Those ubiquitous pink ribbons -- particularly visible during October's Breast Cancer Awareness Month -- don't necessarily tell the whole story. Men also suffer from breast cancer, albeit less frequently than women.
Westport resident Dr. Richard Zelkowitz, an oncologist specializing in breast cancer at Norwalk Hospital, is as zealous in his treatment of men with breast cancer as he is with his female patients. "Men need to know that if they feel a lump in their breast or in their lymph nodes [under their arms] that they've never had before, they need to see a doctor," he says.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) , and the National Cancer Institute , male breast cancer is relatively rare in the U.S. It affects roughly one percent of all breast cancer cases, which translates into one man for or every 100 cases of female breast cancer. Each year approximately 2,000 men are afflicted with the disease, and 400-500 men die from symptoms relating to it.
Zelkowitz says there are no real predictors as far as male breast cancer is concerned. "The onset for male breast cancer is five to 10 years older than for women," he says, adding, women typically present with the disease in their 50s. And as far as early detection is concerned, men are at a disadvantage, as they don't routinely seek mammograms. "Men have to rely on their eyes and hands," he says. "It doesn't matter if a lump is small, or whether it's painless or painful. If there's a new lump or one that has grown in size, men need to seek medical attention."
Lifelong Norwalk resident Charles Luciano, 63, is one of the statistical rarities. He was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995, some time after his general physician noticed a small lump in his breast. "I ignored it for three years," he says. "I just thought it was a fatty cyst or something." Luciano, an installer at Aitoro Appliances, finally went back to his doctor after his lump grew -- and became painful. "I went in for a biopsy and came out without a breast," he said. "The doctor didn't want to wait a second more." Luciano's two maternal aunts and four female first cousins, as well as his twin sisters, have all been afflicted with breast cancer. Still, he was shocked to learn he had the disease as well. "You know, you just don't think it can happen to a man," he says.
Like Dr. Zelkowitz, Luciano admonishes his friends -- or anyone who asks him, for that matter -- not to ignore any warning signs. "I say to everyone: 'don't mess around with cancer' because even the smallest one can get you."
After years of treatments including chemotherapy and radiation, Luciano finally beat breast cancer, but he now suffers from cancer of the lymph nodes. "I feel good," he says. "I love to work. I worked through chemo and I'll just work right through this."
Dr. Zelkowitz, who has been treating breast cancer patients for the past 15 years, offers this as a touchstone about the disease. "People need to know that breast cancer, in men as well as in women, is curable. That's the bottom line. Don't be afraid of facing it. Just treat it early."
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