Breast cancer in women is an internationally recognized and publicly-combated disease. It's not easy to find someone who doesn't know a survivor, and the battle cry to find a cure is both loud and substantial. My own sister is a survivor. Conversely, breast cancer in men is likely to garner a raised eyebrow along with the words, "I didn't know guys could get breast cancer!"
Personally, I had no clue either that men could have cancer in their breasts until I became one of them. That was just five years back, and the ensuing years have done much to help get the word out that guys can have breast cancer and an alarming number of them die from it.
But is that enough?
The truth is, in addition to being a male breast cancer survivor, I am also an advocate. So, like many of the men I've met, I have a responsibility to share this information and encourage other guys to be alert and aware.
It's easy for me to see the progress that has been made in these few, short years because I'm right here in the middle of it. After all, I see it every day. But I have to remind myself that it's especially visible to me because I'm immersed in it. Looking at the bigger picture, it's clear that we still have a significant challenge before us.
One of the most beneficial changes that I see for men has been in the support and recognition from more and more women's groups. As two examples, I was recently invited to submit an essay on Male Breast Cancer by a web site called "I'm Taking Charge" who's mission statement reads: "To empower every woman to take back the things breast cancer stole from her: her sense of choice over her body, her comfort in her own skin and her ownership of her post-cancer body."
One might think that this would be an unlikely group to focus on the male version of breast cancer but it's going to take these sorts of bold, unconventional acts to cover the whole spectrum of breast cancer for men and women alike. This is the kind of forward thinking that will help to share the male breast cancer story and most certainly save some lives. Another turn-around moment came when I was fortunate to receive an invitation to speak to women at an all-female breast cancer convention in Arizona.
As men experiencing cancer we endeavor to be recognized, but it goes much deeper than that. The stigmas about breasts are centuries long. Understandably, the thought of a woman losing one or both breasts to cancer is disconcerting to say the least. Female breasts have long been symbolic of fertility and well-being. There isn't much in the way of symbolism or adulation to attach to the male version.
I think the greatest hope for men to come out of the shadow of breast cancer in a very pink world is through the support of women. The avenue of education is already in place. The clinical trials, long favoring the female participants, are slowly being cracked open to include men. The pharmaceutical industry, though driven by the need to invent drugs for larger populations that can generate greater monetary returns, is also ever-so-slowly opening up to men.
There continues to be a "separation of power" when it comes to research and development of the methods by which to treat breast cancer. But women are reaching out with ever-increasing authority and conviction to remind the world that "men have breasts too!"
And we need each other to find that elusive cure.