When Elizabeth Hagan heard her son’s diagnosis, the questions started running through her head: Men can have breast cancer? How do men get breast cancer? Why didn’t I know this could happen?

Hagan is a breast cancer survivor herself, yet, she says, her son’s diagnosis came out of the blue. “You don’t expect men to get breast cancer,” she explains. “There has to be more awareness.”

Screening is crucial

Hagan’s son, David Ferger, first discovered a lump in his breast when his wife was applying suntan lotion. It is recommended that men check their breasts for abnormalities monthly, though, Hagan adds, many do not.

Despite the disease being more prevalent in women, male breast cancer is no insignificant occurrence, says John Boyages, a professor of breast oncology at Macquarie University Hospital and the author of “Male Breast Cancer: Taking Control.”

Statistics for men

About 2,600 men each year will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. and Canada, according to Boyages. Each week, 50 new men will be diagnosed and eight will die from the disease. The 5-year survival rates are 74 percent for men and 83 percent for women. However, stage-to-stage, survival rates don’t differ.

“Wagner’s diagnosis was delayed when his primary care physician dismissed his inverted nipple as 'nothing to worry about.'”

“If we find a man with early disease and a woman with early disease, it’s identical,” Boyages explains. “The problem is, more men get diagnosed with stage 2 disease.” The issue is delayed diagnosis. Boyages attributes this to two key problems: the need for public awareness, as Hagan notes, and awareness among physicians.

Amplifying awareness

“We need to educate men, but we also need to educate the medical profession,” says Herb Wagner, 72, the founder of A Man’s Pink and malebreastcancer.ca. An 11-year breast-cancer survivor, Wagner’s diagnosis was delayed when his primary care physician dismissed his inverted nipple as “nothing to worry about.” When he visited another doctor for a second opinion, the physician promptly told him to get a mammogram.

“When I was first diagnosed, I thought, ‘How could someone miss something like that?’” Wagner recalls. “That’s what drove the need to increase awareness.” Now, he works to “infuse a little blue into the sea of pink” by educating men about the importance of early detection and early treatment.

That’s exactly what men need to know, Hagan says. After battling for four years, her son died from the disease in July at age 49. “Every man I reach, I tell them, ‘Do me a favor: check yourself. And tell 10 more men,’” Hagan says. “Then each man tells 10 more men and at some point, the message will get out there. That is my hope.”