Alumni Notes


Male Breast Cancer: Breaking the Silence

Like many cancer activists, Bob Riter ’78 became involved with the disease after his own diagnosis. But his was not a typical battle for a man. In 1996 Riter noticed a small lump under his left nipple.

“I wasn’t too concerned—I assumed it was a cyst that would go away on its own,” he says. “About three weeks later, I felt some wetness on my chest and realized that I was bleeding from that nipple.” A biopsy delivered a diagnosis that will be received by an estimated 1,500 men this year: breast cancer.

Most men with breast cancer do not have such visually obvious symptoms. Many simply feel a painless lump directly behind the nipple, the only area of breast tissue on the male body. Women, with more breast tissue, are likely to find cancerous lumps in other areas, but beyond this, the disease is essentially the same for both genders.

The cause of breast cancer in either sex is still largely unknown, but there are factors that put some men at higher risk: a family history of breast cancer, exposure to radiation, gynecomastia (male breast enlargement), or high estrogen levels.

Riter underwent a modified radical mastectomy and six months of chemotherapy. Treatment is similar for men and women, although Riter admits that the psychological baggage of a mastectomy is often less severe for a male. Still, the labeling of breast cancer as a “woman’s disease” can evoke feelings of shame and silence for its male victims.

But Riter has taken the opposite route, becoming instead a cancer advocate who is open about his own diagnosis. In 1997 he began volunteering at the Ithaca, New York, Breast Cancer Alliance, where he serves as associate director. Although very little of his work is specific to male cancer, he raises awareness by telling his own story.

“I make it a point to attend as many national breast cancer meetings as possible,” he says. “I do this in large part to be a face that people can associate with male breast cancer. It’s important for me to be at the table—both figuratively and literally—when breast cancer issues are discussed.”

Riter says he has been warmly received by female breast cancer activists. “At first, people might have categorized me as a man with breast cancer. Over time, I think that I’ve been accepted as a breast cancer advocate who happens to be a man.”

–Peter Meredith ’02

For more information, visit


back to top