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Study: Breast cancer is rare in men, but they fare worse

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(CBS/AP) Men rarely get breast cancer, but those who do often don't survive as long as women, largely because they don't even realize they can get it and are slow to recognize the warning signs, researchers said Friday.

The biggest study yet of breast cancer in males found that on average, women with breast cancer lived two years longer than men with the disease.

Men's breast tumors were larger at diagnosis, more advanced, and more likely to have spread to other parts of the body, the study found. Men were also diagnosed later in life - in the study, they were 63 on average, versus 59 for women.

Why do men fare worse when it comes to breast cancer? Most men have no idea that they can get breast cancer - and some doctors are in the dark, too, dismissing symptoms that would be an automatic red flag in women, study leader Dr. Jon Greif, a breast cancer surgeon in Oakland, Calif., said. 

Greif presented a summary of his study for presentation Friday at a meeting of American Society of Breast Surgeons in Phoenix.

The American Cancer Society estimates 1 in 1,000 men will get breast cancer, versus 1 in 8 women. By comparison, 1 in 6 men will get prostate cancer, the most common cancer in men.

"It's not really been on the radar screen to think about breast cancer in men," Dr. David Winchester, a breast cancer surgeon in NorthShore University HealthSystem in suburban Chicago, said. Winchester treats only a few men with breast cancer each year, compared with at least 100 women.

For the study, researchers analyzed 10 years of national data on breast cancer cases, from 1998 to 2007. A total of 13,457 male patients diagnosed during those years were included, versus 1.4 million women.

The findings may help raise awareness of the disease in men, because research is pretty scant and doctors are left to treat it the same way they do in women, Dr. Akkamma Ravi, a breast cancer specialist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, said.

Some doctors said one finding in the study suggests men's breast tumors might be biologically different from women's: Men with early-stage disease had worse survival rates than women with early-stage cancer. But men's older age at diagnosis also might explain that result, Greif said.

The causes of breast cancer in men are not well-studied, but some of the same things that increase women's chances for developing it also affect men, including older age, cancer-linked gene mutations, a family history of the disease, and heavy drinking.

There are no formal guidelines for detecting breast cancer in men. The American Cancer Society says routine, across-the-board screening of men is unlikely to be beneficial because the disease is so rare. For men at high risk because of a strong family history or genetic mutations, mammograms and breast exams may be helpful, but men should discuss this with their doctors, the group says.

Men's breast cancer usually shows up as a lump under or near a nipple. Nipple discharge and breasts that are misshapen or don't match are also possible signs that should be checked out.

Robert Kaitz, a computer business owner in Severna Park, Md., thought the small growth under his left nipple was just a harmless cyst, like ones that had been removed from his back. By the time he had it checked out in 2006, almost two years later, the lump had started to hurt. The diagnosis was a shock.

"I had no idea in the world that men could even get breast cancer," Kaitz said. He had a mastectomy, and 25 nearby lymph nodes were removed, some with cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation followed.

Tests showed Kaitz, 52, had a BRCA genetic mutation that has been linked to breast and ovarian cancer in women. He may have gotten the mutation from his mother, who is also a breast cancer survivor. It has also been linked to prostate cancer, which Kaitz was treated for in 2009.

"It killed me. I tell you what - night sweats, hot flashes, mood swings, depression. I'd be sitting in front of the TV watching a drama and the tears wouldn't stop pouring," he said. Doctors sometimes prescribe antidepressants or other medication to control those symptoms.

Now Kaitz gets mammograms every year. Men need to know that "we're not immune," he said. "We have the same plumbing."

The American Cancer Society has more on breast cancer in men.

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