Male Breast Cancer: Limited Awareness Costs Lives, New Study Says

Male Breast Cancer: Is Limited Awareness Costing Lives?

Men have a breast cancer incidence rate less than 1 percent of that of females, but when they do get the disease, it is often more advanced, according to a sweeping new study.

The research, published earlier this month in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, looked at breast cancer in 6 countries over the last 40 years. Researchers found that men had poorer five-year survival rates than women, and the disease generally occurred later in life for them.

Dr. Mikael Hartman, a professor at the National University Cancer Institute in Singapore and the study's lead author, said much of this hinges on hormones. Men get diagnosed at an older age in part because breast cancer development is related to hormonal exposure -- particularly estrogen -- which is virtually absent in men, thus delaying the disease's development.

But a bigger issue may simply be men's lack of knowledge about the disease. Indeed, the study found that when men and women caught cancer at the same stage, men actually had a better chance of survival than women.

This, experts say, underscores a need for increased awareness that men are at risk.

"We believe that men present later due to limited awareness of the disease, so that men who develop a breast lump delay seeing their doctor longer than a comparable woman would with similar symptoms," Hartman said. "The outcomes of men have improved over time, but not to the same extent as for women."

With breast cancer awareness month soon coming to a close, advocates are toiling to do exactly that.

Cathy Reid started the advocacy group Out of the Shadow of Pink with her husband, Joe, in 2005 after he was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. Joe died from the disease, but Cathy has continued her advocacy efforts.

In recent years, Reid -- who still gets emotional when speaking about her husband -- has spearheaded a grassroots effort to give male breast cancer an official "slot" during the female-centered awareness month. She has pushed legislators and joined with other advocacy groups to get the third week in October dedicated to male breast cancer specifically.

Thus far, she has not been successful.

"There's a lot more information out there now than there was in 2005, but we still need more," Reid said. "I drive a truck with signs all over it that say 'male breast cancer awareness week.' I can't tell you how many times people stop and say, 'I didn't know' or 'I had no idea that was a possibility.'"

In the mid 1990s, Nancy Nick started the John W. Nick Foundation in honor of her father, who passed away at age 58 from male breast cancer. She created an alternative ribbon to the now ubiquitous pink one. Her version is both pink and blue.

"Being a woman and a daughter of a man who lost his battle to breast cancer, I have never understood why the female breast cancer foundations could not include a page about male breast cancer, and add blue to the ribbon," Nick told HuffPost.

Her group has designated November male breast cancer month, and it spends it trying to drum up more enthusiasm and funding. She thinks that allotting the third week in October to male breast cancer would be divisive, and would somehow diminish women's struggle with the disease.

Reid disagrees.

"A lot of times, people say we're trying to take something away from women, and I'm like 'no, we're trying to save lives,'" she said. "Yes, the numbers are smaller, but most men are diagnosed at a much later stage."

According to the American Cancer Society's 2011 statistics, about 2,140 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed among men by the end of the year, making it about 100 times less common among them than among women. But also in 2011, approximately 450 men will die from breast cancer.

Both advocates and researchers agree that with better awareness, the current pattern of delayed presentation could be changed.

"Since male breast cancer is rare, screening is not an option," Hartman said. "But being aware of newly developed lumps in men is relatively easy."