Christian Lyons bares his breast cancer experience to remind us it happens to men, too.
There are diseases that are spoken about openly in today’s society, like breast cancer. Founded in 1982, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which hosts an annual breast cancer awareness race, Race for the Cure, has brought more attention to the cause than any other organization in recent years. And yet, breast cancer in men is rarely heard of, let alone discussed. In spite of the well-established fact that men get breast cancer, cases go largely undiagnosed and unreported because of the lack of real dialogue and education surrounding the issue.
What are the key statistics about breast cancer in men?
The American Cancer Society estimates for breast cancer in men in the United States for 2014 are:
- About 2,360 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed
- About 430 men will die from breast cancer
Breast cancer is about 100 times less common among men than among women. For men, the lifetime risk of getting breast cancer is about 1 in 1,000. The number of breast cancer cases in men relative to the population has been fairly stable over the last 30 years.
In 2011, a case publicized by the Today Show told the story of Raymond Johnson, a 26-year-old single South Carolina man, diagnosed with the disease when he went to the emergency room complaining of chest pains. Because he had no health coverage of his own, he was urged to apply for special funding through a subsidiary program of Medicare. He qualified in all aspects except one: he wasn’t a woman. Since he was denied coverage, he was forced to pay out-of-pocket for the extensive care and treatment he received.
There were four other similar cases that year, all of whom were denied coverage due to their gender.
My own experience with male breast cancer took place in the ‘90s. I was a young, vibrant athlete who had rarely been sick with even a cold for many years. One day, I began noticing a painful tenderness in my chest area, concentrated around the nipple on one side. My primary care physician was a long-time family friend, and I scheduled an appointment with him. At that point, I didn’t suspect anything amiss, as I was frequently sore from workouts and other strenuous activity, and thought it might be a bruise of some sort that I didn’t remember getting.
The doctor did a careful examination, and said he was sending me to a nearby hospital for a mammogram. I asked why.
“I never tell anyone this,” he said, “But my younger brother passed away from undiagnosed breast cancer several years ago. I urge you to get this x-rayed immediately.”
Swallowing my macho pride, I agreed. It would definitely be a humiliating experience, I imagined, but didn’t want to neglect my own health out of some silly egotistical reasoning.
Several days later, I called the hospital and connected with the mammogram department. I spoke with a nurse, and explained to her what the doctor had said.
She laughed, the derisive sound vibrating along the phone lines into my ear. “Yeah, right!” she said, and hung up.
I was mortified. It was bad enough that I was going through what was then perceived as solely a woman’s issue, but to not get taken seriously compounded my humiliation.
Men didn’t get breast exams, let alone breast x-rays. In my family breast cancer was a phrase whispered only behind closed doors between women. Men rarely heard about it and never spoke of it.
I called back, and was quite stern with the responding nurse, who admitted that their team thought it was a joke, that one of the nurse’s boyfriends were pranking them. They accepted the appointment.
For men who have never experienced what women go through during an exam of this sort, let me assure you, it’s not fun. First, because I was male, manipulating my pectoral tissue between two freezing plate glass slides was extremely awkward and painful. I was well developed, so most of the mass in my chest was muscle and therefore not very flexible. After numerous tries, and more than a few painful yelps from me, we got the x-rays. Because I was male, insurance would not cover the exam. However, I am very glad that I went through with it, because there were pre-cancerous cells forming in my breast that would need to be treated immediately. After more tests and biopsies, I was put on a rigorous series of treatments that lasted for several months and were quite harsh on my body and immune system. And I can proudly say that I’m a breast cancer survivor.
The experience opened my eyes not only to the process women experience, but to the fact that male breast cancer is not a joke. As men, we must put aside our egos and preconceived ideas that men don’t get breast cancer, and perform the same kind of exams that women are urged to perform on a regular basis. No one likes the idea that we might be diagnosed with cancer, and for that reason alone we may ignore the warning signs or laugh at the very thought of it. Maybe we think it’s a sign of weakness, a chink in our masculine armor. The reality is, however, that men are susceptible to breast cancer.
The Good Men Project’s Jason Abbott recently interviewed male breast cancer survivor Sylvain Renaud for the Intellectual Gentleman’s Club, found here.
Here are some early warning signs for male breast cancer, from BreastCancer.org:
If you notice any persistent changes to your breasts, you should contact your doctor. Here are some issues to watch for:
- a lump felt in the breast
- nipple pain
- an inverted nipple
- nipple discharge (clear or bloody)
- sores on the nipple and areola (the small ring of color around the center of the nipple)
- enlarged lymph nodes under the arm
It’s important to note that enlargement of both breasts (not just on one side) is usually NOT cancer. The medical term for this is gynecomastia. Sometimes the breasts can become quite large. Non-cancer-related enlargement of the breasts can be caused by medications, heavy alcohol use, weight gain, or marijuana use.
For the sake of your own health, be aware of this possibility and don’t be such a guy about it!
Photo—torbakhopper HE DEAD/Flickr