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Tackling the Rare and Under-researched Area of Male Breast Cancer

Breast cancer knows no gender. According to the American Cancer Society, about 1 in every 1,000 men will be diagnosed in their lifetime. While that may not be as daunting as 1 in 8 women, the fact that it is so rare makes male breast cancer all the more challenging.

What’s more, because breast cancer is “a woman’s disease,” men may be diagnosed at a later stage. So while there’s been improvement in overall survival for male breast cancer patients over time, the prognosis for men with the disease hasn’t improved as much as it has for women.

Men need to not only be aware that they can get breast cancer, but they also have to be proactive about the disease and reporting any lumps or inflammation to their doctor.

We know that every cancer is as unique as each patient, but very little breast cancer research has focused on men. We still know little about how it differs from breast cancer in females and how that translates into more effective treatments for men.

To deepen our understanding of the disease, Dr. Fatima Cardoso along with an international group of investigators launched the world’s largest study of male breast cancer in 2008. Largely funded by BCRF, this global effort, which I lead along with Dr. Cardoso and collaborators in Europe and North America, is analyzing more than 1,800 cases to increase our knowledge of the nature of the disease, the different forms it takes in men versus women, and how it is treated around the world. These efforts will lead to more appropriate and perhaps new targeted therapies specific to male breast cancer.

Already, we’re gleaning new information about the disease in men from this study. We’ve learned that most men, or 92 percent, had estrogen receptor positive cancer (ER+). In women, about 70 percent of breast cancer is ER+. We have also found that 56 percent of male breast cancers are diagnosed when the tumors are very small, yet only 4 percent of patients had breast-conserving surgery. Most had a mastectomy, which significantly impacted their quality of life.

By gaining greater insight into the clinical and biological characteristics of breast cancer in men, we will be able to provide male patients with the best treatment that’s truly tailored to their bodies and their cancer.  

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