Looking back, Leon Basiaga knows he missed the signs for months.

He experienced back pain every morning. A new mattress didn't change a thing.

And when routine bloodwork identified a spike in his white blood cell count, Basiaga and his doctor figured it was probably linked to a recent cold.

But the sirens went off in Basiaga's head in the fall of 2000, when he felt a lump on his left breast while scratching his chest.

"I just knew it wasn't normal," Basiaga said.

Months later, a biopsy confirmed his tumor was malignant. During that same surgery, the surgeon conducted a mastectomy of the affected breast.

And then his real cancer battle began. To help ensure the cancer wouldn't return, Basiaga underwent months of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation. And for the next five years, Basiaga would take Tamoxifen, an estrogen receptor modulator used by women with breast cancer or those at high risk.

Males represent about 1 percent of all breast cancer cases.

Breast cancer touched 133.4 per every 100,000 women in the state from 2011 to 2015. Over the same time period, the incidence rate per 100,000 males was 1.5.

"You think you have a death sentence, but I'm here 17 years later and I'm doing fine, cancer free," Basiaga said. "I made the right choice. I went to the right doctor."

That doctor, whom he still sees yearly for a checkup, is Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey Chief Medical Officer Deborah Toppmeyer — a staff oncologist at the time of Basiaga's journey.

Treatment of male breast cancer, Toppmeyer said, is very similar to the treatment of the disease in females. Because the sample size of male patients is so small, clinical trials to identify any different strategies don't occur.

Toppmeyer estimates she's treated about 10 male breast cancer patients during her three decades in the field.

Men with breast cancer, she said, tend to feel socially isolated in their situation, more than women would.

"This is not common. They don't have the kind of support groups that women have, for example," Toppmeyer said. "Side effects from the medications can be significant as well."

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