When men get breast cancer

Written by New York Times | New York | Updated: Mar 1 2014, 15:14pm hrs
Breast cancerIt is not clear why some men get breast cancer while most do not, but risk factors include a family history of breast cancer.
Breast cancer is not always pink. That is the message of a provocative new photography series featuring the faces, and scars, of men with breast cancer. The photos, by the New York-based fashion photographer David Jay, are part of his continuing Scar Project, a series of mostly black-and-white portraits that capture the devastation of breast cancer.

The vast majority of the photos in that project are of young women, shown topless with scars where their breasts used to be. The pictures, which are both shocking and beautiful, are featured in a travelling exhibition that will be on display next month in Toronto.

But most visitors to the Scar Project find the photos on the Internet, where they have been viewed by millions of people. One of those people is Oliver Bogler, a cancer biologist in Houston who found out that he had breast cancer 18 months ago after noticing a lump in his chest.

We asked our readers to share insights from their experiences with breast cancer. Here is one of their stories.

As in a womans breast, the duct cells in a mans breast can undergo cancerous changes fueled by hormones that influence the growth of cells. It is not clear why some men get breast cancer while most do not, but risk factors include a family history of breast cancer, inherited gene mutations, radiation exposure, extended occupational exposure to certain chemicals or intense heat, obesity, liver disease, alcoholism, and other cancer treatments.

All of these factors can influence the level of hormones in a mans body and potentially spur breast cancer. That said, many men who develop breast cancer do not have any of these risk factors.

Fewer than 1 per cent of breast cancers are diagnosed in men, but that is little comfort to the 2,400 men a year who learn they have the disease. For Dr. Bogler, 47, the diagnosis was particularly shocking because his wife had learned five years earlier that she had breast cancer.

I struggled with the huge coincidence, Dr. Bogler said. We were both diagnosed when we were 46. It seemed a bit unlikely. I couldnt imagine having this conversation with her, either: Honey, I think I have what you have.

Like many cancer patients, Dr. Bogler found himself spending time online in hopes of learning more about his disease. He stumbled across the Scar Project and asked Mr. Jay if he would consider including men in the series. As a result, the Male Scar Project was created.

The photo of Dr. Bogler shows him next to a radiation machine, his chest covered with marker lines used to guide the radiation beam.

The photos of men with breast cancer are admittedly less jarring than those of women. One reason may be that it is less surprising to see a shirtless man, and the absence of his breast and nipple is not as immediately noticeable. But the portraits of the men are still haunting and show, in a more subtle way, the spiritual ravages of cancer.

Even when filling out forms at the doctors office, Dr. Bogler found that many of the questions were aimed at women.

I live in this very pink world, he said. Im not complaining about it. I dont mind skipping the Are you pregnant part of the form. But I realized most people dont even know men get breast cancer.

- Tara Parker-Pope