Male breast cancer accounts for about 1 percent of all breast cancer diagnoses in the U.S. The American Cancer Society estimates about 2,240 new cases of male breast cancer will occur in 2013, and 410 men will die of it this year. While the numbers pale in comparison to those for female breast cancer (1 in 8 women will be diagnosed in their lifetime), the mortality rates are about equal. The prognosis for breast cancer was once thought to be worse for men than for women. If there’s a disparity in the treatment outcomes, it’s because men tend to delay reporting the presence of a lump. Most men are not aware that they are even at risk for breast cancer. “When I learned I had breast cancer, I was shocked,” says ex-Marine Peter Devereaux, 51. “Like a lot of people, I had no idea men could get it.”
Devereaux has become an advocate for men’s breast cancer awareness, telling his story in congressional hearings, speaking engagements, and television interviews. “It’s difficult for a lot of guys to come to grips with having, at the bottom line, what we think of as a women’s disease,” he says. “We’ve still got a long ways to go.”
In Devereaux’s case, the cancer has spread, and he is still being treated. “I’ve run 15 or 20 marathons,” he says. “Now I feel lucky just to be able to walk. I just keep moving and keep fighting.”
The easiest way to detect male breast cancer is the presence of a lump, says Joseph Spahr, M.D., an oncologist at the IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital Cancer Center in Muncie, Indiana. Mammograms are not usually recommended because men don’t have enough breast tissue for tumors to hide in. Performing self-breast exams is always a good idea; it’s fairly easy for men to detect a lump. “If breast cancer runs in the family, be more diligent in self-breast exams, and if you suspect anything abnormal, get it evaluated soon,” he says. Men with breast cancer are advised to get tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic mutations. It’s an expensive test (it can cost more than $3,000), which medical insurance may or may not cover, depending on your carrier. Should you spring for it?
Angelina Jolie’s decision earlier this year to undergo a prophylactic double mastectomy in the absence of a cancer diagnosis grew out of the discovery that she carried a mutation of the BRCA1 gene. It’s a predictor of a sharp increase in the risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer. It’s an individual decision, since only about 5 to 10 percent of men with breast cancer have one of these genetic mutations. For those who do however, their daughters and female relatives have up to a 50 percent risk of carrying the same genetic mutation and developing breast or cervical cancer. I decided to spend the money. Fortunately, I tested negative for both the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations. For more information, the American Cancer Society has a section on its website (cancer.org/cancer/breastcancerinmen) about men’s breast cancer, including a detailed guide, stories from survivors, research study results, and other resources.