To mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we’re taking a look at risk factors, symptoms and treatment of breast cancers in men.
Typically thought of as a ‘female cancer’, it may come as a surprise to you to learn that men can also be diagnosed with breast cancer. However, although breast cancer in women (19,807 females estimated to be diagnosed with the disease in Australia alone this year), male breast cancer is much rarer, with around 140 men receiving a diagnosis every year.
Everyone is born with a small amount of breast tissue, containing milk-producing glands (lobules), ducts that carry milk to the nipples, and fat. During puberty, women develop more breast tissue, and men do not. But because men are born with a small amount of breast tissue, they can develop breast cancer.
Male breast cancer occurs when some breast cells multiply and grow out of control, forming a tumor that may spread (metastasize) to other areas of the body such as the lymph nodes.
In positive news, 85% of men diagnosed with breast cancer are alive five years later. The majority of men fully recover, and the breast cancer does not return.
Although breast cancer can affect men at any age, it is most common in men over the age of 65.
Who is at Risk of Developing Male Breast Cancer?
Some factors that increase your risk of breast cancer include:
- Ageing - men over 65 are more likely to develop male breast cancer than younger men
- Exposure to estrogen (eg; estrogen-related drugs such as those used for hormone therapy for prostate cancer)
- Family history, including inheritance gene mutations (BRCA2, BRCA1 and CHEK2)
- Increased exposure to female hormones (early menstruation, late menopause, pregnancy at an older age, never having given birth)
- Genetic syndromes that affect the hormones (eg: Klinefelter’s syndrome)
- Liver Disease
- Testicle disease or surgery
Symptoms of Breast Cancer in Men
Both male and female breast cancer is often symptomless. However, some noticeable symptoms may include:
- Lumps or thickening in the breast or under the arm
- Nipple sores and/or discharge
- Changes in the size or shape of the breast or nipple
- Skin of the breast dimpling
- Rash or red swollen breasts.
Diagnosing Breast Cancer in Men
Male breast cancer is usually diagnosed following a series of tests. These might include:
- Clinical breast exam - the doctor examines the breasts and surrounding areas for lumps or other changes.
- Imaging tests.
- Mammograms or ultrasounds can be used to create pictures of the breast tissue and identify abnormal areas.
- Biopsy - A small amount of breast tissue will be removed and sent to the lab for testing
Upon completion of tests, doctors will be able to tell what stage the breast cancer has progressed to. Knowing what stage the cancer is at helps the medical team decide on the best treatment options and determine a likely prognosis
Breast cancer stages are expressed as a number on a scale of 0 through IV. Stage 0 describes non-invasive cancers that remain within their original location and stage IV describes invasive cancers that have spread outside the breast to other parts of the body.
How is breast cancer treated?
Once staging has been determined, doctors can decide on the most suitable treatment option. These may include:
- Surgery - surgery to remove breast cancer may involve a lumpectomy, where part of the breast is removed, or a mastectomy, where all of the breast and nipple are removed. The aim of surgery is to remove all cancer cells from the breast. The most common type of surgery for men is a mastectomy. This involves removing the whole breast, including the nipple and the area around the nipple. A lumpectomy is usually unsuitable for men because there is not enough breast tissue in the male breast.
- Chemotherapy - chemotherapy is often used to help shrink the cancer before surgery, or post-surgery to help kill any cancer cells that have been left behind. Not all men with breast cancer need chemotherapy.
- Radiation Therapy - radiotherapy is recommended after surgery to help destroy any remaining cancer cells. It is also recommended if lymph nodes were removed from under the arm and there is a risk that the cancer will return to this area. Radiotherapy is more common after a lumpectomy, but may also be recommended following a mastectomy.
- Hormone Therapy - typically given in combination with other treatments, hormone therapy can be effective on breast cancers which have hormone receptors. Hormone therapy (or ‘endocrine therapy’) aims to stop or slow the growth of breast cancers that use hormones to grow. Hormone therapy involves taking a tablet every day for five years or more. The most common hormone therapy recommended for men with breast cancer is tamoxifen.
Coping with Male Breast Cancer
Coping with any sort of illness can be made more manageable with a strong support network. Although you might find it difficult to tell others about your diagnosis, it’s important to try to lean on loved ones during this time. Male breast cancer patients may also find it useful to talk to men going through a similar experience. Your medical team may be able to connect you with local support services or online groups.
If you have undergone a mastectomy, you may feel self-conscious about your changed body. Breast reconstruction is not common in men but it is sometimes possible, and typically uses tissue from your back, abdomen or buttock.
A nipple reconstruction may also be an option, which involves rebuilding the nipple and tattooing the areola (the area around the nipple) to match the colour of the other nipple.
If you think breast reconstruction is something you might be interested in, talk to your medical team.
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If you’ve noticed a chance in your breasts or are experiencing pain, make an appointment to see your doctor . It may be nothing but it’s always better to be safe than sorry. The fastest and easiest way to search for and book healthcare appointments online is through MyHealth1st.