Breast Cancer is Not Always Pink

Did you know that the third week in October is Male Breast Cancer Week and the male breast cancer ribbon is pink and blue? Most people do not, just as most are surprised to learn that men can even have breast cancer. Unlike female breast cancer, male breast cancer (MBC) is rare, accounting for about 1% of all cancers diagnosed in men. For men with a geneticpredisposition for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer or diagnosed with a genetic condition called Klinefelter syndrome, their risk to develop breast cancer can be as high as 6-13% respectively.

As a breast cancer surgeon, I have treated men with breast cancer in my practice; however, finding the cancer at an early stage is challenging. Since male breast cancer is rare, we do not have a screening process set up to image breast tissue in men regularly. The majority of men seek medical attention when they or their significant other feels a lump in their breast tissue. The lump has to be worked up to distinguish between gynecomastia (a benign,  non-cancerous condition often seen in men) and cancer. The distinction cannot be made without imaging the breast tissue, comparing it to tissue in the other breast and a biopsy of suspicious masses. This has to be done with a mammogram and ultrasound, just like in women. Men have enough breast tissue located behind the nipple-areola to fit between the mammogram plates.

This requires men to visit imaging centers and medical offices that cater to women. Pink ribbons, pink gowns, pink flowers, women’s magazines... These are not meant to be insensitive to men who frequent them, but rather nurturing to the majority of patients (women) who spend their time there month after month, year after year, and sometimes more often than that.

We in the medical community need to be more sensitive to the feelings and needs of men as they walk this journey. I personally made it a habit not to give my male patients any pink folders, handouts or bandages without asking them how they felt about the color pink. The development, diagnosis and treatment of male breast cancer are similar to that in women. However, we must not assume that a man’s perspective, journey and feelings about his diagnosis are similar. The color pink was not designed to ostracize men suffering from breast cancer, but rather to signify the message of awareness and unite the cause to find a cure. With the color pink, we can celebrate that we are fighting the problem for women and men.

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