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Breast Cancer … in Men?

by Virginia ‘Ginya’ Carnahan

In case you’ve been away from the planet for the past 20 years, you may not know that October is the month of the pink explosion: pink fire engines, pink tractors, pink hair, pink clothes, pink ribbons everywhere, all to promote Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Kudos to breast cancer survivors everywhere for their colossal efforts at raising awareness of this disease through the use of the iconic pink ribbon, and kudos to organizations such as the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which have raised significant amounts of money to combat the disease. Today women around the world are more aware of the value of regular mammograms to detect breast cancer, and those who lack funds or insurance can find places to get this potentially life-saving procedure.

Although we almost always think of breast cancer as a women’s disease, there are men who develop it, too: About 1 percent of all cases occur in men. That isn’t much, but it accounts for about 2,000 men a year and a rather high mortality rate. Some 450 American men die each year as a result of breast cancer.

The huge difference between the percentages of women and men developing breast cancer is due to hormones. In girls, hormonal changes at puberty cause breasts to grow; in boys, hormones made in the testicles prevent the breasts from growing – but they still exist.

In men’s breasts, cancer can begin in the ducts and spread to surrounding tissue, similar to the pathway in women’s breasts. Rarely, men can develop an inflammatory breast cancer called Paget’s Disease that begins in a duct beneath the nipple, then moves to the surface.

Symptoms of breast cancer in men are similar to those in women:

• Skin changes such as swelling, redness or visible differences in one or both breasts

• An increase in the size or a change in the shape of one or both breasts

• Changes in the appearance of one or both nipples

• Discharge from a nipple

• General pain in or on any part of the breast

• Lumps felt on or inside the breast

Another condition of the breast that men should be aware of is gynecomastia, which is a more common disorder in males. It is not a form of cancer, but it does cause a growth under the nipple that can be felt and sometimes seen. Some men who are undergoing hormone treatment for prostate cancer experience the growth of gynecomastic tissue, and often teenage boys notice this type of breast-tissue growth while they’re going through the hormonal changes of puberty.

Treatment for male breast cancer is generally the same as for female breast cancer. It includes surgical removal of the breast – a mastectomy for the full breast or a lumpectomy for just the tissue identified as cancerous – followed by radiation therapy and perhaps chemotherapy and/or hormonal therapy.

If the cancer is believed to have spread outside the breast to the lymph nodes, adjuvant therapy – including hormone therapy and chemotherapy – will be necessary to stop the spread. For men whose breast cancer has spread to other parts of the body, the challenge is greater, and treatment will include several different therapies.

Advice to men is the same as to women: Take a minute to check your breasts once a month. You can do this in the shower by feeling them for bumps or lumps, then look in the mirror for any visible changes. If something looks odd, don’t delay: Call your doctor for an appointment.

As with all cancers, early detection provides your best chance for survival! When you see those pink ribbons for the cure this month, remember they include you.

Reach Virginia ‘Ginya’ Carnahan, APR, CPRC, at [email protected]