While women fighting breast cancer have the powerful pink ribbon on their side and men promote prostate health with fashionable facial hair, not all cancers garner the same level of public interest. Despite the horrific effects of some cancer types, few stand up to advocate for these diseases and little money is spent researching them. KOMONews.com is publishing a week-long series on some of the cancers you may not care about and the reasons you should.
Survival rates for women with breast cancer are encouraging, but for men the statistics are bleak. Research shows men are typically diagnosed later stage than women, and their mortality rates are 25 percent higher.
Organizations have made efforts to inform the public that men can develop breast cancer, but excluding them from research and screenings has put men at a significant disadvantage when fighting the disease.
“We are with men’s breast cancer where female breast cancer was 30 years ago,” said Dr. VK Gadi, an oncologist specializing in breast cancer at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. “Compared to the women’s version, it’s a far more tragic condition.”
Approximately 2,200 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the United States, making up only 1 percent of breast cancer cases. With so few patients, Gadi said researchers rarely include men in clinical trials, and some therapies have only been approved for women.
While the disease is similar in men and women, there are fewer treatment options for men. The anti-estrogen drug tamoxifen, for example, is the only hormone drug found in studies to be effective in men. Many other hormone therapies have been effective in treating breast cancer in women, but these have not been well-studied in men and are rarely covered by insurers.
“Right of the bat we’ve cut off one of the most major innovations in breast cancer treatment for men,” Gadi said.
Men are also more likely than women to test positive for genetic mutations, but Gadi said insurance companies regularly deny coverage of these tests for men.
“We know the rate is likely to be 20 percent,” Gadi said. “If we could test them, we could treat them more precisely and better define the risk to their families.”
While breast cancer in men is rare, Gadi said other cancers that are equally rare get far more research funding, including uncommon blood and pediatric cancers.
“Our greatest innovations often come from the margins,” Gadi said. “There might be a pearl of wisdom there that teaches us about other diseases. Then everybody benefits.”
One reason men are often diagnosed later than women is they are excluded from mammogram screening recommendations. While it’s possible to test a man with a mammogram, Gadi said testing all men would lead to an unacceptable number of false positives.
“They often feel a lump before they have any other way of knowing,” Gadi said. “These cancers are generally larger and more likely to spread to other parts of the body like the lymph nodes.”
That was the case with Herbert Yellin, an Edmonds man who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. Despite having a family history of breast cancer, Yellin never thought he was at risk for the disease and was never counseled on preventative measures.
“I was surprised,” Yellin said. “We hear a lot about breast cancer in women but not much in respect to men.”
Additionally, men typically don’t report symptoms as quickly as women do, Gadi said.
Mark Goldstein, a 25-year breast cancer survivor from Randolf, N.J., said men are especially hesitant to report breast cancer symptoms.
“We are loathe to admit we can develop any disease, let alone one that dominates the female cancers,” he said.
That attitude makes it even more important to educate men on breast cancer symptoms, Goldstein said.
“Men should not die of breast cancer out of ignorance. If you’re not aware you can develop breast cancer then when that lump shows up you’re not going to do anything about it.”