At first it wasn’t much more than the kind of twinge you feel when a chest hair gets caught in your T-shirt. But a couple of weeks later, there was a small stain on the left side of his shirt, the size and color of a coffee drop. After a second such discharge, he went to his primary care doctor, who referred him to a surgical oncologist.
That’s when it hit Michael, a 61-year-old Parkland Health & Hospital System employee who asked that his real name not be used. He might have breast cancer. A mammogram and biopsy confirmed it.
It’s not a disease usually associated with men, but doctors note that men also can contract breast cancer. With June being Men’s Health Awareness Month, it’s a good time to discuss what men need to know about breast cancer.
While men account for only about 1 percent of breast cancer cases, the National Cancer Institute notes that a variety of factors can increase a man’s chances of developing breast cancer. These include a family history of cancer, exposure to radiation or high levels of estrogen and having certain gene mutations.
The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2014, there will be about 2,360 new cases of invasive male breast cancer diagnosed in the United States. About 430 men will die.
“By far the overwhelming number of breast cancer cases we see are in women, so we don’t usually screen for male breast cancer, except for those men at high risk. It’s unusual but it is something that does happen,” said Phil Evans, MD, Medical Director of the Comprehensive Breast Center at Parkland.
Most of the men who are diagnosed with breast cancer have a genetic mutation that predisposes them to cancer, Dr. Evans said.
“It’s a very hard diagnosis to hear, from a male perspective,” said Karen Anderson, Manager of the Parkland Comprehensive Breast Center. “Because it is so rare, most men are just not prepared.”
Anderson added that while the center sees several men each year who come in with potential cancer, only two or three turn out to have breast cancer. Most men who come to the center have a non-cancerous condition known as gynecomastia, an increase in breast tissue that can sometimes be felt as a lump. Experts advise that it is important to have a doctor check out any lump because both cancer and gynecomastia can be felt as a growth under the nipple.
Michael received his diagnosis in February of 2014.
“I was shocked. I had already fought prostate cancer two years ago. I thought prostate cancer was all I was going to have to deal with,” Michael said. “It’s not easy walking into a breast cancer clinic, when all the other patients are women.”
Even now, Michael said that while he is able to talk to people about his prostate cancer, he has told very few people about his breast cancer. He had tissue removed from both breasts. Michael said his latest pathology report shows the cancer is gone and his prognosis is good.
According to the National Cancer Institute, treatment for male breast cancer is the same as it is for women, and treatment often depends on the kind of cancer it is and when it is caught.
It’s important to remember that survival rates for men who have breast cancer are similar to those of women when diagnosed at similar stages, but the National Cancer Institute notes that breast cancer in men is more often found at a later stage. Dr. Evans emphasized that breast cancer is rare among men, “But it is always good to be familiar with your body and be aware of anything that might be happening.”
“Men need to be aware, be on the lookout for any changes, and go to your doctor, even if you think it’s nothing,” he said.