Alberta Cancer Foundation

The Uncommon Man

Male breast cancer is notably rare. In 2010, 180 men in Canada had the disease: meet one of them
Illustration by Raymond Reid

This year, 50 men in Canada will die of breast cancer. Brian Crookes hopes he won’t be one of them.

Crookes first noticed a small bulge in his breast in 2002. The lump pushed out his nipple and rubbed against his shirt. It was uncomfortable, but his doctor told him not to worry. Crookes didn’t even mention the lump to his wife until two years and three physicals later, when he finally decided to have a biopsy performed and the lump removed. “I thought that was the end of it all,” he said. “Then two weeks later, I get a phone call from the plastic surgeon who told me I have Stage 2 invasive duct carcinoma.” Crookes was shocked. He didn’t know men could get breast cancer.

Few men ever do. The most recent statistics (2007) showed 15 Alberta men diagnosed with breast cancer compared with 1,994 women the same year. This is why breast cancer diagnoses in men, just as in Crookes’ case, are often delayed. People simply aren’t considering the possibility.

Surgeons performed a mastectomy on Crookes that carved a line through to his armpit – the cancer had migrated to the lymph node under his arm. Crookes’ mother and an aunt had both had breast cancer, and his doctor advised removing his other breast as a preventive measure. (Later, genetic testing, which is done if the patient has a close relative who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, indicated Crookes carried no heredity risk.) His surgeries left Crookes without nipples but with significant scars. He decided against reconstructive surgery; the scars simply did not matter much to him. When people see him shirtless – at the pool, say, or in the locker room at the gym – their eyes widen. If they ask, Crookes jokes that he was bitten by a shark. “Besides,” he says, “having a scar reminds you that you are still alive. It is kind of a good thing.”

Crookes believes that a mastectomy is a far more distressing experience for a woman. “It is not a big deal for a man to remove a breast. It is not as traumatic,” he says.

“I don’t know what it would be like to have breasts as a woman and then not have them.” Still, many male patients suffer unique emotional difficulties in relation to their cancer. They feel their surgery-ravaged chests demean their sense of toughness and masculinity.

Breast Cancer Mans Up

As a graduate student in 2004, Edith Pituskin conducted a study about how men experience breast cancer. At the time, there were 125 Albertan men living with breast cancer as identified by Alberta’s Cancer Registry. Twenty of them were involved in her study.

Now PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Alberta, Pituskin’s study found that men’s experiences ran the gamut. Some didn’t want to tell anyone about their diagnosis; others, like Brian Crookes, were inspired to become advocates.

Pituskin’s study helped draw attention to the possibility of male breast cancer, alerting men, their wives and health care practitioners.

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