9/11 survivor shocked by breast cancer diagnosis: 'But I'm a man'

Breast Cancer Awareness tends to focus on women with the disease, yet men all over the world can be stricken with this type of cancer. In fact, this year 480 men will die from breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

That number may seem small compared to the 40,920 women that will die from breast cancer in 2018, but many men admit that they are horribly uneducated about the disease.

“I never knew that males could get breast cancer, which is a real problem in conversation,” Jeff Flynn, a breast cancer survivor, told Fox News.

Flynn, 65, of Long Island, New York, was shocked when he was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2011. At first, he noticed some pain around his nipple but ignored it. It wasn’t until months later when his wife pointed out his inverted nipple that he went to see a doctor.

“She [my wife] knew that was a classic symptom of breast cancer, so I said ‘Okay, I’ll go to my primary care doctor,’” Flynn said.

After having a mastectomy, Flynn’s doctors told him they took out 35 lymph nodes, 34 were cancerous.

“I just remember being shocked. Your whole life changes, ‘What am I going to do about work? Am I going to die? What about my kids?’” Flynn said. “Forty percent of men who get breast cancer die because they don’t know about the disease, and they wait just like I did.”

70-year-old Nathan Spencer of Staten Island is also a breast cancer survivor. When he was diagnosed with stage 3B, his first thought was “But I’m a man, men don’t get breast cancer?”

Spencer first discovered something wasn’t right when he noticed a terrible itching on his right nipple and “felt something,” that was later identified as a tumor.

“Never make an assumption that because you’re of a certain gender, race, height, whatever the case is, never assume,” Spencer said. “If you notice something off about your body, check it out.”

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Spencer and Flynn have more than just their breast cancer diagnosis in common. The two men were both working by the World Trade Center when the 9/11 attack occurred. Something some experts believe may have contributed to their cancer diagnosis.

A 2011 study published in The Lancet found World Trade Center-exposed NYC firefighters had a 19 percent increased risk of cancer compared to non-exposed FDNY firefighters.

Attorney Michael Barasch represents Spencer, Flynn and 28 other men who were diagnosed with breast cancer after being exposed to Ground Zero toxins.

“They found chromium, lead, benzene. This was all in the jet fuel that kept the building on fire for 99 days. Not only was it in the air, it was cooking,” Barasch told Fox News.

Fox News’ Dr. Manny Alvarez sits down with breast cancer survivors Jeff Flynn and Nathan Spencer along with their attorney Michael Barasch to talk about their journey with the disease and the signs and symptoms all men should know.

Fox News’ Dr. Manny Alvarez sits down with breast cancer survivors Jeff Flynn and Nathan Spencer along with their attorney Michael Barasch to talk about their journey with the disease and the signs and symptoms all men should know.

Flynn, who worked for Goldman Sachs downtown at the time of 9/11 and witnessed both planes fly into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center, said the ground was like a green mud, dirty and smelly.

“You could almost taste the air like a metallic taste,” Flynn said. “They shut down the area for a couple of days, but Christine Todd Whitman at the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) said the air was safe to breathe, so my company moved on that so we all went down there and went and did our jobs.”

Flynn was diagnosed with breast cancer about 10 years after the 9/11 attacks.

Although the risk for breast cancer in men may be higher for those who worked and lived near Ground Zero, all men should be aware of the signs and symptoms.

Symptoms of breast cancer in men:

A painless lump or thickening in your breast tissue
Changes to your nipple, (I.E. redness or scaling, or inverted nipple)
Changes to the skin covering your breast, (I.E. such dimpling, puckering, redness or scaling)
Discharge from your nipple

Men have a 1 in 833 risk of developing breast cancer in their lifetime, compared to about a 1 in 8 lifetime risk for women, according to the American Cancer Society.

“Men don't realize it because we aren't taught as a young age or in puberty to do a self-examination. We don't go to a gynecologist.” Barasch said. “[And] we're men we ignore things. So as a result when men get breast cancer it's often already metastasized.”

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Dr. Marleen Meyers a medical oncologist at NYU Langone's Perlmutter Cancer Center said although male breast cancer is much rarer than female breast cancer, it’s often not diagnosed until later stages.

“Men should do self-breast exams and ask their doctor for an exam. They should never ignore a breast lump,” Meyers told Fox News.

Some studies estimate that the cases of male breast cancer are on the rise. One report in the British Journal of Cancer stated the incidence of breast cancer in U.S. men increased by 26 percent during 1973–1998.

“There are approximately 2,000 cases of male breast cancer diagnosed each year in the U.S.  This number has risen over the past 20 years,” Meyers said. “We may be seeing an increase in part because of greater recognition of the disease and the importance of doing genetic testing in high risk men as they can carry the BRCA gene.”

Meyers said another part of the increase is the rise of obesity in the U.S., which is associated with the risk of various cancers.

Dr. Erika Hamilton, the Director of Breast Cancer and Gynecologic Cancer Research Program at the Sarah Cannon Research Institute said men can do a few things to reduce their risk of breast cancer.

“Try to eat a healthy diet with lower processed foods and maintain a healthy body weight. Also avoid chemical exposure,” Hamilton told Fox News.

Hamilton also said that men should know their family history and whether or not the hereditary breast cancer genes BRCA1/2 is in your family.