If you're a man, please, please don't dismiss breast cancer as being something that only happens to women.

Breast cancers in men used to be extremely rare, and they're still uncommon. According to the American Cancer Society, in 1995 there were 1400 cases of breast cancer in U.S. males, and in 1998 there were about 1600.

The number of cases in men will likely continue to rise because of the amount of estrogenic pollutants people are being exposed to. Many plastics and pesticides mimic estrogen when they get in the human body, and they have been linked to breast cancer formation in both sexes.

Furthermore, men's breast cancers seem to be very aggressive and much more lethal than women's cancers. Medical researchers haven't yet determined whether this is because men put off going to the doctor until their cancers are advanced or because the cancers themselves are more invasive. Doctors do know that men who have naturally elevated estrogen levels (such as men with Kleinfelter's Syndrome) or who have a BRCA2 mutation are at a much higher risk. Men who are older, eat high-fat diets, or are overweight to the extent that they've developed excess breast tissue are also at higher risk, as are men who have pituitary or testicular function problems.

However, men of any age, size or condition can develop breast cancers and tumors. I dated a fellow in college who was rail-thin and athletic who developed a tumor under his nipple. He wouldn't have thought anything of the lump he felt one day in the shower, except that his mother had just had breast cancer surgery.

More recently, a close friend of mine was just diagnosed with breast cancer, but fortunately they caught it at a very early stage.

He, too, developed a tumor near his nipple. The first biopsy came back negative, but the tumor grew and became extremely painful, and he bugged his physician to have the thing taken out. No one but my friend was taking it very seriously, and his insurance company was balking at paying for his treatments, claiming it was "cosmetic surgery". But when they put him under the knife, the surgeon realized things looked wrong and they did a second biopsy in which the cancer was discovered.

The surgeon eventually had to take out 80% of the tissue in his right pectoral, plus the lymph nodes under his arm. The scar is deceptively small, just a half-moon incision following the curve of his nipple.

My friend is now undergoing radiation treatments with Cobalt 60. Five days a week, he goes down to the hospital for two hours. The radiation treatment itself only takes two minutes; the rest of it is getting prepped and waiting.

He's got runic markings on his chest to show the radiologist where to direct the beams; they gave him the option of having the markings inked in or tattooed on. He didn't want any more physical reminders of this illness than he's already got, so he opted for permanent marker. He has to cover the markings with waterproof tape when he takes a shower.

When he goes in the room, he lies on a table beneath the radiation machine. They lay a leaded mat like the ones you find at a dentist's office over the lower half of his body. They put a specially-fitted wire mesh mask over his face that they then affix to the table so that he can't move his head.

He says that the mask makes him claustrophobic. He'll get it as a souvenir when the treatments are done, and all the doctors and nurses will sign it.

Unfortunately, three days into his treatment he started to suffer from painful radiation burns on his chest. His doctor tells him that 25% of all patients get the burns as an unfortunate side effect. The burn covers most of his pectoral and looks like a cross between a moderate sunburn and a rash. More disturbingly, his scar looks roasted and bleeds from time to time. The doctors prescribed him a foul-smelling cream to rub on the burn, but that's it -- he's in for six more weeks of this.

The radiation treatments will also weaken him and probably destroy his appetite; the doctors have told him to eat high-calorie foods. Since he has high cholesterol, they've told him to try sports energy bars, peanuts, and raisins. He's going to lose a lot of weight, no matter what.

But all this is better than dying from the cancer. And his doctors say that as long as he completes his treatment, his chances for a cancer-free future are good.

So, whether you're male or female, pay attention to your body and examine yourself regularly. Please go see a doctor if you: