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Breast Cancer: Men Get it Too

Men have breast tissue and, like women, can develop breast cancer. However, breast cancer is far less common in men than in women.

Male breast cancer accounts for 1% of all breast cancer. It affects men usually 60 years of age or older.

Types of breast cancer in men

Men get the same kinds of breast cancer as women. However, the most common kind of cancer in men is found in the breast ducts. This is because breast tissue in men consists almost exclusively of ducts.

What are the symptoms of breast cancer in men?

The most common symptoms are a small, painless lump close to the nipple of the breast or a small liquid discharge from the nipple. 

"I was only 35 when I was diagnosed with male breast cancer, while the average age of men diagnosed is between 65 and 70, I believe. If men find anything strange in their chest they should have it looked at by their doctors because breast cancer can hit men too." 
--John Lowe
Network Support Technician
Niagara Falls, Canada

 

Detection

Because most men have less fat tissue than women in the breast area, male breast cancers are quite easily detected. However, most men don't "think breast cancer" and therefore don't look for lumps or may ignore a lump until the cancer has become quite advanced.

Diagnosing male breast cancer

The same way it is diagnosed in women. A needle is inserted into the lump to remove a small piece of tissue for testing or your oncologist may decide to remove the lump surgically. When the cancer is surgically removed, underarm lymph nodes are also removed to test for malignancy. The disease tends to spread more readily through the lymph nodes in men than women.

Treatment

Treatment for men involves removing the tumour through surgery. The surgeon may remove only the lump (lumpectomy) or the whole breast (mastectomy), plus some of the underarm lymph nodes if necessary.

Radiation is given after a lumpectomy, if the lymph nodes were positive for cancer or if the cancer was close to the chest wall. Surgery tends to be more extensive in men than women because it is usually diagnosed at a later stage of the disease and because of the smaller size of male breasts.

Sometimes the doctor will recommend removing the testes or adrenal glands. Systemic (total body) chemotherapy is usually recommended for men at risk of recurrence after local therapy. Your oncologist may also recommend hormonal therapy with tamoxifen. 

Key risk factors
  • Klinefelter's syndrome (a disorder with an extra X chromosome in all body cells) can lead to a man being 20 times more likely to develop breast cancer. However, this disease is quite rare. It is believed that the increased risk of breast cancer in men with Klinefelter's syndrome may be caused by the male hormones used to treat it being converted to estrogens in male fat tissue.
  • A family history of breast cancer is the most common risk factor. Men who carry altered BRCA1 or BRCA2 cancer-susceptible genes can pass on the predisposition for breast cancer to their daughters and sons. Men with hereditary breast cancer may be at a higher risk for prostate cancer and possibly colon cancer.
  • Gynecomastia or an enlargement of the breast in men carries an increased risk of developing breast cancer.
  • Testicular dysfunction (undescended testes, congenital groin hernias, testicular injuries, inflammation of the testes, and testicular infections) can increase the risk of male breast cancer.
  • Obesity may indicate a greater risk of developing breast cancer because of an increase in estrogen production in fatty tissue.
  • Estrogens used to treat some medical disorders may increase a man's risk of developing breast cancer. However, more studies are needed to conclusively evaluate the relationship between estrogen and male breast cancer.
  • Chronic liver disease may increase the risk of breast cancer because the body's ability to break down estrogens is reduced, raising the level of female hormones in the body.
Survival rates

How early the cancer is detected and whether the cancer has spread to the underarm lymph nodes largely determines the outcome for male breast cancer. Most experts believe the outcome is the same for men as it is for women. The difference in survival rates may be due to delays in diagnosis and therefore treatment begins at an advanced stage in development of the cancer.

 


The information on this page was adapted from an article written by Dr. June Engle, Ph.D in an issue of “Health News”, April 1996, which is published by the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine.

The compilation of this information was made possible through a community education grant from the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, Ontario chapter.