Male Breast Cancer: Being a man with a “woman’s disease”

The reality of male breast cancer

This year, like past years, over four hundred men in the US will die from breast cancer. Despite this fact, many people are unaware that men can even develop breast cancer. While advocates have done a great job raising awareness for breast cancer, men are still largely ignored in this disease. And this can prove quite deadly.

Statistically, men tend to be diagnosed at a later stage of breast cancer than women. Because of this, they tend to have poorer outcomes. Many delay treatment because they do not realize men can get breast cancer and ignore signs, such as breast lumps. There are no screening guidelines available for men, even when there is a strong family history present. Treatment for men with breast cancer is based on evidence obtained in clinical studies with women because there are no clinical trials being done with men.

Men with breast cancer not only face a horrible disease, many deal with a sometimes equally challenging stigma, from a lack of public awareness and sympathy to needing to seek treatment in “women’s” health centers because that is the only place available for breast cancer patients.

Interview with breast cancer survivor Steve Del Gardo

Perhaps the best view into the world of male breast cancer is a survivor himself. Steve Del Gardo was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 and founded Protect the Pecs, a non-profit aimed on raising awareness and helping men with breast cancer. I recently had a chance to interview Steve about his experience. Here’s an edited account of our conversation.

How were you diagnosed?

I found a lump while taking a shower. Instead of waiting to see if it would go away, I made an appointment to see my doctor and, at that point, my doctor sent me to another location to get tested. However, it would take six more months to be diagnosed with stage II breast cancer.

What were your first thoughts when you were told you had breast cancer?

How? I am not a woman. I don’t have breasts.

Did you ever feel like you were a man with a woman’s disease?

Yes, because society has told the public many times that this is a women’s disease. I do understand why. The numbers of women being diagnosed compared to men is much, much higher. But I am reminded every October, when I see only pink and everybody only talks about breast cancer in women, how unaware people are that it also happens in men. I am stunned when I hear a leading doctor in Cincinnati at a fundraiser only talk about women getting breast cancer. A crowd of 2000 people is a perfect chance to say that men can get breast cancer too, but he failed to do it!

Do you think there are too many stigmas around breast cancer?

Yes. It is going to take years, maybe decades, to change the stigma around breast cancer in men. I have been trying to change it for the last 5 years and I haven’t made a dent. It is going to take a monumental leap from a world public figure to start making changes. We need a male version of Angelina Jolie.

Do you feel that the healthcare system treated you equally to a woman who has breast cancer?

My experience with the healthcare in my hometown was great. They did treat me equally and took care of me very well. I had no problems. Now, I have heard from many men that they have had issues with their insurance companies not covering everything from mammography exams to prescriptions. Education is needed in the insurance industry that men get breast cancer too and they need the same coverage as women do. Some men need to get reconstructive surgery and many need mental health help.

Do you think there is enough awareness of male breast cancer today? 

No! I feel like it is still taboo to talk about male breast cancer in the public forum. We need more exposure in the media, social media, public and the medical field.

What needs to be done to help treat men with breast cancer?

Every male patient that visits their primary doctor should take the BRCA testing. Doctors needs to start asking better questions to male patients. After that, I think there needs to be a better support system for men going through it.

What message would you like to send about male breast cancer?

It is time for all of us to stop hiding in the shadows and come forward to say that men can get breast cancer too. Stop being afraid. Stop feeling embarrassed or ashamed. It’s time to educate the world. It isn’t just pink anymore, it is pink and blue. Women get it, men also get it!

Since you started advocating for male breast cancer, how has your message been received?

This is a double edge sword, meaning that women and the medical field have received the message well, however, with men, we still have a long way to go to get men to understand that we are vulnerable to getting it. There are a lot men that still do not think they can get it. They cannot comprehend it because society has drilled into our heads that it’s only a women’s disease.

Throughout the last few weeks of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, pink ribbons have been popping up everywhere because women and men are still dying from breast cancer. There is still no cure for stage IV breast cancer. And men are still waiting for basic screening and treatment guidelines. With all the money being donated in the name of breast cancer, surely we could be doing better.

About the Author

Linda Girgis MD, FAAFP is a family physician practicing in South River, New Jersey and Clinical Assistant Professor at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. She was voted one of the top 5 healthcare bloggers in 2016. Follow her on twitter @DrLindaMD.

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