Male breast cancer: A rare and commonly overlooked disease can lead to a secret battle
Originally published October 31, 2007 - Frederick News-Post
By Katie Leslie
After Joe Reid’s diagnosis of breast cancer, his wife Cathy began a website dedicated to helping people learn more
about a man’s risk. To learn more, visit
WOODSBORO -- In a month filled with charity walks, pink-ribboned merchandise and public awareness campaigns,
Charles "Doc" Brown wants to remind people of a commonly overlooked fact -- men get breast cancer, too.
In March, Brown learned what it meant to have the "C-bomb." But being told the knot in his chest was early-stage
breast cancer tapped into more than just his fears.
"When I first got it, I was ashamed to tell anybody. It made you feel less than masculine, I guess," said Brown, 64.
"Most men think they're going to get prostate cancer."
He understands why few men know about the risk, as less than 1 percent of all breast cancers occur in men,
according to the National Cancer Institute.
In 2005, when 211,400 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States, 1,690 men were diagnosed
with the disease, according to breastcancer.org, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness about breast cancer.
Joe Reid of Walkersville was one of those men. But unlike Brown, Reid didn't catch his cancer until it had spread to
his brain, lungs and bones.
The 46-year-old truck driver said he felt a lump in his left breast for more than a year before seeing a doctor,
assuming it was an injury of sorts from weight lifting. It wasn't until his left nipple inverted that he realized
something more serious was happening. That's when he told his wife.
"As soon as I saw the inverted nipple, I knew we were in for trouble," Cathy Reid said. "But I couldn't say that to
Like Cathy, Kathleen Brown knew men could get breast cancer, but didn't think it would affect her husband.
"I always thought I'd be the one to get it," Kathleen said. "I never dreamed (it would be him)."
While treatment for male and female breast cancer is largely similar, a man's path to recovery has its own set of
The first, said Dr. Kevin Hurtt, a Frederick surgeon, is getting men into treatment before it's too late.
"Rarely do we catch it in the early stage," Hurtt said.
Most men discover a lump by accident, and believe it's nothing worry about, Hurtt said.
"Usually they'll tell their spouse and they'll bug them until they see a doctor," he said.
Men and women in similar stages of breast cancer have similar survival rates, according to the American Cancer
However, men with early-stage breast cancer die sooner than women, according to a study published in the April
2007 edition of the journal Cancer.
Men whose breast cancer had not spread to the lymph nodes had an average survival time of six years, while
women lived about 15 years, said Dr. Zeina Nahleh, who led the study. She found no difference in survival duration
-- about seven years -- among men and women with advanced-stage breast cancer.
Given the biological and hormonal differences between the genders, Nahleh said, it's possible men aren't as
responsive to common breast cancer treatments, which were developed for women. For example, men are often
prescribed tamoxifen, which hinders estrogen's ability to promote tumor growth.
"This may not be the best thing to do, but it's the only way we can do it," she said. "It doesn't mean the treatments
don't work. It means we need to do more targeted treatments on men."
Hurtt isn't convinced that women's treatments are ineffective in men. He believes the greater problem is twofold --
detection generally occurs later in men and because of less breast tissue, cancer cells have more direct access to a
man's lymph nodes.
Detection and treatment is similar for men and women. Both Doc and Joe had mammograms and biopsies to
diagnose the cancer, followed by mastectomies. (Joe reports mammograms "didn't hurt as bad as all the stuff" he'd
Both men have undergone chemotherapy; Doc's ended Aug. 1, and Joe continues treatment. Both men have taken
Tamoxifen and stopped taking it after complications. Both men monitor themselves with regular breast exams.
Both men's hair is largely gone and their skin is pale.
Doc misses cooking dinners for his wife; Joe misses his strength.
"There are days it really depresses me. I'm a lot weaker now and I don't walk that well," Joe said.
Both men credit their wives for helping them.
"I probably wouldn't have gone to the doctor if it hadn't been for her," Doc said.
With chemotherapy complete, the Browns continue to monitor Doc's health. But with Joe's advanced cancer, the
Reids face a more uncertain road.
Cathy said they find joy in the small blessings, like knowing the cancer hasn't spread to his major organs.
"Considering he's been a stage IV patient for two years, he's actually doing pretty well," Cathy said.
Seated beside his wife recently, Joe explained that in his darkest moments, Cathy has carried him through.
"I couldn't have done this without her," he said. "She's been my rock through this whole thing."