Paying attention is vital: Professor Ian Olver of the Cancer Council. Photo: Sylvia Liber
The news this morning that former NSW premier Nick Greiner had cancer was shocking.
But many people, especially men, would have been even more surprised by the type - breast cancer.
“With someone prominent like Nick Greiner coming out, a lot of men are going to discover for the first time that they can get breast cancer,” says Cancer Council chief executive officer Ian Olver.
Breast cancer survivor: Nick Greiner in his Sydney office. Photo: Peter Braig
The signs, and treatments, are the same for men as they are for women, Professor Olver says, although exposure to radiotherapy on the chest or increased oestrogen levels will increase a man's risk.
“You need to know what your body is like, and if there’s any change in your breast or any nipple discharge, do something straight away because it could be breast cancer,” he said.
Cancer Australia says there are five common signs of breast cancer in men.
The first, most common sign is a painless lump in the breast close to the nipple.
Other signs include:
• discharge from the nipple.
• change in the shape or appearance of the nipple.
• change in the shape or appearance of the breast, such as swelling or dimpling pain.
• swollen lymph nodes (glands) under the arm.
The Breast Cancer Network of Australia has just produced a new booklet for men, called “Men Can Get Breast Cancer Too”.
The reason men are also vulnerable is found underneath their nipples - men actually have milk ducts and some breast tissue, just like women.
But why? Evolutionary biologist Stephen J Gould once famously wrote an essay called "Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples", where he explained that we misunderstand evolution when we think every part of our body must have a purpose.
Men have nipples, and milk ducts and breast tissue, because women do, and we all evolve from the same embryonic structure.
The good thing for men who get breast cancer, and indeed women who get it as well, is that survival rates are high.
About 85 per cent of men who are diagnosed are alive five years later, while the five-year survival rate for women is nearly 90 per cent. The important thing is that men - and their doctors - realise it is even a possibility.
"In general, because there isn’t as much breast tissue in men, the cancer might be more obvious early on," Professor Olver said. "But if you don’t think you can get breast cancer, you might not think about it."
He says we are likely to see more men getting breast cancer as our population ages.
“The main feature [of male breast cancer] is age; it is a disease of the late 60s, and as the population ages you might expect some increase in male breast cancer,” he said.
“But I think [in Mr Greiner's case], that you can be treated and go back to work again, is a very positive message, to see you can do pretty well.
"So this idea that it is always a death sentence will dissipate if people see stories like that.”