Another letter to Sussan Ley regarding male breast screening 24



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Dear Minister Sussan Ley,

In May I wrote to you about the refusal of Breast Screen Australia to permit me to make an appointment for a test due to the fact that I am a man. A copy of my original letter is attached.

I have received a reply dated 30 June from Ms Alice Creelman, Assistant Secretary, Cancer and Palliative Care Branch in your Department who advises that you have asked her to reply. Ms Creelan’s letter did not provide any address either physical or via email which hardly encourages any public input into issues within your portfolio responsibilities.

Thus I must reply to you with the request that either you actually and personally respond or that you request Ms Creelman to respond again to me.

Ms Creelan sought to justify the Government’s decision to exclude men from this important breast screening campaign stating, “As you note, only women aged over 40 years are eligible for free screening in the program. This criterion is based on Australia’s Population Based Screening Framework, which outlines the criteria that determines whether a population group should be screened for the disease. These criteria include an assessment of the benefits of screening set against the costs and harms to the people screened”

Significantly, Ms Creelman admitted that “the costs” of including men in the free breast screening campaign was a determining factor in deciding that they should be excluded. That is an appalling admission not just of plain sexism but a disgracefully deliberate denial of a preventive health measure for half of the population.

As I wrote in my May letter to you, The American Society of Breast Screen Surgeons survey of female and male breast cancers – 13,000 male and 1,440,000 females – from 1998 to 2007 was headed, “Men Less Likely than Women to Survive Breast Cancer”. That, as I wrote then, said it all.

If you review your Department’s website about breast cancer screening you will note several things. It begins, “Breast screening is a safe, easy way for women aged 50 to 74 to be proactive in making sure they stay healthy…” No mention of men.

It asks the question: “Who should be screened?” and the answer is, “Women aged 50 – 74 without breast cancer symptoms should have a screening mammogram every two years…” . It even notes that “Breast screening can be a little embarrassing for women…”. Again, no mention of men.

In fact, there is absolutely no mention of men in any of the “Frequently asked questions” introduction to that “About breast screening” section of your Department’s website.

Cancer Australia’s “Breast Cancer Awareness Month” campaign also makes no mention of men noting that the annual “Pink Ribbon Breakfast” held during that month focuses “on the importance of follow-up care to ensure the 15,000 women diagnosed this year continue to live long, productive and healthy lives after treatment.” Again, no mention of men.

Regrettably, there is a profound ignorance among men even today that they could contract breast cancer. If it is ever thought of by men, it is thought of as a woman’s disease and this dismissive attitude – or, rather, distressing ignorance – is, perhaps inadvertently, a result of the whole thrust of the breast cancer screening campaign beginning with the iconic pink ribbon. Men, particularly those in lower socio-economic groups and in rural and regional Australia are hardly likely to identify with a health campaign featuring a pink ribbon.

I note that Ms Creelman is a member of the Standing Committee on Screening which, in turn, advises the Community Care and Population Health Principal Committee (CCPHPC) of the Australian Health Ministers Advisory Council (AHMAC) which, presumably, advises you and State and Territory Health Ministers.

While I have no doubt at all that Ms Creelman is assiduous and committed in her role, I am unaware that she has any medical qualifications. Thus her advice about what I should do in the event that I “find a breast lump, breast change or other symptoms” is somewhat gratuitous even if well meant. She should have noted in my previous letter that I was diagnosed with breast cancer more than 40 years ago so am fully seized of the need to keep a watchful eye on my remaining breast.

Is it simply too much to ask that men actually get some mention in the breast screening campaign beyond a mention in a distant corner of Cancer Australia’s website?

And, for what it is worth, I maintain that free breast screening should have an equal opportunity access, not access defined – as Ms Creelman admitted – at least partially, by cost.


Yours sincerely,

Russell Grenning


Russell Grenning

Russell Grenning is a Brisbane-based former journalist and retired political adviser who began his career with the ABC in 1968 in Brisbane and subsequently worked on the Brisbane afternoon daily, "The Telegraph" and later as a columnist for "The Courier Mail" and "The Australian". He worked for a string of senior Ministers in the Federal, Victorian and Queensland Governments as well as in senior executive public relations positions, including Assistant Federal Director, Public Relations, for Australia Post, Public Relations Manager for the Queensland Department of Main Roads and Principal Adviser, Corporate Relations, for the Queensland Law Society.

  1. This is a problem for those at heightened risk, in particular those men carrying the BRCA2 gene fault. May I suggest you approach Breast Cancer Network Australia to get behind your campaign? It’s unlikely you will get anywhere as an individual.

    2 REPLY
    • It is unlikely as he is male as well.

      If he is a carrier of the BRCA2 gene, he should have the automatic right for a breast screen in my opinion.

      1 REPLY
      • I agree….and this man has already had breast cancer,with one breast removed. He should be way up the top of the list of people who can/should be given a breast screen examination.

    • You are right, Neil. We have BRCA2 in my family, and my 2 brothers, both positive, had a hard time being listened to. Unfortunately one has died from pancreatic cancer, probably also attributed to the gene fault. There’s an ignorance in parts of the medical profession about what it actually means to be a carrier. In my family it has been as bad for the males as for the females. Another brother died from melanoma at 23, possibly also BRCA2-related.

  2. I didn’t know men could get breast cancer until a friend got it. Thankfully it was caught early and he is still alive 35 years later.
    Yes, the government should treat men and women equally in this area of medicine.

    1 REPLY
    • Ruth am like you never heard of Men getting Breast Cancer till a friend of ours got it he is doing fine thank heavens.

  3. There are other avenues to have these tests but why shouldn’t Russell have the choice as where he has them and be treated equally with women?

  4. Can you imagine the outrage of many women in the Breast Screen waiting room if a MAN turned up? I know some who get irate if the radiologist is male. He can always get checked at any of the private radiology outlets who would be more than happy to give him a ‘crushing experience’ with a GP referral.

    2 REPLY
    • No, the women should be happy that we are learning more and more about this disease, and this is a way forward. In my family the risk of breast cancer for the males is around 10%, similar for most females.

  5. I thought that we were into an age when there was to be no discrimination between gender – or are we???

  6. It is a difficult problem. The fact that these male breast cancers are rare would automatically make the govt not want to do check ups en mass. However, with the ability to screen with blood tests both for likelihood of genetic breast cancer and having cancer, I think health funds and Medicare should agree to cover it immediately. Most men would find it super hard to have a mammogram with no real boobs to squash.

  7. Many thanks all for your comments – I have also referred this refusal by the Government to allow men to have breast screen tests to the Human Rights Commission and in that complaint I have asserted that it is a clear case of sex discrimination and they have emailed me saying that it is under investigation. I’ll keep everybody posted.

    1 REPLY

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