Men Get Breast Cancer Too: Understanding the Hidden Threat

While breast cancer is often seen as a women’s health issue, men are not immune to the disease. Although it is rare, breast cancer in men still affects thousands each year, with an estimated 2,190 men being diagnosed with the disease and around 410 men losing their lives because of it in 2013 alone.

The Importance of Hormones

The primary reason men are less likely to develop breast cancer than women is hormonal differences. A female’s ovaries produce hormones (estrogens) that promote the growth of ducts and lobules (which make milk) in the breast, while a man’s testicles dominate his hormones, preventing the development of breast tissue, ducts, and lobules. However, despite the hormonal differences, men are still at risk of developing breast cancer.

Breast Cancer Types in Men

There are several different forms of breast cancer that can develop in men. The most common type is invasive ductal carcinoma, which develops in the ducts and then spreads into the breast’s fatty tissue. In some cases, the cancer metastasizes (spreads) to other areas of the body as well. Roughly 80% of male breast cancer cases are invasive ductal carcinomas.

About 10% of breast cancers in men do not spread beyond the ducts or outside the duct walls. This form, called ductal carcinoma in situ, can typically be cured with surgery. The remaining 10% of breast cancer cases in men may develop as Paget disease of the nipple, inflammatory breast cancer, or invasive lobular carcinoma, among others.

Risk Factors for Breast Cancer in Men

Men and the women who love them should be aware of the following risk factors for breast cancer in men:

  1. Age: The average age of diagnosis for breast cancer in men is 68, but it can develop in younger men as well.
  2. Family history: About 20% of men who develop breast cancer have a close male or female relative who also has the disease.
  3. Obesity: Men who are obese have high levels of fat cells, which transform male hormones into estrogens and increase the risk of breast cancer.
  4. Radiation exposure: Men who have been exposed to chest X-rays or other radiation in the past have an increased risk.
  5. Alcohol use: Drinking too much alcohol can increase the risk of breast cancer in men.
  6. Inherited gene mutations: Men who have inherited mutations of the breast cancer susceptibility gene 1 or 2 (BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes) have a higher risk of breast cancer.
  7. Liver disease: Men with liver disease may be at greater risk since the liver is involved in the breakdown of sex hormones, potentially resulting in higher than normal estrogen levels.
  8. Testicular conditions: Men with undescended testicles, those who don’t have testicles (due to surgical removal), and men who contract mumps as adults may be at greater risk of breast cancer.
  9. Klinefelter syndrome: About one in 1,000 men have this rare congenital condition, characterized by abnormally high estrogen levels and abnormally low male hormone levels.

Recognizing Breast Cancer Symptoms

It’s crucial to recognize the signs of breast cancer and seek medical help as soon as possible if you suspect an issue. Symptoms in men can include a lump or swelling in the breast (which may or may not be painful), puckering or dimpling of the skin on the breast, scaly or red nipple or breast skin, discharge from the nipple, or a retracted nipple (nipple that turns inward).

Men have less breast tissue than women, meaning that breast cancer can spread further and faster in men. Therefore, it’s vital to seek medical help promptly if you suspect something may be wrong.

Treatment Options for Men with Breast Cancer

There are several treatment options available for men who develop breast cancer. The most common option is surgery, or mastectomy, to remove the cancer. Depending on the severity of the cancer, men may have just the tumor removed or the lymph nodes under the arm as well. In advanced cases, a surgeon may also need to remove the chest wall muscles under the chest.

In addition to surgery, men can undergo radiation, hormone therapy, chemotherapy, or targeted therapy (drugs that target changes in the genes). These treatments can be given before or after mastectomy to help reduce the risk that the cancer will come back after surgery or treat recurring breast cancer.

Breast Cancer Awareness for Men

Raising awareness of breast cancer includes focusing on how it can affect both men and women. Although breast cancer in men may be rare, it is a serious and potentially lethal disease that can be identified early if men (and women) know how to recognize the signs and seek professional medical attention.