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In her article, Cathy Free addresses the misconception that men don’t get breast cancer by telling the stories of two male breast cancer survivors, Michael Singer and Bret Miller.
Michael Singer discovered he had breast cancer after he mentioned “on a whim” to his health care provider that he had a small lump under his left nipple. Singer had been ignoring this lump for months. The biopsy the health care provider ordered came back positive for stage 2 breast cancer.
Michael was surprised, because like many people, he didn’t think men got breast cancer. “I was embarrassed to talk about my diagnosis, except for telling my wife, Patty…I told everyone else that I had chest cancer because I just couldn’t go there with breast cancer. I felt like a freak. I felt extremely isolated.”
He was inspired to become an advocate for male breast cancer patients after watching a show that featured Bret Miller, the founder of the nonprofit Male Breast Cancer Coalition. Miller was diagnosed with breast cancer when he was 24 and had a mastectomy. He found a lump when he as 17, and experienced yellow-orange discharge from his nipples. “I want to tell men not to wait until it’s too late. Early detection saves lives, so go see a doctor if you find a lump, a discoloration or a discharge like I had.”
In the People piece, Free writes, “Although he’d lost his sister, Jo-ann Weiss, to breast cancer just two years before, it never occurred to Singer that breast cancer was an “equal opportunity” killer, with 2,600 men diagnosed yearly and about 440 of those dying…”
According to the American Cancer Society, the lifetime risk of breast cancer for men at general risk is about 1 in 1,000. Among 1,000 women at general risk, about 124 will develop breast cancer. This means that women are 100 times more likely to get breast cancer compared to men, so it is inaccurate to say that breast cancer is an “equal opportunity” killer. However, this does not mean that men do not get breast cancer—some men do, and it is important when men like Michael Singer and Bret Miller bring awareness to other men so that they know to act on symptoms such as lumps in their breasts and discharge from their nipples.
The story mentions that Michael’s sister had breast cancer, but does not mention whether anyone in his family had genetic testing. Bret had breast cancer at a young age. A sibling with breast cancer and onset at an early age are both signs that there may be an inherited mutation in BRCA or another gene that increases cancer risk in the family. Not all men with breast cancer have inherited mutations, but those who do are at higher risk.
About 60 of 1,000 men with BRCA2 mutations will develop breast cancer, while about 10 in 1,000 men with BRCA1 mutations develop breast cancer. While this is much higher than men in the general population, it is important to note that these numbers are lower than the breast cancer risk of women in the general population. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) Guidelines for men with BRCA mutations include both breast self-exam education and annual clinical breast exam beginning at age 35. Men with inherited mutations in BRCA also have increased risk of aggressive prostate cancer at younger ages, and should consider regular prostate cancer screening.
NCCN guidelines recommend genetic counseling and testing for all men with breast cancer, regardless of their age at diagnosis. If you have an inherited mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2 and develop breast cancer, you may qualify for certain clinical trials, such as those involving PARP inhibitors. Men with mutations in genes that increase cancer risk also have a 50% chance of passing the mutation down to their sons and daughters. Genetic counselors can help men with breast cancer decide if genetic testing is appropriate.
The American Cancer Society notes the following signs of breast cancer in men:
Ultimately, men should be aware of changes in their body. “If I had known that the yellow-orange discharge I was seeing was a major sign of breast cancer, I would have been proactive and gone in much earlier,” Bret Miller shared in the People piece. Even though the risk of men developing breast cancer is low, it is not impossible, so men should report any of these changes in their breasts to a healthcare provider.
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American Cancer Society Key Statistic About Breast Cancer in Men
American Cancer Society Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer in Men
Free, Cathy, “Men Have Breasts, Too”: New York Man Who Survived Stage 2 Breast Cancer Spreads Message, People Magazine, October 25, 2016.
FORCE Information: Male breast cancer
FORCE Information: NCCN Guidelines for Men with BRCA Mutations
FORCE brochure: Information about BRCA Testing for Men
Be Empowered Webinar: BRCA and Men
Joining FORCEs Newsletter: Conference Recap Preventing and Treating Cancers in High-risk Men
Joining FORCEs Newsletter: New Film Suggests the Breast Cancer Ribbon Should be Pink… and Blue