“I’m kicking myself I had not gone earlier,” said Bogler, 46. “I should have gone right away. [But] my major worry during this time — and I wrote this down — is looking foolish and having my wife look at me: ‘Are you kidding?’ So I didn’t say anything to anybody.”
Bogler, the senior vice president for academic affairs at MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas in Houston, is undergoing chemotherapy treatments; so far, his tumor had stopped growing. The next step in his treatment is a modified radical mastectomy, then radiation and five years of tamoxifen, which inhibits estrogen from stimulating the grown of breast cancer cells.
According to the American Cancer Society, Bogler’s case is rare: About 2,240 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in U.S. men a year, compared with about 232,000 cases of invasive cancer among women.
And because male breast cancer is rare, most men with the disease do what Bogler did and ignore the symptoms: lumps in a breast, discharge from a breast or other changes in a breast or nipple.
“Both the patient and the doctor often don’t have a high level of suspicion it is breast cancer,” said Sharon Giordano, Bogler’s oncologist. “Some men don’t come in, or some doctors don’t get biopsies. It is not a common disease, which leads men to being diagnosed at more advanced stages,” which are harder to treat.
Most of the time, women receive a diagnosis of breast cancer after a mammogram, said Robert Warren, oncologist and professor of medicine at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Most male breast cancer is diagnosed with a presence of mass,” he said, which means that “right off the bat, the lump or mass is going to be a later-stage tumor.”
Estrogen as risk factor
Men rarely get breast cancer because they produce very little estrogen, which is associated with female sexual characteristics.
“Exposure to estrogen is the ultimate risk factor for developing breast cancer,” said Ben Park, a breast cancer specialist and researcher at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center of Johns Hopkins Medical School.
Some scientists wonder if some men who develop breast cancer may be producing more estrogen than is normal.
Whether there’s a relationship between estrogen and the male hormone testosterone is unclear, Park said. But when breast cancer develops in men, it more often occurs in older ones, at a time when testosterone production is waning.
According to the American Cancer Society, the average age for the discovery of breast cancer in men is 68; the disease most commonly strikes men (and women) between the ages of 50 and 70.
Other potential risk factors, Park said, include a family history of the disease, obesity (fat cells can convert testosterone into estrogen), and alcohol abuse or cirrhosis of the liver. The liver helps metabolize estrogen. Men born with Klinefelter syndrome, a rare condition where men have an extra X chromosome, may be more susceptible to breast cancer, as well as men who inherit a mutated gene. The most common culprit, for men and women, is the BRCA2 gene mutation.