Friday, July 15, 2011

Real Men Get Breast Cancer (and Pinked Up), Too

Those of us unlucky enough to get breast cancer know that there's sometimes a family link to this disease. There's the BRCA1 and/or BRCA2 mutation. And, if one has breast cancer, one's first-degree relatives -- parents, children, and siblings -- are at greater risk.

For me, that means my mom, my dad, and my brother.

Real men get breast cancer, too, and I've told my family to be extra vigilent about noticing any changes to their breasts.

The American Cancer Society predicts that in 2011 approximately 2,140 men will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, and 450 of these individuals will die from the disease. This is a miniscule number of breast cancer diagnoses compared to that of women, but for those men and their families who are affected, this is serious business indeed.

When I was going through treatments, I had spoken to a few men diagnosed with breast cancer, and this is what I gleaned from their perspectives:

1. They felt like pariahs and very alone. One of my "support" groups kicked out a male with breast cancer because these women felt like it was a woman's disease and men had no place in the conversation. This fact really depressed me.
2. These men were embarrassed to admit they had breast cancer. Exceedingly sad.
3. They often waited too long to see a doctor because they thought that men just don't get breast cancer. Tragic.
4. They were hesitant to share their stories with society. And they had such powerful stories to tell. I am honored and privileged that they trusted me enough to share them with me.
5. They adopted the pink ribbon as their symbol, too.

Regarding the last point, I've often wondered why these men felt the need to adopt pink. Perhaps it was because they felt ostracized and needed some sort of identity with breast cancer. Sadly, pinkification seems the only way to keep some men (and women) affected by breast cancer united with the "cause," whatever that may be.

And that got me thinking: why do we need any symbol to represent any disease? And then I realized that we are a society that depends on symbols: yellow ribbons, red ribbons, and a barrage of pink: pink ribbons, garbage trucks, tour buses, etc.

Pinkwashing never ends.

For all the breast cancer "awareness" campaigns, it's so sad that society typically does not acknowledge awareness of men with breast cancer.

The below link leads to a video about a man diagnosed with breast cancer. Notice the pink ribbon he's wearing.

Have you known any men afflicted with breast cancer?

Why do you think some men adopt the pink ribbon as their symbol?

To obtain these postings regularly, please subscribe to this blog by clicking the orange subscribe button. I am a professional writer and have published numerous academic and magazine articles, as well as an essay on my breast cancer experience in the anthology Voices of Breast Cancer by LaChance Publishing. I can be contacted at and


  1. Beth, thank you so much for this important post. In our efforts to derail the pink movement, we often neglect to mention the men affected by this disease. How do they view all the pink merchandise?

    Your list of common feelings of men with breast cancer truly saddened me. I know only one man with breast cancer and he was in a cancer support group at my local hospital where I gave a talk. He was the only male, but at least the support group wasn't limited to breast cancer. Otherwise, I'm sure he would not have come. A friendly man with a welcoming smile, he seemed to get along with the ladies very well. A true ladies' man!

    I think some men adopt the pink ribbon to look to the public as if they are supporting women with breast cancer such as their wives, moms, aunts, sisters and daughters. But if the curious were to ask them about the ribbon, I believe most of them would be honest enough to admit that they themselves have the disease and this is the only symbol unique to the cause. It's too bad that we have to have such color-specific, cause-devoted icons, but I don't think there is any going back now.

    I appreciate so much your raising this subject. I'm not BRCA-1 or -2 positive, but I know people who are, and they are concerned about the men in their lives. And they need to be.


  2. I have an uncle that had breast cancer. He was a doctor himself. He knew what the lump was the minute he felt it, took care of it right away and that was that.

    My breast cancer specialist still didn't believe that breast cancer ran in my family...

    Dianne Duffy

  3. Hi Beth,
    My name is Liz and I have been reading your blog for a while now. I am glad to read your pre-latest post. I have managed to gather small pieces about who you are from your writing but it was lovely to read about your family and interests. Your daughter is quite a pretty little girl. In your most recent post, I have to say I am saddened to learn that so many women discriminate against men going through breast cancer. Women especially should be more sensitive to this, given our history and all.
    That said, since your blog is a great resource for someone going through cancer I wanted to reach out to you to see if you were interested in a new online social support network (that I am the community manager of!) called I Had Cancer. It is a new and free social support network focused on connecting people based on experiences with cancer so that they can easily communicate with one another and share information. I would love to tell you more if you are interested, so please let me know! Because I was so struck by your writing I would love to send you an early-access pass with extra invites for others you may know going through this journey. Perhaps the men you met going through this can finally find someone to connect with on I Had Cancer.

    Either way, thank you so much for your writing. Take care and best regards. If anyone would like information on I Had Cancer please email me.

  4. Beth,
    This topic is so important and so neglected. Thank you for posting about it. It makes me sad to think men feel so much stigma with this particular cancer diagnosis. Again, this is more proof that we have such a long way to go yet. I am BRCA 2 positive. I am a mother of two sons. I have a brother as well. This subject hits home for me on many levels. Thank you for addressing it, Beth.

  5. Beth, I've missed your blog. I need to get on here more. Great post. Whenever I have a student who mentions writing about breast cancer, I refer them to your blog.

    I'm thankful I don't have an urgent reason to read it beyond supporting my dear friend's writing career and learning a thing or two about the medical field. But it's never far from my mind that the big C got my mom (leukemia--AML) and her mom (non-Hodgkins limphoma--wrecked the spelling, I'm sure). Your blog continually reminds me that just because cancer isn't currently in my life doesn't mean I shouldn't be vigilant.

  6. Jan, thank you for your intelligent response to my posting. You make excellent points about why men would wear the pink ribbon.

    These individuals have poignant stories to tell.

  7. This is such an important subject, Beth. Years ago, I met some friends of friends, a great couple who were pals with my then-partner. The man had had breast cancer as a young man. It was a real eye-opener for me, and I've never forgotten it. Fortunately, he found it early, and his wife helped make sure he got effective treatment. Decades later, when I was on a breast cancer forum, I was appalled at the comments that were made to some of the men on the forums. We all feel a sense of isolation when we have cancer, but the last thing we should do is add to that isolation by not embracing our brothers. Thanks for writing this.

  8. Beth thank you for this post. Excellent!
    Are you able to tell me if stastics are similar for males and females?
    It saddens me that there is so much discrimination.
    Thank you so much for your informative writing.

  9. Dianne,

    I'm glad your uncle got treated right away. It's really amazing how many times doctors don't even ask about male family members having breast cancer.

    Thank you for reading and commenting.

  10. Liz,

    Thanks for your loyal readership. I will check out this support system and posted your comment so other readers could see it.

  11. Nancy,

    Thanks, as always, for your loyal readership and commenting. I feel for you; I think the hardest think about being a parent is seeing one's child go through any illness.

    I can't imagine how tough it was for my parents to see me suffer, even though they couldn't be there for me. They felt it deep within their core.

    I hope your family fares well. Interestingly, I tested negatively for both gene mutations and I got breast cancer anyway, so nobody knows when and if it will strike.

  12. Jeannie,

    It's so great to hear from you, my dear friend!! Thanks for your support and referring others to my blog. As you know, it is a topic near and dear to my heart.

    And you are right: vigilence is key.

    For those who aren't aware, Jeannie is an awesome writer!!

  13. Kathi,

    Thank you for your response. It is appalling what some women say to men who are suffering from the same affliction. It's like they are pariahs.

    It's hard enough to be a woman with this disease, but societally, it's got to be tough to be a man with it; it adds a whole different dimension and stigma to it.

  14. There is tons of 'awareness' there for us women, but not so much for the men. I think it's sad that men wait so long to be diagnosed, but to be fair, they probably have no idea it could be breast cancer...

  15. Cheryl,

    I don't know the statistics, but I'm a curious person and plan to find out. Yes, the discrimination is awful. My experience talking with men who had breast cancer really stuck with me, and I've never forgotten them or the conversations.

  16. Dear Knock Knock - it's cancer!

    Yes, I think that men just assume that they will never get breast cancer. In fact, it's probably not even on their radar.

    Thanks for reading and posting a comment!

  17. Prevention and early detection is the best way of fighting breast cancer. Breast Cancer Awareness month is here and it is great to bring awareness to it regardless of the way it is brought to people's attention. Whether it is from participating in a walk, updating your facebook status, or by wearing a breast cancer ribbon , any effort made to help bring awareness and help find a cure for this disease is a help in many ways.