Breast cancer is inundated with pink. Pink ribbons, pinkathons, pink products, pink monuments. The pinkification has put the disease on the map and the funds in place, but cancer does not discriminate.
1 in 170 of all breast cancer patients are men, the rates are different for various ethnic groups but its certainly more common than you think. The death rate is 25% higher than in womenbecause all this pink-washing associated with breast cancer means that men are not made aware about the symptoms, unlike women, they are not looking for lumps, and are diagnosed too late, which reduces their chance of survival.
What It’s Like to Get Breast Cancer as a Man
The last five years have seen a tremendous spike in breast cancer in transgenders, the incidence has increased by 26% in men since 1975. In the summer of 2014, 48-year-old Aditya (name changed), noticed an itchy left nipple, mostly post-workout. It felt weird and uncomfortable under the shirt, but nothing that caused alarm bells.
In the following months, during the scheduled preventive heart tests, he happened to mention it to his doctor. “It’s nothing, use some moisturiser”, dismissed his doctor without even taking a look.
His chest continued to itch and sometimes even ached. By March 2015, it formed a weird crusty layer, and he was now sure of a fungal infection. But this time the doctor looked worried and perplexed. He immediately referred him to a super specialty for a biopsy and mammography.
At the hospital, women gave him confused stares for being the only man in the patient queue for mammography. The attendant asked him where his wife was. The diagnosis of advanced breast cancer, which had spread to the lymph nodes, came with sheer shock and bewilderment. “Men don’t get breast cancer. Prostrate, I’d understand but breast? I don’t have breasts, how did the cancer come?”, he said to the doctor.
The words hung in the air. Neither he nor his family could wrap their heads around the report.
Aditya (name changed), Breast Cancer SurviorThe mammogram form I filled had questions like, ‘when did you have your last menstrual cycle’. I could see jaws getting dropped when my friends heard it. I felt so embarrassed. If it was prostrate or lung or any other cancer, they’d be more sympathetic. No one needs to feel awkward and isolated when they are fighting cancer. But absolutely no one was aware that men can get breast cancer. Including me.
Aditya’s teenage son often wonders if his dad’s mastectomy scar brings him shame, if it was any other surgery, he might’ve worn it with pride. The family even discussed getting a nipple tattooed so Aditya doesn’t feel odd during swim sessions.
Would his chances of survival have increased if it was any other cancer? Would his breasts have been screened regularly if they belonged to a woman? Could his chances of survival have shot up if, like women, he was offered free mammograms in October, the breast cancer awareness month?
The Cultural Narrative Disrupts the Funding For Male Breast Cancer Enormously
Doctors don’t recommend that young men queue up for regular screenings, but if you notice any of the above, seek medical help and get a man-o-gram done. Dr Ganapathi Bhat M, Medical Oncologist & Stem cell Transplant Physician, Jaslok Hospital & Research Center, Mumbai1 in 1000 men can get breast cancer. It’s no longer just a woman’s disease, but there is so much ignorance around it that men get detected very late and their chances of survival dip. The average age of breast cancer in men is around 68 years, those who inherit the BRCA1 & 2 genes have a higher risk. In comparison to the female breast cancer, the male breast cancer presents differently but we don’t have tailored made treatment plans because the research around male breast cancer is zero.
Question – Do you ever say male throat cancer or female lung cancer? No, na?
It’s odd that we even have to call it male breast cancer. And since the diagnosis and the notion is so skewed towards pink, the funding for male breast cancer research gets disrupted.
Digest this – the National Cancer Institute in the US gets a whopping $600 million for annual breast cancer research but only 0.05% of it is diverted to male research.
On an average, men make upto 2% of all breast cancer patients. Increasing the male cancer research funding to just 2% would mean 40 times more money, better targeted treatment and more survival rates.
Breast cancer is no more a woman’s thing, just like being a doctor or an engineer is no longer a man thing.