Man Turned Away for Breast Cancer Screening

Criss has talked publicly about the stigma and "excruciating" pain associated with treatment designed for women's bodies.

"Whoever invented (mammogram machines) had to do it in the medieval days," he said, but the screening is worthwhile.

That was the case with both of Cunningham's parents, who were diagnosed with breast cancer only six months apart.

His father Bob, a jet-turbine mechanic retired from the U.S. Air Force, has been successfully treated with Tamoxifen. His mother Shirley found her tumor during a breast self-exam and had a double mastectomy.

Both had medical coverage through the Department of Veteran's Affairs.

Bob Cunningham, now 79, had been taken aback by his own diagnosis.

"I sure didn't realize men had breast cancer," he said. "My doctor had seen maybe one or two in his whole practice, but that year he had already had three."

"How many husbands and wives get diagnosed in the same year?" asked Scott, their son. "But they're doing OK."

Scott Cunningham, who is divorced and has an 11-year-old son, has been living with his parents since he lost his job. "I try not to let it get me down," he said.

His mother, Shirley, said the government should provide screening to men, as well as to women.

"It's very discriminating as far as I am concerned," she said. "We have four sons and another one had a physical recently and told his doctor his dad had breast cancer, and they wanted to start having mammograms. But he doesn't have insurance either."

The danger of not getting early screening is that men will get diagnosed at a later stage, when the disease is less treatable. For that reason, death rates are higher among men.

Often it is the stigma of the "female disease" that keeps them away. Both father and son are not bothered by those stereotypes.

"Some men would hang their heads, but no way, I am a man," said Scott Cunningham.

Male Breast Cancer Runs in Families

Male breast cancer has a strong genetic link, according to Dr. Deborah Axelrod, director of the breast program at New York University Clinical Cancer Center.

"The telling factor [in Scott Cunningham's case] is that his father had breast cancer, and that is the number one signal for us to be suspicious," she said. "I suspect the dad had a genetic predisposition and was carrying a [gene] mutation that increases risk for male cancer."

In men with breast cancer, one in six has the BRCA cancer mutation -- the same one that puts women at higher risk, according to Axelrod.

Mutations in the BRCA gene are not sex-linked and can run on both the maternal and paternal side, so patients need to be better informed to share family history with their doctors.

Though she advocates for more public awareness about male breast cancer, Axelrod is not critical of the CDC's female-only screening funds.

"It's designed for women, because only 1 percent of all breast cancers occur in men," she said. "They have to address what is common and It's not common for men. They could use the same equipment, but there are no screening guidelines for men."

Both patients and their doctors should be more aware of the dangers of male breast cancer.

"In this instance the man is asking for help and may not get timely care," said Axelrod. "But men also sometimes don't go on their own for timely care. We don't have big public awareness for men to watch for breast cancer, even among physicians."

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