Newsflash – men have breast tissue, which means they can get breast cancer just like women. Yet guys grappling with the disease get lost in Breast Cancer Awareness Month’s pink tidal wave.
Even the National Football League – the epitome of all things macho – sees players sporting pink cleats and gloves this month.
“October should not be 100% pink. I’m trying to put a splash of blue in there,” says Michael Singer, a six-year breast cancer survivor advocating for Male Breast Cancer Awareness Week running Oct. 16-22.
“That’s one thing I’m a little upset with the NFL about – they’re forgetting to mention my guys,” adds Singer, 56, from the Bronx. “It’s all pinkwashed, and it gets a little frustrating.”
Fellow survivor Stephen Cone, 66, who’s battled breast cancer twice, feels just as overlooked. “It’s like we’re totally invisible,” says the Washington, D.C. resident. “Men [with breast cancer] are never mentioned by the NFL. We’re not mentioned by Susan Komen. We’re definitely not on the radar.”
While breast cancer is about 100 times less common among men than women, some 2,600 men will still be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society. And 440 will die.
Worse, breast cancer is often found later in men because they haven’t been trained to detect it the way women have been. When’s the last time you heard of a man booking a mammogram or doing a self breast exam?
“There is this myth that men can’t get it, so that leads to lumps and masses being ignored, and treatment and diagnosis is delayed,” warns Dr. Paula Klein, an oncologist from Mount Sinai Beth Israel. And the longer you wait, the more time you give the cancer to spread. Hence, men with breast cancer have a significantly lower survival rate than women.
And there’s not a lot of clinical data on breast cancer in men, because it is so under-studied in favor of women. Which means many men suffer from the stigma attached to having a disease that predominantly impacts women.
Cone couldn’t find any meet-ups for men with breast cancer. “There was nothing for me unless I joined a women’s support group,” he says.
That turns a lot of men off. “I would walk in a waiting room where women who had breast cancer could talk freely … but how do you inject yourself into that conversation when you’re just a guy?” asks Singer.
And when Singer was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer in 2010, he was so embarrassed, he told people he had “chest cancer” because “I couldn’t bring myself to say ‘breast cancer.’”
“What was wrong with me that I had this women’s disease? I couldn’t find any other men who had it,” he says.
His outsider outlook changed when he saw male breast cancer survivors featured on Katie Couric’s former talk show not long after his surgery. He was inspired to see guys like himself speaking out, so now he advocates for the American Cancer Society and the Male Breast Cancer Alliance.
“Men, if you do get diagnosed with this, you are not alone,” says Singer, who hands out pink and blue ribbons, and sports pink and blue t-shirts to remind the public that men get breast cancer, too. “You have that loneliess, and all of the fear and emotions running through you, but there are other men out there you can reach out and talk to.”