Do you know men can develop breast cancer too?

June 7th, 2013

Did you realise that men can and do get breast cancer? Not many, but about 100 a year in Australia today. And they say it’s a strange experience getting what is usually so strongly identified as a woman’s disease.

Because men have much less breast tissue than women – most of it located behind the nipple – breast cancer, in theory, is easier to detect in men. However, the almost complete lack of awareness that men can get it too mitigates against this and early detection is just as critical for men as it is for women.

Mark , 47, was diagnosed with breast cancer late last year. There was no relevant family history and he was otherwise fit and healthy. He’d always had scar tissue behind his right nipple as a result of a childhood incident but one day, when working up a ladder at home, he felt soreness as that area pressed against the guttering. Almost as an afterthought, at his next check-up he asked his GP to take a look.

man_40s_300_300

Things moved quickly. An ultrasound, followed by a needle biopsy, followed by a mammogram (yes, men can have them too!), followed by a full CT scan and core biopsy and a diagnosis of ductal carcinoma in situ.

“The in situ part is good, but all you really hear is the cancer word”, he said. Mark is married with three young children. His wife just said, “We’ll get through this” when he broke the news. His eldest child asked him if he was going to die. The younger two asked if they could go on the computer or watch TV!

Referred to surgeons for the next step, Mark found one surgeon told him, “You’ll be fine” and a second told him, “There’s a 30% chance it’s already invasive”. Mark opted for a mastectomy (yes, men can get them too!) the next week, and spent five days in hospital. The surgeon successfully took out a 16mm tumour and four lymph nodes.

He then went home with a drain for the next three weeks with things feeling “quite sloshy”. His surgeon pronounced him “cured” at his first post-op check. He didn’t need any chemotherapy, radiotherapy or hormonal therapy (yes, men can be prescribed this too!), but he has to keep going back for checks every few months and he does live with the fear of recurrence.

It’s not known what causes breast cancer in men, but age is a risk factor and some men carry the BRCA2 gene which also puts them at risk of prostate cancer. The most common symptom is a lump close to the nipple. It’s really important to see a doctor as soon as a man notices changes to the nipple or surrounding tissue. Mark feels strongly about raising awareness in men: “I am very open about the fact I’ve had breast cancer. When I tell other men, they are incredulous, they have no idea men can get it.

I’m sure they think, ‘Are you a bit of a girl?’ or ‘Have you been taking hormones?’ but I have thick skin. The main thing I say is if you take quick action, you have a very good chance of survival ”.

Carole Renouf, CEO of the National Breast Cancer Foundation