OPINION

Most men unaware of breast cancer danger

NOT JUST WOMEN: Male breast cancer advocate Rob Fincher, who has been living with metastatic breast cancer since 2014, wants to raise community awareness. Picture: Sylvia Liber
NOT JUST WOMEN: Male breast cancer advocate Rob Fincher, who has been living with metastatic breast cancer since 2014, wants to raise community awareness. Picture: Sylvia Liber

We all know that cancer is a mongrel of an illness.

It has robbed us of too many of our loved ones and left so many people faced with lengthy recoveries after often-gruelling treatment regimens.

Very few of us have been left untouched by "The Big C", whether it's through a personal diagnosis or watching a loved one go through it.

Treatments for cancer are continuing to get better, as is diagnosis and screening programs, and community awareness is continuing to grow.

Possibly one of the most successful and enduring awareness campaigns has been the "pink ribbon" efforts around breast cancer.

I have no doubt these high-profile campaigns have saved the lives of any number of women, who were prompted by one to go and have that mammogram.

But there is a flip-side to the success of a campaign that has so closely linked women and breast cancer: Men can get it too.

Yes it's rare, and it only accounts for about one per cent of all breast cancers, but, in 2016, 28 Australian blokes died of it, and you cannot help but wonder how many of them knew it was even a possibility before their diagnosis.

This week I spoke to a truck driver named Steve Allen. He's only just turned 60 and has been fighting metastatic breast cancer for almost four years.

Like a lot of blokes, Mr Allen didn't even know men could get breast cancer.

He now wants to get the message out there to make sure other men are aware of the risks and take notice of any changes to their bodies.

Mr Allen had noticed changes to one of his nipples and did visit the GP. Unfortunately, despite a biopsy, the cancer wasn't detected at that point and it spread to his bones and liver before it was eventually diagnosed.

In Australia, about 140 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. The Cancer Council says this figure will actually increase as our population ages.

Men of all ages can be affected by breast cancer, however, the average age of diagnosis is 69.

The good news is that most men survive breast cancer. In Australia, 85 per cent of men diagnosed with breast cancer are alive five years later. Most men fully recover and the disease does not return according to the Breast Cancer Australia Network.

The key to successfully treating breast cancer in men is exactly the same as in women: Early diagnosis and screening.

According to the Cancer Council, symptoms of breast cancer in men are similar to those for women and include:

  • a breast lump
  • thickening of the breast tissue
  • dimpling of the skin of the breast
  • change in shape of the breast or nipple
  • a discharge from the nipple
  • a painful area
  • swollen lymph nodes in the armpit area.

And just like women, there are lifestyle choices that can slightly increase cancer risks. You'll probably already know them: drinking alcohol, smoking, being overweight and a lack of physical activity.

When I spoke to Mr Allen, he was keen to not only get the message out that men can get breast cancer, but also to warn blokes not to stick their heads in the sand.

In hindsight, he wishes he'd looked for a second opinion and admits he was probably "told what I wanted to hear" when the initial biopsy results came back.

As advocate Rob Fincher has said, the challenge ahead is to ensure we effectively promote the male breast cancer message and don't get lost and "drown in a sea of pink".

Perhaps another lesson, more broadly, is that we all need to keep a better eye on our own health. We need to take advantage of screening programs, be aware of risk factors and, most importantly, not ignore those little warnings signs.

I'd hazard a guess that a GP would rather see thousands of patients whose concerns proved to be medically groundless than deliver a grim prognosis to even a single person who ignored the red flags and decided to delay the trip to the medical centre.

The good news is that most men survive breast cancer. In Australia, 85 per cent of men diagnosed with breast cancer are alive five years later. Most men fully recover and the disease does not return according to the Breast Cancer Australia Network.