Breast cancer is very rare in men although the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment are a bit similar to women with breast cancer.

According to the U.S. National Cancer Institute (1), breast cancer in men occurs in about 1 percent of breast cancer cases. In the UK, there are around 300 men diagnosed annually, compared with about 45,000 cases of breast cancer in women.

Breast cancer is not a disease that affects just women. For every 100 women with breast cancer, one man will get the disease. The National Breast Cancer Foundation (2) estimates around 1,700 men will get breast cancer and 450 will die from it annually.

In a study published in the American Journal of Nursing, researchers surveyed men who were at increased risk for male breast cancer as they had at least one blood family member with the disease on their mother’s side. Nearly 80 percent of the men were not aware that they could develop breast cancer and 43 percent confessed having the disease caused them to question their masculinity, according to the survey.

Eileen Thomas, an assistant professor at the College of Nursing at the University of Colorado Denver, said the survey gives an insight into understanding men’s perceptions and awareness of male breast cancer.

Risks and causes

The major risk factor for breast cancer among men is increasing age as almost all patients diagnosed range between the ages of 60 and 70. There are other factors that could add to the risk are increased oestrogen levels, exposure to radiation, family history of cancer, or a documented breast cancer gene in the family, and a rare genetic condition called Klinefelter’s syndrome. There is also a risk if you work in petrochemicals or deal with gasoline and combustion products.

Let us look at the risks in more detail:

  • High oestrogen levels – It’s normal for men to produce some oestrogen, but increased oestrogen levels are linked to breast cancer. It can occur in obesity as oestrogen is partially made in the fat tissues of the body, and in chronic liver conditions and some genetic conditions.
  • Exposure to radiation – Men exposed to radiation for a long period of time, especially at a young age increases the risk of breast cancer.
  • Documented breast cancer gene in the family – Men having women family members with breast cancer are at risk of getting breast cancer, especially if the women is a mother or a sister. Between 10% and 20% of men diagnosed inherit faulty genes such as BRCA2 faulty gene that is more prevalent than BRCA1.
  • Klinefelter’s syndrome – This is a rare genetic condition where a man is born with an additional female chromosome increasing the chances of getting breast cancer by 20 times.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

The most familiar symptoms for men with breast cancer are lump in the breast region, which is usually painless; discharge from the nipple that may be blood-stained; swelling of the breast; an ulcer on the skin of the breast; a nipple that is retracted into the breast, and lumps below the arm.

The most common form in men’s breast cancer is invasive ductal carcinoma, which suggests that cancer cells are all still contained within the ducts of the breast and cannot spread. The other types of breast cancer in men are inflammatory breast cancer and Paget’s disease.

The tests for breast cancer in men will include an ultrasound or a mammogram. If a cancerous area is found, the specialist will take a biopsy of breast tissue for inspection under a microscope. They might even do further tests to make sure the cancer is not spreading.

Treatments available

1. Surgery – It is the most common treatment for men with breast cancer is removal of the whole breast including the nipple. This procedure is called mastectomy. In certain cases, the surgeon may also remove part of the core muscle if it is close to the cancer.

2. Radiotherapy – This treatment is given on a fairly regular basis. As the cancer is always near to the muscle of the chest wall in men, it reduces the risk of the cancer cells arising in the chest wall in the future.

3. Chemotherapy – It is mostly given after surgery and before radiotherapy. The specialist takes into many factors before going ahead with chemotherapy, especially if cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes under the arm or if the tumor is larger than 2 cm.

4. Hormone therapy – The most general hormone therapy for male breast cancer is tamoxifen. The side effects are almost the same as in women. It can make you feel sick initially, weight gain, difficulty sleeping, and depression are also common. In men, tamoxifen could also lead to a loss of sex drive.

5. Biological therapy – If your cancer cells have a lot of HER2 receptors, you may be asked to undergo a biological therapy.

Reducing the risk of male breast cancer

  • Cut down on alcohol – drink alcohol in moderation by limiting yourself to a drink or two a day.
  • Watch your weight – Try to exercise most days of the week. If you’re overweight, try to reduce your weight by consulting your doctor. Eat a healthy diet of fruits and vegetables and combine it with regular exercise.
  • Be creative – Activities such as art, dance and music will assist you in feeling less anxious. Some cancer centers have specially trained professionals who can guide you through these activities.
  • Meditation – You can relax your mind by meditating and stay positive. You can even try relaxation or breathing exercises to keep negative thoughts at bay.

Finding help

It can be really difficult for men who have been diagnosed with breast cancer as it can stir up emotions of confusion and isolation. You could speak to your consultant and seek to get in touch with other men with breast cancer to get to grips with dealing with the ailment. If you wish, you could also contact the charity Breast Cancer Care who have male volunteers you can talk to on the phone.

Sources:
1. U.S. National Cancer Institute
2. The National Breast Cancer Foundation