Men can and do get breast cancer. Not as much as women — breast cancer among men is one hundred times less common than among women — but it happens far more often than you’d believe. Yet say it out loud and you’ll immediately encounter eye rolling, raised brows and embarrassed snickering.
And if the man with breast cancer happens to be Archer, the narcissistic too-cool-to-die fictional spy in the animated series of the same name, the snickering turns into a guffaw. Since fictional spy dudes can take surgery without anaesthesia and chemo without nausea, hair loss or other such embarrassing side effects, the episode served the purpose of getting people to google whether men could get breast cancer, a disease associated with women for obvious reasons.
Oncologists have told me more than once that what upsets men most about breast cancer diagnosis is the location. KISS drummer Peter Criss, 65, who underwent surgery for breast cancer in 2008, confessed later: “It took me days to tell my kids I had breast cancer. And when I did, I could see they were trying not to laugh. Can you imagine what I went through? Why can’t they call it chest cancer in men?” Criss also said he felt really weird waiting for radiation therapy in a room full of women. He’s now free of cancer, which is what probably helps him see the humour in the situation.
The number one cancer in women, breast cancer does not figure in the top 10 cancers in men. Yet it kills a higher percentage of men affected with it than women because some men shy away from treatment, choosing time in the hope that the problem would go away on its own.
The result is delayed diagnosis and in many cases, death. Too many people go for treatment in late stages, by when the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes and other tissues.
Another problem, say experts, is that most breast cancer awareness programmes focus on women. Apart from childlessness and late childbirth, the risk factors are the same for men and women. Some risks, like family history cannot be changed, but both genders can cut down risk by losing weight, quitting smoking and eating a healthy low-fat diet.
Early diagnosis can lead to a quick cure. Diagnostic tools such as a whole-body magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) — which uses powerful magnets to create an image of the body — accurately detects breast tumours that had spread to the bone, even when there were no symptoms such as lumps, which are often absent in men, showed a study by Pune’s Deenanath Mangeshkar Hospital last year.
The Pune study underlines recent research that recommends non-radiation screening such as ultrasounds and MRI to mammography, which uses low-dose radiation. Data from 5,000 women in the US and Europe presented at the Radiological Society of North America conference in Chicago showed that annual mammography screening doubled the risk of breast cancer in women with genetic or familial predisposition to the cancer.
What’s different today is the mainstreaming of cancer in popular culture. Apart from badass spy Archer’s lumpy chest and Sid Mukherjee’s Pulitzer-winning tome, The Empress of All Maladies, a popular US television series called The Big C explores the life of a dull suburban housewife who decides to live it up after being diagnosed with stage-IV cancer, much to the puzzlement of her family and friends who don’t know about her illness.
Cancer — of the breast or other kinds — is no longer a disease used by scripwriters to kill off inconvenient characters. It’s a part of scripts the way it is a part of life, something not to be feared but to fight, the best you can.