Thousands of men diagnosed with breast cancer each year

Image 1 of 3

When at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Benjamin Flores usually finds himself surrounded by women. 

"I always came with my wife, and so she would sit with me. And I think everybody thought, 'Oh, look at that poor guy, he's there with his wife,' but it was actually me that was there for the treatment," Flores said.  

Flores is being treated for a disease that most people believe happens only in women. In 2012, at the age of 62, the retired assistant principal from Georgia was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Flores said he first noticed oozing from his left breast after working in the yard. He assumed he injured it while cutting a tree. 

"Men! We just kind of feel like, 'Ah, it's nothing,'" he said.

But when the problem persisted, his wife, Pam, who is a nurse, became concerned. Because Flores wouldn't go to the doctor, she decided to check things out herself. 

"I was kind of getting ready and combing my hair and my wife came up. I didn't have my shirt on, and she had one of those glass plates," Flores said.

That glass plate was a microscope slide. His wife sent it to the lab, where doctors found something abnormal.  The next step for Flores was a mammogram.

"So they called out my name and everyone looked, and I walk in and put the robe on," Flores said.

He said the results were inconclusive so more tests were ordered. A biopsy later confirmed it was breast cancer.

"I said, 'Cancer? Breast cancer?' And it just flabbergasted me because I had never been sick in my life," he explained. 

Moffitt oncologist Dr. Nazanin Khakpour isn't Flores' doctor, but she's treated other men with the disease. She said while breast cancer in men is uncommon, men often present with more advanced disease.

"Unfortunately, their symptoms were ignored for sometime," Khakpour said.

According to the American Cancer Society, because men have less breast tissue, the cancer can spread more quickly to the nipple or lymph nodes.

For women, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer is almost 90 percent. And while fewer men get the disease, there are about 2,350 new cases of invasive male breast cancer and 440 men die of the disease per year. 
Khapour said one reason men catch it late is because they don't know the signs: they can include a lump, indentation, nipple discharge, scaly rash, or itching. 

"There is a lot of awareness about women getting mammograms and pink ribbons everywhere in October. Unfortunately for men, there is not a lot of education and awareness," Khapour said.

Many people believe more attention should focus on breast cancer in men, especially during October.

"When I see all the pink without any mention of men getting breast cancer, it really really hurts," said Kriss Bowles, who lost her husband to breast cancer in 2004.

"He was just amazing, very intelligent, he loved to fly. He worked for the FAA," Bowles said of her late husband

Bowles said her husband's cancer was caught late, and had spread to his bone. After a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, the cancer came back.

"The part that really hurt was seeing Brock, laying in his recliner and not being able to do anything for him," Bowles recalled.

She said the biggest shock came after his death.

"I started telling people, 'My husband had breast cancer,' and they're going, 'What? Breast cancer? Men don't get breast cancer.' Yes they do," Bowles said.

Bowles' dream is to see a touch of blue inside every pink ribbon. Along with stickers and pins, she's asking the governors of states across the country to make the third week of October male breast cancer awareness week.

It's a move she hopes will result in more outcomes like the one Flores had.

Flores' cancer was caught early. After his mastectomy, he didn't need chemotherapy or radiation, and three years later, he's cancer free.

He hopes all men will learn from his experience.

"My encouragement to all men is any irregularity -- bleeding, oozing -- get it checked," Flores added.