Since before Alan Blassberg’s birth, breast cancer had taken a heavy toll on the 43-year-old Los Angeles-based television producer and his family. His grandmother succumbed to breast cancer two weeks before he was born; his aunt died from the disease at age 49, when he was 27; and his sister, Sammy Blassberg, learned she had breast cancer in 2008. She died after a three-year battle at age 47.
Sammy’s cancer was caused by a genetic mutation called BRCA 2. The BRCA 2 and BRCA 1 mutations, which are carried by one in 40 Ashkenazi Jews as compared with one in 345 people in the general population, significantly increase the risk of developing breast cancer, as well as several other types of cancer.
While Sammy received treatment, Lisa Brandes, Blassberg’s other sister, underwent testing for the BRCA 2 gene. She tested positive for the mutation and eventually made the painful decision to undergo a double prophylactic mastectomy. The surgery reduced her odds of getting breast cancer from 80 to 90 percent to 2 percent.
Meanwhile, Blassberg’s girlfriend, Stephanie Swartz, received the news that her own breast cancer had recurred. How much worse could things get?
“The Jewish guilt kept coming down, and Lisa and her oncologist kept telling me I needed to get tested [for BRCA 2],” Blassberg said. “I knew that men could get breast cancer, but I’m a very positive person, and I didn’t think I would have the mutation.”
But in late 2011, Blassberg tested positive for BRCA 2.
Men with the BRCA 1 and 2 mutations have a 6 to 10 percent likelihood of developing breast cancer; men in the general population face a likelihood of less than 1 percent. Although the number of men with breast cancer is low, men are more likely than women to die from the disease. They are also at a higher risk for other types of cancers, such as colon and pancreatic, and melanoma.
“Men are more likely to die from breast cancer because [typically] they don’t go to the doctor until they are at stage III or IV (the stage at which cancer has spread elsewhere in the body),” said Blassberg. “By then, it’s too late. There’s a stigma about this, and our society has such a weird attitude toward breasts. No one is talking about this.”
No one, that is, except for Steve Del Gardo, founder of Protect the Pecs, a Cincinnati-based organization Del Gardo started after completing his fourth and final round of chemotherapy for treatment of breast cancer. Del Gardo also had a double mastectomy.
“When I was going through it [diagnosis and treatment], I couldn’t find any information,” he said. “After my second round of treatment, this wave came over me, and I realized I needed to start a foundation.”
Protect the Pecs was born in March 2013. Through his foundation, Del Gardo is attempting to raise awareness and money to fund research and treatments for men with breast cancer.
After he tested positive for the BRCA 2 mutation, Blassberg scheduled an appointment with his girlfriend’s oncologist, Dr. Armando E. Giuliano, at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. Accompanied by Swartz, Blassberg arrived at the doctor’s office to find 20 women in the waiting room.
“I was given a form to fill out, but I couldn’t answer any of the questions because none of them applied to men,” Blassberg said. “When was your last menstrual period? Are you experiencing vaginal dryness? There was a picture of a female breast on the form. I had to turn in the form without information. Although I didn’t feel uncomfortable, I thought that most men would.
“When the assistant came into the waiting room to call me into the doctor’s office, she called for Mrs. Blassberg. The robe I put on had a huge pink ribbon. It’s just about making people feel comfortable, you know? Why can’t they just order 20 blue robes?”
Despite having the BRCA 2 mutation, the doctor found no evidence that Blassberg had cancer. He has opted against preventive mastectomies but has mammograms and MRIs every six months.
Blassberg, who founded First Prize Productions in 2004, has produced television hits such as “Temptation Island” for Fox, “Who Wants to Marry My Dad?” for NBC and the Emmy Award-winning documentary “America’s Deadliest Season: Alaskan Crab Fishing” for the Discovery channel. He is now in the process of making a documentary about male breast cancer.
Blassberg said the film, “Pink and Blue,” will not only educate people about male breast cancer but also will identify modifications that caregivers can make to encourage men to seek treatment without shame and embarrassment. Featuring interviews with top oncologists, “Pink and Blue” will look at the topic of male breast cancer from a personal and relatable point of view.
“Breast cancer is not just a female disease. Awareness to this disease is paramount in saving lives,” said Blassberg, who expects “Pink and Blue” to be released in the summer of 2014. “If it even saves one person from having to hear a loved one moan from pain, it is worth it. Those sounds will never leave your head.”
For more information, visit pinkandbluemovie.com >>.
For information about Protect the Pecs, visit protectthepecs.org >>.
Simone Ellin is JT senior features reporter — firstname.lastname@example.org