September 7th, 2009
12:09 PM ET

Breast Cancer: Men Can Wear Pink, Too

By Ashley J. WennersHerron
CNN Medical News Intern

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I usually spend September coming up with ways to bring attention to the fact that men also are at risk. While women are a hundred times more likely to develop breast cancer, the American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 440 men will die from breast cancer in the United States this year. The rarity of male breast cancer, combined with the societal stigma that breast cancer is a woman’s disease, often leads to a late diagnosis for men. This translates to a delay in treatment, which can be detrimental. Just ask my dad.

My father discovered what he thought was a mole a few days after his 36th birthday. He had it removed, but soon discovered another. After six weeks of visiting various dermatologists, my dad ended up in an oncologist’s office. The diagnosis was stage III breast cancer, meaning the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. Since the spread was significant, he underwent chemotherapy. It was hard on him. The chemo compromised his immune system and he had to live in an isolated clean room for about a month, with minimal physical contact. He wasn’t allowed food prepared outside the hospital, which, combined with nausea caused by the chemotherapy, resulted in a drastic weight loss.

Now, doctors are considering administering chemotherapy to patients who may have only a very slight spread of cancer cells. In a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine, conducted in the Netherlands, it was found that even a few cancer cells floating to the lymph nodes increases the chance of cancer recurrence. Previously, doctors tended to ignore these “micro-tumors,” because they considered them too minuscule to be significant. The side effects of chemotherapy were considered too severe to be worth the benefit of clearing the rogue cancer cells. That’s changing now.

Chemotherapy may be a small price to pay if it means that a future recurrence is less likely. A late breast cancer diagnosis is typical for men. Micro-tumors and further spread of the cancer are more likely for men, but men have the same likelihood of recurrence as women.

I am happy to say that my father will celebrate his five-year remission mark this January. At one point during his treatment, I was told to prepare for the worst. Luckily, hoping for the best paid off. I still worry, though, and with good reason. Breast cancer must be discussed in terms of people, not just women. Diagnoses need to be made early and treatment should be effective in the long-term. My dad’s story ended on a happy note, but how many more men out there think they have only a mole? How many doctors aren’t even considering that their male patients might have breast cancer?

Do you know a man or are you a man who has experienced breast cancer?

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