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'Women's' Diseases Men Get, Too

What it's like to be a man with breast cancer, lupus, or osteoporosis.
By Eric Metcalf, MPH
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

If you've never met a guy with breast cancer - and odds are good that you haven't - Terry Mautner is happy to be your first.

"I've worn it as kind of a badge of courage, or whatever you want to call it. I like to engage people in conversation about it because they find it so unusual or interesting," he says. In fact, while talking to WebMD by phone, the Indianapolis man notices that he's wearing his "I'm a survivor" T-shirt, which he picked up at a breast cancer fundraising event.

And no, it's not pink. "It's gray," he says with a laugh.

Mautner's story is a reminder that for the most part, "women's diseases" don't really exist. Men can't get ovarian or other female reproductive cancers, of course. But though you can call them "pecs" all you want, men do have breasts. And guys have bones, so we can get osteoporosis. And we can have depression, irritable bowel syndrome, and lupus and other autoimmune diseases, even though these more often strike women.

Men can face special challenges when we develop a disease more common in women. We may be slower to notice symptoms. We may have more trouble coping. We may feel frustrated over having any disease, let alone one that society regards as a "women's problem."

If one of these ailments does find you, here's how to confront it like a man... er, a fighter.

Breast Cancer: One Man Per 108 Women

Decades ago, Mautner had a benign cyst removed from his left breast, so he was used to finding lumps. When he felt another lump in 2000, he ignored it for a month. His wife urged him to get it checked. He saw his doctor on a Friday and had a mastectomy three days later.

Men's breast cancers are often found at a more advanced stage, says George Sledge, MD, a breast cancer expert at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis, who treated Mautner after his cancer returned in 2005. After all, almost no men have regular mammograms or check themselves for breast lumps. The National Cancer Institute says there is no information on the benefits or risks of breast cancer screening in men.

Overall, men's outcomes aren't worse than women's, as long as they catch the tumor early enough. Men have estrogen in their systems, too, and most men's breast cancers contain receptors for the hormone, which allow it to influence the tumor.

As a result, guys tend to respond well to drugs that keep estrogen from encouraging breast cancer growth, Sledge tells WebMD. Many other treatments - surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy - are similar in men and women.

And guys may get a warning that they're at risk if the disease shows up in their family. Men who carry a BRCA2 gene mutation have about an 8% chance of getting breast cancer, though this is much less than the 40% or higher chance seen in women, Sledge says. Men with a BRCA1 gene mutation are also at higher risk of breast cancer.

However, after their diagnosis, guys don't find a community of peers waiting to welcome them, as women might. When men head to the golf club or gym, odds are better that "they could commiserate about prostate cancer or their heart attack, but there just isn't a large number of guys with breast cancer who can talk to each other," Sledge says.

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