Breast cancer in men
Table of Content
- Can men get breast cancer?
- Symptoms of breast cancer in men
- Risk factors for breast cancer in men
- How to prevent male breast cancer
- Male breast cancer screening
- Diagnosis of breast cancer in men
- Types of Breast Cancer in Men
- Treatment of breast cancer in men
- Can male breast cancer be cured?
- Getting support
- Loved ones of male breast cancer patients
- Resources for men
Breast cancer is often thought of as a disease that only affects women. Although breast cancer is more common in women, men can get breast cancer too.
In Australia, about one in 700 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.
Regardless of gender, the National Breast Cancer Foundation’s vision is of a world where every single life is saved from breast cancer. Because men can also be diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s just as important for men, as it is for women, to speak to their doctor without delay if they notice any new or unusual breast changes.
On this page we will look at the symptoms and risk factors of male breast cancer, and how breast cancer is diagnosed and treated in men. We also provide information on the support available for men with breast cancer, their carers and loved ones.
Can men get breast cancer?
It may come as a surprise to learn that men can develop breast cancer. Though it is uncommon, breast cancer does occur in men. In Australia, fewer than 1% of breast cancer cases each year are in men.
Men, like women, have breast tissue. Although women have a lot more breast tissue than men and are more likely to develop breast cancer, cancer can also develop in male breast tissue.
About 167 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in Australia, and the majority of these men will be diagnosed after the age of 50. With an aging population, it is likely that the number of men diagnosed with breast cancer will continue to increase.
Symptoms of breast cancer in men
It is important that men speak with their doctor as soon as possible if they notice any new or unusual breast changes.
Symptoms of breast cancer in men are similar to those that women experience. These include:
- A lump in the breast, such as a painless lump close to the nipple.
- A change in the skin colour, texture and appearance of the breast, such as thickening, swelling or dimpling of the skin
- A change in the shape and appearance of the nipple or pectorals (muscles at the front of the chest)
- Discharge from the nipple
- Pain in the breast region
- Swollen lymph nodes (glands) under the arm.
It is possible that the above symptoms arise due to reasons unrelated to breast cancer. However, Cancer Australia recommends that men who detect any new or unusual breast changes see their doctor without delay. If the changes are caused by cancer, finding breast cancer early improves the chances that it can be treated successfully.
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Risk factors for breast cancer in men
While it is difficult to determine the exact causes of male breast cancer, there are some factors that are linked to an increased risk of the disease. Although these risk factors increase your risk of breast cancer, it does not mean that you will develop breast cancer. Moreover, having no known risk factors does not guarantee that you will never develop breast cancer.
Common risk factors for breast cancer in men include:
Similar to women, men are much more likely to develop breast cancer as they get older. The majority of men (more than 90%) are diagnosed at or after age 50, although it can occur at any age.
Strong family history
A strong family history of male or female breast cancer can increase the risk of men developing breast cancer. However, most men who develop breast cancer do not have a strong family history. If you are concerned that you may have an increased risk of breast cancer due to family history, please consult your doctor.
BRCA gene mutations
Men with an inherited mutation (defect) in the BRCA2 gene, and to a lesser extent the BRCA1 gene, are at an increased risk of breast cancer. However, only a minority of breast cancers are explained by inherited mutations, and not everyone with a faulty gene will develop breast cancer. If you are concerned about your breast cancer risk due to genetic susceptibility, please speak with your doctor.
In addition to the male hormone testosterone, all men produce small amounts of the female hormone oestrogen in their bodies. Men who produce higher than normal levels of oestrogen may have an increased risk of breast cancer. High levels of oestrogen are associated with:
- Long-term liver conditions such as cirrhosis
- Some genetic conditions such as Klinefelter syndrome.
- Previous radiotherapy treatment. Men who have had previous radiotherapy treatments, particularly around the chest area, may have an increased risk of breast cancer.
How to prevent male breast cancer
While there is no known way to completely prevent male breast cancer, healthy lifestyle choices can help reduce the risk of a number of cancers, including breast cancer in men. These lifestyle choices include:
- Limiting alcohol consumption
- Keeping a healthy weight
- Being physically active
- Not smoking
- Eating a balanced diet
Male breast cancer screening
In Australia, breast screening for men is not recommended. However, if you are concerned about any new or unusual changes in your breast, please speak to your GP. Finding breast cancer early improves the chances that it can be treated successfully.
Diagnosis of breast cancer in men
Your doctor will investigate any new or unusual breast changes using a variety of diagnostic tests. These tests are the same as the ones used to study breast changes in women. They may include:
- Clinical breast examination, and taking a complete personal medical history.
- Mammogram – a low level x-ray of the breast. Though mammograms are not recommended for male breast cancer screening in Australia, they can be used to help diagnose breast cancer in men.
- Ultrasound – an imaging technique that uses sound waves to look at breast changes. It may help to determine whether a lump found in the breast is a fluid-filled cyst (which is unlikely to be cancer) or solid (which may require further testing to ensure it is not cancer).
- Biopsy – your doctor may recommend a biopsy if an abnormality is found during clinical examination and/or imaging tests. A biopsy involves removing a small sample of tissue and a specialist examining the sample under microscope.
If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor may send you for further tests to help determine the extent of cancer spread in the body. Additional tests will be done to determine the molecular characteristics of the tumour, such the cancer’s hormone receptor status. These tests will help you and your doctors decide on the best treatment options.
Types of Breast Cancer in Men
The types of breast cancer that affects men are similar to those found in women. Common types of male breast cancer include:
- Invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) – this is the most common type of breast cancer found in men. It occurs when cancer cells grow outside the duct and spreads into nearby breast tissue. If untreated, the cancer cells can spread (or metastasise) to other parts of the body.
- Invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC) – this type of breast cancer occurs when the cancer cells grow outside of the lobules and spreads into nearby breast tissue. It can also metastasise if not treated.
- Ductal Carcinoma In situ (DCIS) – this breast disease occurs when cells within the duct are abnormal. The cancer cells are contained within the ducts and have not spread into nearby tissue. It can be referred to as a non-invasive breast cancer, although DCIS may lead to invasive breast cancer over time.
Men can also be diagnosed with less common forms of breast cancer, such as Paget’s disease of the nipple, or inflammatory breast cancer.
Treatment of breast cancer in men
If you are diagnosed with male breast cancer, the treatment that is recommended for you will depend on many different factors, including the type of breast cancer that you have, the extent of cancer spread, your health and personal preferences.
Treatment options for men with breast cancer include:
- Surgery – Most men diagnosed with breast cancer will usually have surgery as part of their treatment. Mastectomy (where the whole breast is removed) is commonly used to treat men with breast cancer. Breast-conserving surgery (where only the part of the breast containing cancer is removed) is usually not a suitable option for men because they have little breast tissue. However, it may be an option for small cancers. During surgery, one or more lymph nodes in the armpit may be removed to help determine cancer spread, which helps to plan treatment.
- Radiotherapy (also known as radiation treatment) – is the use of targeted radiation to kill cancer cells. Not all men with breast cancer will need radiotherapy. However, it is usually recommended after breast-conserving surgery to eradicate any cancer cells that remain in the breast, chest muscles or armpit. It can also be recommended after mastectomy, especially if there is cancer found in the lymph nodes or if the cancer is large.
- Hormone therapy (also called endocrine therapy) – uses drugs to treat hormone receptor positive breast cancers (cancers with oestrogen or progesterone receptor). The majority of male breast cancers are hormone receptor positive, making them more likely to respond to hormone therapy.
- Chemotherapy – uses drugs to destroy cancer cells within the body, including cancer cells that may have started spreading outside the breast. Not all men will require chemotherapy, but it may be recommended after surgery, if cancer is found in the lymph nodes. If the tumour is large, chemotherapy may also be recommended before surgery (this is called neoadjuvant chemotherapy) to reduce the size of the tumour and make it easier to remove during surgery.
- Targeted therapy – are drugs used to treat certain types of breast cancer. For example, Herceptin is commonly used to treat HER2-positive breast cancers.
Can male breast cancer be cured?
Male breast cancer can be treated successfully. 85% of men who are diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia will live for five years or more after their breast cancer is first diagnosed.
However, if cancer has spread from the breast to other parts of the body, it often becomes more difficult to treat. Cancer that has spread to other parts of the body is called secondary, advanced or metastatic breast cancer. You may also hear it referred to as stage 4 breast cancer.
Being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer can be confronting and devastating. While there is currently no cure for metastatic breast cancer, it is possible control it with treatment – sometimes for many years. Treatment for metastatic breast cancer aims to control the growth and spread of the cancer, relieve symptoms and maintain a good quality of life for as long as possible.
NBCF is committed to Zero Deaths from breast cancer for both male and female patients. Learn more about our funded projects investigating different ways to improve breast cancer treatment here.
Because breast cancer is frequently seen as a ‘women’s disease’, some men may find it difficult or embarrassing to discuss their diagnosis. Breast cancer may also leave some men feeling surprised, anxious, depressed or angry. Men may feel self-conscious or worried about their masculinity.
As there tends to be little awareness of male breast cancer in the general population, it can be difficult to connect with other men in a similar situation. This can leave men feeling isolated and alone.
If you are a man diagnosed with breast cancer looking for support, Cancer Council and Breast Cancer Network Australia have further resources to provide emotional and practical support for men affected by cancer, including information and personal stories about men diagnosed with breast cancer.
Loved ones of male breast cancer patients
The news and implications of a breast cancer diagnosis are not only challenging for the man going through it, but also for those closest to them, such as the man’s partner, family and close friends. The man’s loved ones may experience a range of emotions, such as shock, fear, worry, powerlessness and may not know what to say. There may be concerns about finances or changes in the dynamics of relationships; breast cancer treatment can also impact on the man’s sexual wellbeing.
If you are man diagnosed with breast cancer, you may want to start by telling your family and a few close friends about your diagnosis, which may help you become familiar with other people’s reactions. After you feel more comfortable and confident talking about your diagnosis, you may wish to let others know.
Further information and support are also available for carers of men diagnosed with breast cancer.
Resources for men
Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) Men Get Breast Cancer Too booklet – This booklet is written for men with breast cancer. It provides information on male breast cancer, its treatment, and issues men may face after diagnosis. It also includes information for support available for men with breast cancer. BCNA also has a dedicated webpage and an episode in their breast cancer podcast focussed on breast cancer in men.
Look Good Feel Better – is a free nationwide program that teaches cancer patients to manage appearance-related side effects caused by cancer treatment, which can help them to feel more positive and in control. The program provides workshops specifically tailored for men.
Cancer Connect (13 11 20) – A free service run by the Cancer Council that is available nationwide in Australia. People diagnosed with cancer can connect with a specially trained volunteer who has had a similar cancer experience.
Words: Francesca Brook
Reviewed by: NBCF Research team