Male Breast Cancer Symptoms: When Should You Be Worried?

Breast cancer is largely considered to be a disease that only affects women – an assumption that is wholly inaccurate. While it is true that men experience it not nearly as often as women – due to the fact that men have less breast tissue, thereby lessening their risk – male breast cancer still happens, and the big issue is that the men who do develop symptoms usually tend to ignore them. We spoke exclusively to some of the oncologists at the De Mûelenaere Oncology group to find out the truth about this disease – and what the best prevention plan looks like.

The difference between female and male breast cancer

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As mentioned earlier, male breast cancer is rare – it represents between 0.5% and 1% of all breast cancers diagnosed each year. And while it shares many similarities with cancer of the breast in women, there are also important differences.

As with women, the incidence of breast cancer in men rises with age, and men tend to be approximately 5 to 10 years older than women at the time of diagnosis. Breast cancers in men appear to share some of the risk factors associated with postmenopausal breast cancer in women, such as:

  • Genetics and family history

As with breast cancer in women, a family history of breast cancer in a first-degree relative is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer among men. Research of the link between genetics and cancer indicates that the majority of patients who suffer from hereditary breast cancers display mutations in either the breast cancer type 1 or 2 susceptibility genes (known as BRCA1 and BRCA2). According to Men’s Health, 40% of male breast cancer cases are hereditary.

  • Alterations of the estrogen to androgen ratio

Excessive estrogen stimulation may be due to hormonal therapies (eg, estrogen-containing compounds or testosterone), hepatic dysfunction, obesity, marijuana use, thyroid disease, or an inherited condition, such as Klinefelter syndrome.

  • Primary testicular conditions

Testicular conditions associated with an increased risk of breast cancer in men include orchitis, undescended testes (cryptorchidism), and testicular injury. While speculative, it may be that these conditions may be associated with lower androgen production, resulting in a higher than normal estrogen to androgen ratio.

Also, previous radiotherapy to the chest, e.g for lymphoma at a younger age. Despite these reported associations, the vast majority of men with breast cancer have no identifiable risk factors.

The Symptoms to look out for

Male breast cancer has typically been diagnosed at a more advanced stage than female breast cancer, most likely due to a lack of awareness that men can develop breast cancer and absence of routine screening exams.

Most men with breast cancer generally present with a painless, firm mass that is usually subareolar, with nipple involvement in 40 to 50 percent of cases. The left breast is involved slightly more often than the right, and less than 1 percent of cases affect both breasts. There may be associated skin changes, including changes in the skin color, nipple retraction, nipple discharge, ulceration, or fixation of the mass to the skin or underlying tissues.

Fundamentally, therefore, many of the symptoms of male and female breast cancer are the same. However, because men are not taught that these are abnormal and need to be looked at, the symptoms are not picked up. In addition, there seems to be a stigma associated with male breast cancer, perhaps due to the lack of awareness surrounding the illness, and because it is not seen as a disease that men get.

The treatment options available for male breast cancer

Male breast cancer has typically been diagnosed at a more advanced stage than female breast cancer, most likely due to a lack of awareness that men can develop breast cancer and absence of routine screening exams as it is rare in male patients.

The approach to the male patient who presents with a suspicious breast mass is similar to that of women and includes mammography and biopsy. Treatment approaches mirror that of female patients, and may include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy or a combination of these treatment approaches.

In order for men to take their symptoms more seriously, it is important to grow awareness on this disease and remove the stigma associated with it. Like any other form of cancer, it is debilitating, it can happen to anyone at any age, and if caught early enough, it can be successfully treated.

Want to know more?

After he lost his young daughter to leukeamia, Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg, clinical assistant professor of Paediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine founded the Kids Kicking Cancer programme in the US in 1999. This is a not-for-profit organisation, and it is currently changing the lives of over 5000 children in 59 hospitals or institutions across five countries. Click on the link to find out more about the programme and how it helps children deal with their diagnosis by incorporating martial arts.