience menopausal symptoms like hot flushes, mood swings and, for some, joint pains. Many men experience erectile dysfunction. These side effects can be treated and both men and women can go on to lead fulfilling lives as survivors.
We need to change how people see breast cancer and survivors – that men can get breast cancer as well and surviving it should be celebrated, too. In doing so, we will be supporting men in seeking medical advice earlier.