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Breast cancer less common but no less scary for men

Women are about 100 times more likely to get breast cancer than men, but the risks are still present.
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For men, the lifetime risk of getting breast cancer is roughly 1 in 1,000, while breast cancer is about 100 times more likely in women than in men, according to the American Cancer Society.

Most men would never expect to be struck by the disease, especially if they are at low risk for cancer. But for Rich, a lifetime Queens and Long Island resident, educator and retired school administrator, even genetic testing could not have helped predict his unlikely diagnosis.

Rich, now in his late 60s, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000. He asked that his last name be omitted from his story.

Rich agreed to share his story however because he, like so many other men and women with breast cancer, know that early diagnosis is the difference between a life well lived and a life spent in sadness or pain, and men should know their risk.

“If you see something unusual—even if you are a man—have it checked,” Rich said.

After experiencing some ultra sensitivity in his left nipple, Rich visited his primary care physician, who found that he had an infection beneath the skin. Rich was prescribed antibiotics and after the infection cleared up, he returned to his doctor. The doctor was concerned there was still something there and told him to have a mammography done.

“I went back. A lot of guys would have ignored it, I know that. It cleared up fast, but there was a reason for it. That’s because there was a little tumor, and it would have gotten bigger. Men ignore a lot of this stuff, but I didn’t think I should ignore this,” Rich said.

The doctor who performed Rich’s X-ray found a small mass and asked that he find a surgeon to take a closer look. Rich ultimately found a specialist with North Shore LIJ Health Center who has several male breast cancer patients.

A needle biopsy done on Rich’s breast ended up being non-conclusive, but a frozen section of the biopsy sample was later found to be malignant. At that point, Rich said he had a hard time believing it.

“So I got the news, and well, what can you do? It just hit me. Who expects this from a man, especially? So all kinds of thoughts go through your mind and we’re talking about it, what do we do,” Rich said.

Rich’s wife, Gale, was as shocked about the diagnosis as he was.

“We never expected it to be him. I had a lot of breast cancer in my family. I’ve never had it, but we never ever expected this,” she added.

Doctors also removed about 20 lymph nodes to see if the cancer had spread, but luckily for him, that was not the case. The surgery gave Rich lymphedema, however. The unfortunate consequence of the additional testing gave Rich a lymphatic obstruction, but physical fitness later helped him reduce the effects, which are localized fluid retention and tissue swelling in his left arm.

Surgery removed all the cancer growth, but it was still advised that Rich undergo chemotherapy, and he did so every three weeks for six months. And he continued to take medications for about five years.

Cancer-free ever since, Rich has never had to undergo radiation treatment and has been able to enjoy his retirement with his wife and family.

“Knock on wood—more than 15 years later—I feel good,” Rich said. “I do this when I know someone is going through the same thing I did: I want to inspire them. It doesn’t mean that just because you have breast cancer, you’re not going to be able to do what you want to do. We have grandkids, we have continued to live, grow and do well. We have a new house, we travel.”

Rich said he constantly asks himself what he may have been exposed to, but research on what causes breast cancer in men is so limited, because cases are so few and far apart to study similarities, according to the ACS.

Reach reporter Tom Momberg by e-mail at tmomberg@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4573.

Updated 9:54 am, October 5, 2015
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