Breast cancer is commonly thought of as a woman’s disease, but men can also be diagnosed with breast cancer. With pink ribbons everywhere, men may feel left out or even embarrassed when it comes to dealing with breast cancer.
Breast Cancer in Men: The Basics
Male breast cancer is rare, but every year about 2,550 new cases are diagnosed, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). It’s a difficult diagnosis for the individual, in part because so much of the available disease information is focused on women.
Men don’t often think of themselves as having breasts, but everyone has breast tissue. Men also have ducts (the areas that carry milk to the nipple) and sometimes lobules, but they don’t function. Breast cancer can develop in the ducts or the lobules. It can also enter the lymphatic system and spread to other parts of the body.
The ACS states that the overall risk of men developing breast cancer is low, but some factors, similar to those in women, do increase the risk. Aging is one; the average age of a male breast cancer diagnosis is 72. Genetics also play a role. Someone with a family member, male or female, who has had breast cancer is at a higher risk. Men can inherit the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, also called the breast cancer gene. Other risk factors include excessive alcohol consumption and obesity.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
According to the ACS, a lump is the most common symptom, but it’s not the only one. Also look for:
- Discharge from the nipple
- Redness of the skin around the nipple
- The nipple turning inward
If you notice any changes to the nipple or feel a lump, it’s best to have it checked out by a doctor. You may undergo tests to find out more information, starting with a mammogram. Yep, men can get mammograms, too.
A mammogram is an imaging test in which your breast tissue is pressed between two plates. This can be challenging for men and a bit uncomfortable. You may have an ultrasound on your chest, to confirm any findings as well.
Finally, a biopsy will confirm a diagnosis of breast cancer. A biopsy surgically removes tissue from the lump or chest and tests it in a lab to look for cancer cells.
Treatment of Male Breast Cancer
Surgery is usually the most common treatment for breast cancer in men. Men can undergo a mastectomy, which means removing all or some of the breast tissue. This can include removing the nipple. If the cancer has spread beyond the breast tissue, surgery will also remove affected lymph nodes.
You may also have hormone therapy, chemotherapy, radiation or targeted therapy to kill the cancer cells.
Living with Cancer
Getting a cancer diagnosis is hard, but getting a diagnosis for a disease thought of as female-oriented can be challenging for men. It’s difficult to explain to other people, who may not understand what you’re going through. In a study from the American Journal of Men’s Health, some men felt more comfortable referring to their chest and saying “chest cancer,” rather than breast cancer.
Treatment can also lead to body image issues. It takes time to adjust to how your body looks after surgery when one side of your chest is smaller or flatter than the other. Talk to your doctor about options to achieve a look you feel more comfortable with, such as having a nipple tattooed.
Being diagnosed with a rare form of any cancer can make you feel alone. Reach out for support, whether from family and friends, or support groups or online groups of others going through the same thing. You don’t have to go through this alone, and there are others out there who have similar experiences.
Whether you're newly diagnosed or concerned about symptoms, UVA's breast cancer care team is here to help.Learn More