Pink is the color. The victims and survivors on the television ads feature exclusively women, jogging and hugging and supporting one another. But there is a glaring omission in the way breast cancer victims are portrayed: none of them are men. Many people believe that breast cancer only affects women, but at least 1 percent of all breast cancer diagnoses are men. That’s 2,600 male breast cancer patients a year.
Men don’t always realize that they could be at risk for breast cancer because they don’t believe they have breasts. But male anatomy does contain residual breast tissue that does need to be checked monthly for lumps, just like women’s breasts. Often, by the time men visit a doctor about such a lump, their breast cancer has become advanced. This may be why men’s life expectancy after a breast cancer diagnosis is lower than women’s.
Following the diagnosis, men are treated the same way as women, with radiation, therapy, and sometimes, a mastectomy. But while women often choose to have reconstructive surgery, sometimes men don’t realize they have that option, too. “A lot of male patients would probably be interested in having nipple reconstructive surgery,” says Dr. Sharon Giordano, an oncologist at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. “So when they are out swimming, or playing basketball and have their shirt off, the surgical changes aren’t quite so obvious.”
A color is just a color; survival and recovery are the important aspects of a cancer diagnosis. But entering into the largely female world of breast cancer can make some men feel unwelcome. Oliver Bogler, the male breast cancer survivor featured in NPR’s story, was given a pink floral ice pack after a biopsy that came with instructions to “place it inside your bra.” An ice pack will do the same thing for a man as it would for a woman, but in the packaging and marketing of breast cancer support and products, it does seem that male patients are left out.
Living Beyond Breast cancer, a site for men with the diagnosis, helps them find support as they recover. The website helps men talk about their disease with each other, which can be difficult. The site also helps patients understand what it means if they’re diagnosed with a BRACA genetic mutation that means they could pass their cancer genes on to their children.
Doctors’ lack of awareness about breast cancer in male patients is problematic. There is less money for needed research to figure out how breast cancer is different in men and women, and even in the treatment of the cancer, Dr. Giordano says. Understanding how the cancer affects men and women could be the difference in life expectancy.