I’m a Man with Chest Cancer! I Beg Your Pardon?

Last updated: February 2021

The Male Breast Cancer Coalition (MBCC) recently invited Dr. Mathew Knowles, the academic, speaker, and music industry icon, who was recently diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, to speak to its members at an online forum. Mathew is well known as the father and former manager of singer and songwriter, Beyoncé. He has appeared on national television talking about the disease in men. MBCC is always keen to find a prominent patient advocate because they can generate media attention for the one percent of those diagnosed with breast cancer, men.

Changing male breast cancer to male chest cancer

At the start of the forum, Mathew dropped a bombshell. He said, that from now on he was referring to the disease as chest cancer. His rationale was that his marketing training led him to believe that many men in the African American community are too embarrassed to say they had breast cancer and would feel less stigmatized if it was called something else. Very quickly his audience, comprised mostly of people who had been advocating for the disease in men for many years, complained about the terminology. The discussion pretty soon became animated. In Mathew’s defense, one member stated, "maybe it will help some men become aware of male breast cancer and save some lives. Isn't that really what we are all trying to accomplish?" Others thought it would just cause confusion. After all, chest cancers, also known as thoracic cancers, include many types of cancers including lung and esophageal cancer.

Advanced breast cancer terminology

At one stage Mathew said he wasn’t interested in arguing about the term, and while he respected other points of view, he would continue to talk about his "chest cancer" diagnosis and treatment. I was concerned that after many years of MBCC promotion of the meme, “Men Have Breasts Too”, the thought that it might be changed to “Men Have Chests Too”, was crazy. Harvey Singer, founder of the charity HIS Breast Cancer, worried that it "might do more harm than good - the good we have all worked so hard to achieve, for me, over the last 12 years".

Tammy Porter, a long-time marketing professional, put it well, "I absolutely understand the “spin” he was attempting and the idea that saving one life if you can reach them is important. As an MBC widow, I am hard-pressed to relate to his cavalier nature, however. My (Black) husband went through years of pain and suffering and it was not made any easier by the stigmas associated with all the pink/women - only messaging throughout his diagnosis and treatment. That is not made any better by simply using a different word. What will make a difference is the normalization of the word breast and the de-sexualization of basic anatomy. I truly believe this discussion (and his staunch advocacy), despite saying he wasn’t trying to convince anyone, only sets us back. We need to be on the side of science. We need to be spending time informing men that they actually have breast tissue. By avoiding the topic, it only perpetuates the problem."

Breast cancer is a genderless disease

Most important to all the patient advocates I know working on explaining the genderless nature of breast cancer, is to eliminate sexual stereotyping. This can be achieved by lobbying the big pink charities to include us in their education and awareness campaigns, advocating for more research that includes men of all races, and making a genuine effort to reduce the stigma attached to being a man with this disease. Not by changing the name of the disease.

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