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'Lonely journey' for male breast cancer patient

Story Highlights

• More than 2,000 new cases of male breast cancer will be diagnosed this year
• Breast cancer 100 times more common among women.
• Treatment similar for men, women: chemotherapy, surgery, radiation
By Judy Fortin
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- It started with a pain behind the nipple. Within a few weeks, a lump started to grow. It got bigger and more painful until a doctor finally diagnosed stage 4 breast cancer. It's a story shared by thousands around the United States, only in this case, the patient's name is Bill Morley.

He's lived with breast cancer for two and a half years, and his fight for survival hasn't been easy. The disease has now spread to his bones. He says, "The first thing anyone thinks when they're told they have cancer is, 'OK, can I survive it or not?' and as bad as I felt, I just figured I wasn't going to survive it."

About 450 men die from breast cancer each year. Even though more than 2,000 new cases will be diagnosed this year in the United States, the disease is considered rare among men. Breast cancer is 100 times more common among women. (Health Minute: Watch more on one man's struggle with breast cancer Video )

"It's like being the only man in a sorority house," says oncologist Mitchell Berger of Grady Health System in Atlanta, Georgia. "The resources and posters that you see out in public have women on them.

"It makes it somewhat of a lonely journey."

For some men, understanding and accepting a breast cancer diagnosis can be difficult. Berger says, "I think that a large part of it is they don't realize that they have breast tissue that can develop into breast cancer."

Morley says he was in denial about his illness. "It's almost embarrassing to look back on it," he said. Now 52, he lives in a suburb south of Atlanta. After years of managing lumber yards, he had started his own construction company in 2003. He felt the first pain in his breast about a year later. Money was tight so he didn't have health insurance. (Health Minute: More on treating male breast cancer Video )

At his wife's insistence, Morley finally saw a doctor and began treatment. Ironically, he worried during most of his 33 years of marriage about his wife being at risk for breast cancer. The disease runs in her family. No history of any type of cancer turned up when Morley examined his own genealogy. "It was me," he says. "Where in the world did this come from?"

Berger doesn't have an answer. "There are a larger percentage of men with genetic breast cancer than spontaneous breast cancer." He explains that breast cancer genes can be inherited by female and male relatives.

Morley now wonders whether his three grown sons might be at risk for breast cancer. Berger, the oncologist, recommends the sons be tested for genetic abnormalities.

Family history is just one of the risk factors for male breast cancer. The American Cancer Society also lists age, obesity, heavy alcohol intake, liver disease and radiation exposure.

Like women, men's cancer is most often diagnosed during a clinical exam followed by a mammogram or ultrasound and then a biopsy.

Treatment is also similar for men and women. "The typical treatment would be chemotherapy, surgery and radiation to start off with," says Berger.

Morley isn't shy about showing off his mastectomy scar.

He's also forthcoming about his physical discomfort. "It's become painful over the last few months. The first year it was more of nuisance. Then different things started happening, I became a lot weaker and lost a lot of weight."

Berger predicts Morley will need to maintain chemotherapy treatment to keep the cancer from spreading further.

In all his trips to the hospital infusion center, Morley says he's never met another man with breast cancer. He has some advice for men who may be worried about getting checked out for breast pain: "Do not do what I did and wait so long to get diagnosed and treated. I made the gamble and I lost."

Judy Fortin is a correspondent with CNN Medical News.


Dr. Mitchell Berger, examining Bill Morley, says male breast cancer is "like being the only man in a sorority house."


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