5 Oct 2011

The pain of male breast cancer

Health and Social Care Editor

October has become the month traditionally associated with the pink ribbon to raise awareness of breast cancer in women. But now there are calls to tinge that pink with blue.

New research for the widely-regarded website healthtalkonline.org shows that men with breast cancer suffer avoidable isolation and embarrassment because of the wide-spread belief that only women get the disease.

This is the first time the website has tackled male breast cancer. Due to go live on October 20, the website will include interviews with men who have had the disease, as well as information on the condition.

Professor Kate Hunt, of the Medical Research Council’s Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, said that the pinking of breast cancer has become the universal sign of support for breast cancer research in October. Professor Hunt, who led the research for healthtalkonline, said that while that was understandable ‘some blue in those pink bows’ would remind everyone, including clinicians, that men get breast cancer too.

male breast cancer

It is still relatively rare. About 350 men in the UK are diagnosed with the disease every year compared with about 48,000 women. But research shows that men tend to be diagnosed with more advanced breast cancer, at older ages and that they have lower survival rates. Indeed, although men are seven times more likely to develop testicular cancer every year, the death rate from breast cancer is the same.

Stuart Weaver, of Maidstone, in Kent, was told he had the disease when he was 36. He said he had noticed a lump of the right side of his left nipple but did nothing about it until his wife made him go to the doctor.

He had a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. But he had to fight to be given the drug herceptin because funding at the time had only been put aside for women.

“Most people you talk to don’t know men can get breast cancer. I did not know,” Mr Weaver said.

Although he has nothing but praise for the treatment he received, he said there was little information out there for men. “Most of the literature was aimed women with lots of information about things like bra fittings.” And, he said, it is a fact that everything is pink.

Dr Judy Kane, who is a trustee of Dipex, the charity which runs healthtalkonline, that it was not only that men did not know. “Often, of course, their doctor may not be aware of the condition and the family and carers around them may not know either. In fact, it’s often the wives who say hang on, what is that, whereas the man might have thought it was nothing more than a mild infection.”

The men who have agreed to their interviews being put online talk about issues such as being called ‘Mrs’ by the hospital, or being put in a pink dressing gown.

One said: “It was quite funny in the chemist because I was put on Tamoxifen. When I was in the chemist the young lady sidled up to me and whispered ‘are you sure this is for you?”

The symptoms are the same as for women: a lump, an inverted nipple and sometimes a discharge. The research has found, too, that men suffer some of the same experiences as women during treatment including hot flushes, loss of libido and weight gain.

But contributors also point to the lack of choice in the treatment they receive and not being put on trials because of the rarity of the disease.

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