Breast cancer is often thought to be a disease that only affects women, but men can develop it too. This lack of awareness, coupled with low incidence rates in men, is cited by experts as the reason why male breast cancer cases tend to be diagnosed in a more advanced, less treatable stages.
Now an NGO has decided to act.
Cancer Net Japan, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization, recently organized an event to bring together male patients being treated for breast cancer and generate greater public understanding of the disease.
In 2015, more than 87,000 people were newly diagnosed with breast cancer in Japan. Less than 1 percent of them, or 560, were men, according to data released by the Japanese Breast Cancer Society.
“Risk factors for breast cancer include genetic contributors such as family medical history and age, as well as obesity,” said Akihiko Shimomura, a doctor at the Breast and Medical Oncology Department at the National Cancer Center Hospital.
Many male patients become aware something is wrong when they find a lump below one of their nipples or notice an imbalance in their breast shape.
But unlike women, who usually pay more attention to lumps developing in their breasts, men usually come for a checkup only after the disease has reached an advanced stage.
“The lack of awareness must be why there is a delay among men in seeking medical consultation,” Shimomura said.
With no treatment strategies specifically targeted at male patients, treatment procedures are similar to those for women.
If the cancer is still at a treatable stage, surgery is conducted to remove the tumor. Following the operation, chemotherapy or radiation therapy or a combination of the two will be used to prevent a recurrence.
Cancer Net Japan said it organized the event in January to respond to an increasing number of inquiries from male breast cancer patients who were seeking the opportunity to meet with other men in the same situation.
The three male participants who took part in the first such event, dubbed “Men’s BC (breast cancer),” said little information is available on male breast cancer — even on the internet.
“Whenever I tell people that I have breast cancer, they are surprised and ask me to repeat what I said,” one of the men said.
“In terms of male breast cancer, there is apparently no community of patients,” said Shimomura, who was a guest speaker at the gathering. “Male patients are unable to get hold of even trivial information that female patients would share while waiting in a hospital lounge.”
Among the three participants was a 50-year-old hospital worker from Saitama Prefecture. Four years ago, a tumor was detected in his left breast when he had a health checkup following surgery for colorectal cancer.
The patient was surprised to find so little information on the disease. He said, “Unlike women, men don’t say much to each other during a hospital stay.”
He said he remembers a woman glancing at him with puzzlement when he emerged from the mammography room.
Another patient, Ryoji Machida, 64, was diagnosed with breast cancer when he was 59.
He felt a 2-cm lump on his left breast and went to see his doctor, who directed him to have a thorough examination at a larger hospital.
His cancer had already progressed to stage IIIB on a scale of stage 0 through stage IV.
“I was very shocked because it was soon after I found the lump and I thought it was still at an early stage,” Machida said.
Thanks to surgery and anti-cancer treatment, he has been able to avoid a relapse. He has since suffered from numbness in his hands, which are always cold, and has to wear gloves even when indoors.
Machida wonders if the side effects of treatment could be harsher for men, but he has no way to confirm this without information on other male breast cancer cases.
“I decided to speak out since I wanted more people to know about male breast cancer and hoped that the government would look into the disease further,” he said. “Many male patients probably feel isolated and shut themselves away.”
Cancer Net Japan plans to hold the second Men’s BC in April.
The organization hopes to reach out to more male patients by providing information on the disease via a social networking service.