Doctors are encouraging a new group of people to consider getting tested for genes that raise the risk of breast cancer: men.
Male relatives of women with such genes often do not realize that they, too, may carry them, and face greater odds of developing male breast cancer, as well as prostate, pancreatic and skin cancer, new research suggests.
"Everyone thinks of breast and ovarian cancer and just assumes it's all women. They don't even realize these genes can be inherited from the father's side of the family," said Dr. Mary Daly of Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.
After seeing breast cancer in several male patients who did not know they were at risk, Daly conducted a small study, which was presented Friday at a conference in Texas. She now is trying to convince more fathers, sons and brothers of women with the genes to get tested.
"Very few of them want to," she said.
Breast cancer is the most common major cancer in American women. More than 178,000 new cases, and more than 40,000 deaths from it, are expected in the U.S. this year.
But men get it, too — about 2,030 cases are estimated to occur this year, accounting for about 1 percent of all breast cancer cases, according to the American Cancer Society. About 450 of these male cases will prove fatal.
The BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 genes markedly raise the risk of breast cancer and are most prevalent among those of Eastern European Jewish descent. In men, they double the normal risk of prostate cancer, triple the risk of pancreatic cancer and make breast cancer seven times more likely to develop.
As part of a larger study on perceptions of genetic risk, Daly surveyed 24 close blood relatives of women who had tested positive for one of these genes and had told their male kin the results.
Six men said they hadn't been told, or had forgotten. Of the other 18, two mistakenly said the test had been negative. Seven did not think the results revealed anything about their own cancer risk. Only five understood they, too, might carry the genes.
Of the six who expressed any interest in being tested themselves, three said they were doing so mostly for their children's sake.
"We try to reach out to the men in these families, particularly men who have little children," Daly said. "If they were to die without being tested, their children would grow up without that information" that they, too, were at risk, she said.
Dr. Steven Vogl, a cancer doctor in private practice in New York, said he recognized that potential when his neighbor was dying of lung cancer and told him how many female relatives had suffered or died of breast and other cancers.
"Being a good doctor, I took a history," and realized the man, an Eastern European Jew, probably had the gene.
"At least it will help his granddaughter" to know of the risk, Vogl said.
Women, too, need to realize they are doing male relatives and their descendants a favor when they reveal their own genetic risk from BRCA genes.
"They don't realize they are at risk," or that their grandchildren may be, Daly said.