CHICAGO – Men rarely get breast cancer, but those who do often don’t survive as long as women, largely because they don’t even realize they can get it and are slow to recognize the warning signs, researchers say.
On average, women with breast cancer lived two years longer than men in the biggest study yet of the disease in males.
The study found that men’s breast tumors were larger at diagnosis, more advanced and more likely to have spread to other parts of the body. Men were also diagnosed later in life; in the study, they were 63 on average, versus 59 for women.
Many men have no idea that they can get breast cancer, and some doctors are in the dark, too, dismissing symptoms that would be an automatic red flag in women, said study leader Dr. Jon Greif, a breast cancer surgeon in Oakland, Calif.
The American Cancer Society estimates 1 in 1,000 men will get breast cancer, versus 1 in 8 women.
The researchers analyzed 10 years of national data on breast cancer cases, from 1998 to 2007. A total of 13,457 male patients diagnosed during those years were included, versus 1.4 million women.
The men who were studied lived an average of about eight years after being diagnosed, compared with more than 10 years for women. The study doesn’t indicate whether patients died of breast cancer or something else.
Greif prepared a summary of his study for presentation Friday at a meeting of the American Society of Breast Surgeons, in Phoenix.
The causes of breast cancer in men are not well-studied, but some of the same things that increase women’s chances for developing it also affect men, including older age, cancer-linked gene mutations, a family history of the disease and heavy drinking.
There are no formal guidelines for detecting breast cancer in men. The American Cancer Society says routine, across-the-board screening of men is unlikely to be beneficial because the disease is so rare.
Robert Kaitz, a computer business owner in Severna Park, Md., thought the small growth under his left nipple was just a harmless cyst, like ones that had been removed from his back. By the time he had it checked out in 2006, almost two years later, the lump had started to hurt.
He had a mastectomy, and 25 nearby lymph nodes were removed.
Kaitz jokes about being a man with a woman’s disease but said he is not embarrassed and doesn’t mind showing his breast surgery scar. The one thing he couldn’t tolerate was tamoxifen, a hormone treatment commonly used to help prevent breast cancer from returning in women. It can cause menopausal symptoms, so he stopped taking it.
“It killed me. I tell you what – night sweats, hot flashes, mood swings, depression. I’d be sitting in front of the TV watching a drama and the tears wouldn’t stop pouring,” he said.