Can men get breast cancer? Or is breast cancer a disease that afflicts women only?
Here’s what we know:
According to statistics gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in every 100 breast cancers diagnosed in the United States occurs in a man.
Not only can men get breast cancer, they do get breast cancer. And the consequences of breast cancer in men is more often fatal.
Research by The American Cancer Society (ACS) shows that 2650 new cases of male invasive breast cancer are expected in 2021. About 530 of those men (20 percent) will die from the disease.
In contrast, the ACS data for women forecasts 281,550 new cases of invasive breast cancer in women and a mortality rate from breast cancer of about 43,600 (15.4 percent).
The numbers of cases and resultant deaths from breast cancer are way too high for both men and women, but why do men succumb to the disease at a higher rate? Why do one-fifth of males who get breast cancer die as a result?
The primary contributing factor may be that few men are aware of their risk for breast cancer. Consequently, they are more apt to dismiss early symptoms of the disease. They wait until it’s too late before reporting their concerns to the doctor.
Our hope is that this article can help raise breast cancer awareness for men and those who love them. Men can get breast cancer too.
Now the question is, how do we know if we or a loved one has male breast cancer? How can we prevent it?
Male Breast Cancer: Colonel Adam’s Experience
Roy S. Adams is a combat veteran who served 33 years in the U.S. military, including three tours in Viet Nam. His attention to duty earned him the rank of “full bird” colonel. During his career he often faced danger and stress — yet he describes the after effects of his breast cancer diagnosis as “the most horrible thing I’ve lived through.”
While showering one evening, Adams found a lump just under the skin above his left nipple. “Probably a swollen gland,” he thought. No big deal.
The lump remained, but didn’t appear to get any larger. He wasn’t worried about it. About two months later, though, Adams mentioned it to his wife. She was alarmed, but he promised her he would ask his physician about it during his next annual exam — not too far in the future.
But during the checkup, the Colonel was so complacent about the issue that he forgot to mention the lump to his doctor. His wife was amazed at his nonchalance, and she insisted that he call the clinic and ask whether or not there was any reason to be concerned.
The physician wasted no time. He told Adams to come straight back to the clinic, evaluated the lump, and immediately scheduled a mammogram and sonogram. Those tests were followed by a needle biopsy, then an appointment with a surgeon. He was in the operating room the next day.
Colonel Adams was diagnosed with and treated for male breast cancer.
He underwent a total mastectomy of the left breast and removal of eight lymph nodes under his arm. The lump he felt hadn’t appeared to get any larger because it was growing inward, not outward. The surgeon told him that even two weeks further delay in treatment could have resulted in the disease penetrating so far into his chest that it would have been much more difficult to treat — and the consequences would have been even more serious.
The Colonel’s advice to other men: “If you feel something out of the ordinary around your breasts, have it checked immediately!”
Risk Factors and Symptoms of Breast Cancer in Men
Colonel Adams is a breast cancer survivor, but it might have been different if not for the urging of his wife and doctor. Male breast cancer often goes undiagnosed until it is more advanced. And because of how rare it is, it is difficult to study.
But we do know several things about men and breast cancer:
- The types of breast cancers found in men are the same as those found in women. Fortunately, this means that the research conducted for female breast cancer also applies to men. There are some differences, though.
- Most male breast cancer is driven by the estrogen hormone. That is also true for women. Men rarely get the HER2-positive type of breast cancer, however.
- The BRCA2 gene is the risk factor most often seen in male breast cancer patients.
- Other risk factors for male breast cancer include aging, genetic mutation, family history of breast cancer, radiation treatments to the chest, hormone therapy with drugs containing estrogen, obesity, liver disease, Klinefelter syndrome, and injury to or surgery of the testicles.
It isn’t possible to eliminate all risk factors. Some of these, such as family history or genetic mutations, are completely out of the individual’s control. Male breast cancer can be recognized early, however, if more men become aware of the risk and don’t hesitate to report their symptoms to a physician.
The symptoms of male breast cancer are similar to the symptoms for women:
- The man discovers a lump or swelling in his breast tissue
- The skin over the breast reddens or becomes flaky
- The breast skin becomes irritated or dimpled
- The man notices a discharge from his nipple
- There is pain in the nipple or it begins to pull inward
While none of these symptoms is a sure indicator of breast cancer — they are all concerning and should prompt the man to seek medical advice should one of them occur.
Here’s something else to consider: Since physicians rarely see men with breast cancer, even the doctor may not suspect the disease. The man should be prepared to urge his physician to send him for further examination if there is no other apparent cause of the symptoms displayed. All of us should advocate for our own health. Physicians aren’t gods. They undergo special training to prepare them for a medical career, but they can miss the obvious — especially in cases of male breast cancer.
The Breast Cancer Research Foundation puts it like this:
None of us should ever take chances with our health. Women have received that message, where breast cancer is concerned, more often and with more seriousness. It’s time for men to get the message too.
You now know the truth about male breast cancer. Pass it on to the men in your life. Urge them to realize that male breast cancer is possible for them and that it can require treatment. Tell them about Colonel Adams. Don’t let them remain uninformed and go through life thinking they have no need to be concerned.
Male Breast Cancer: Men Can Get Breast Cancer Too
Breast cancer isn’t just a woman’s problem. Men can and do get breast cancer, and some of those cases require rapid treatment — possibly even a mastectomy. Women are much more apt to understand the risk than are men.
Here is the bottom line:
Male breast cancer accounts for only about one percent of the breast cancers diagnosed annually in the United States, but about 2,650 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. There isn’t a way to totally prevent breast cancer, but it is possible to minimize some of the risk factors.
As with women, the most important thing men need is breast cancer awareness. Men, like women, should know the symptoms of breast cancer and should seek medical attention should any of those symptoms develop.
Managing risk factors and knowing the symptoms of male breast cancer can help men seek treatment earlier and maybe even save their lives.
Help us get the word out … please.
Please Note: The articles on Dr. Andy Higgins’ website are obtained from a variety of sources. While they pertain to the treatment of breast cancer, colon cancer, and other maladies, their presence here is not to help diagnose or treat any disease, but to stimulate conversation about health-related issues. All articles are cleared by the editor for this site, but not necessarily by Doctor Higgins himself.