Bill Griffith’s battle with breast cancer began small with a Chihuahua named Roxie.
It was 2004 and the veteran broadcast journalist at 10News was lounging in his East County home. “Roxie was jumping on my chest and landed on the tumor in my breast,” recalled Griffith, who was 55 at the time. Roxie’s pounce was painful. When Griffith touched his chest, he felt something like a lump behind a nipple.
“My wife Jenny convinced me to ask my doctor about it, but he blew it off as a benign cyst because, he said, ‘Men don’t get breast cancer.’”
A year later, the presumed benign mass in Griffith’s chest had doubled in size. It had become inflamed. Griffith returned to his doctor and insisted the growth be removed. Pathology tests determined the mass was malignant. Griffith had breast cancer.
Male breast cancer is rare. Men account for less than 1 percent of all breast cancer cases in the United States, which translates to about 2,240 American men being diagnosed annually with the disease. An estimated 400 American men die from breast cancer each year.
Griffith fired his doctor. He says he was more disappointed than angry. He consulted experts, including specialists at UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center, who advised him to undergo a bilateral modified radical mastectomy: Tissue would be removed from both breasts, in part to prevent a recurrence of the disease.
Griffith had surgery in April, just a month after diagnosis. Because there was no evidence that the cancer had spread to lymph nodes or other parts of his body, he was treated with an aggressive program of chemotherapy, but not with radiation.
“The chemo was terrible, but it’s been nine years with no recurrence, so I’m good to go.”
During his six-month chemotherapy regimen, Griffith was temporarily off-the-air, but not out-of-sight or mind. He launched a blog called “Bill’s Battle with Breast Cancer” to chronicle his fight. He spoke publicly about his condition, and still remains active in a variety of anti-cancer organizations. The message of his story is simple:
“I tell men the same thing I tell women: Be aggressive and insistent with your doctor. Had mine removed the tumor at the first visit, I would have avoided disfiguring surgery and life- shortening chemotherapy.”
The lifetime risk for men of developing the disease is one in 1,000, according to the American Cancer Society. For women, the risk is closer to one in 8.
The risk factors:
These are things that increase a person’s chance of developing cancer, though most do not directly cause it. Some people with several risk factors for cancer never develop the disease while others with no known risk factors do. The following are identified risk factors for male breast cancer:
- A family history of breast disease or a mutation in the BRCA2 gene
- Age. The older the man, the greater the risk. The average age of diagnosis among men is 65.
- Elevated levels of estrogen, which can be caused by genetic conditions, other diseases or some kinds of medical treatment
- High levels of radiation
- Lifestyle. As with other types of cancer, obesity, lack of exercise and excessive alcohol consumption have been linked to increased risk of breast cancer.
The biology of breast cancer is essentially the same in both men and women. Normal cells in breast tissue begin to change, grow uncontrollably and become dysfunctional. These cells form tumors that may be benign or malignant – the latter meaning they can spread to other parts of the body.
Men also experience some of the same primary symptoms or signs of breast cancer: a lump or swelling in the chest area or new irregularities on the skin or nipples, such as redness, scaliness or puckering.
Because male breasts generally have less tissue than female, it’s easier to detect lumps (if men look for them). Unfortunately, some men with breast cancer never display any obvious signs of the disease.
Many tests are employed to diagnose breast cancer and determine whether it has metastasized. These include clinical examinations, mammography, ultrasound, microscopic examination of nipple fluid discharge to look for cancer cells and biopsies (tissue sampling) of suspected tumors.
In addition, there are several blood tests that look for markers or indicators of breast cancer, such as measurements of estrogen and progesterone receptors. Cancer cells depend upon these hormones to grow; the greater the number of receptors, the greater the likely presence of cancer. The tests help determine a patient’s prognosis and whether he will respond to hormone therapies.
Doctors may also test for the protein HER2, an overabundance of which is associated with about 25 percent of breast cancers. Again, the results help determine whether drugs targeting HER2 are an appropriate treatment.
Breast cancer behaves differently in every patient, determined by each individual’s genetic profile, health, state of the disease and personal circumstances. As a result, standard of care (the best treatments available) varies, based on which therapies are deemed likely to be safest and most effective. These options include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and therapies that target specific genes, proteins or processes contributing to cancer growth and survival.
Breast cancer in men and women has similar survival rates. In the earliest stages, the 5-year survival rate (the percentage of people who live at least five years after diagnosis, excluding other causes of death) is 98 percent.
If the cancer has spread to local lymph nodes, the 5-year survival rate drops to 84 percent. If the cancer metastasizes to more distant parts of the body, the rate falls to 24 percent.
It’s important to note that these are averages, based on data from thousands of patients. An individual’s actual risk and survival rate is much tougher to predict. Plus, these estimated averages do not necessarily reflect the latest advances in treatment.
For more information about breast cancer and other types of cancers, visit UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center.