When most people think of breast cancer, the chances are they don’t think about men. Most information and many of the images about breast cancer are geared toward women. The numbers, however, remind us that breast cancer does occur in men. In 2017, it is estimated that:
- About 2,470 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the US.
- About 460 men will die from breast cancer.
The lifetime risk that a man will get breast cancer is about 1 in 1,000.
Many people don’t know about male breast cancer
People may think that men cannot develop breast cancer because they do not think of men as having breasts. The fact is, however, that both men and women have breast tissue.
In a study measuring public awareness of men on the topic of breast cancer, nearly 80% of men indicated that they were not aware that males could get breast cancer—even though the men in the study were all at higher risk for breast cancer because they had a family history of the disease.
Part of the reason for this lack of awareness could be that male breast cancer is rare, and that there are fewer patients who could be studied by researchers.
Because men have less breast tissue than women, lumps may be easier to find. Unfortunately, having less breast tissue also means that the cancer can spread more easily to the nipple, the skin covering the breast, or the muscles under the breast. This can lead to a poorer outcome for men with breast cancer.
Despite the potential to feel lumps more easily, the lack of awareness of physical symptoms (by patients and healthcare providers) can result in up to 2 years in delay between symptoms and diagnosis. Men tend to have limited knowledge of this disease and the accompanying warning signs such as lumps. This often leads to a delay in seeking provider guidance and ultimately results in later diagnosis.
Public awareness may also play a role in the delay. For example, you’ve probably heard more about women’s advocacy, education, screening programs such as annual breast exams, and breast cancer-related health campaigns—initiatives that don’t exist for men.
For many men, male breast cancer carries a stigma
Because breast cancer is seen as a female illness, men may be embarrassed about a change in their breast or chest area and put off seeing a doctor. Men may also be afraid that people will question their masculinity. The disease can cause distress for men and have a negative effect on their sense of self, body image, and sexuality.
Here’s what to know
Risk factors for male breast cancer include:
- Exposure to radiation.
- Having a disease that raises estrogen levels in the body (for example, cirrhosis of the liver or a genetic disorder called Klinefelter syndrome).
- Having more than one female relative who has had breast cancer (especially if the cancer was caused by an alteration of the BRCA2 gene).
- Having an inherited gene mutation related to breast cancer. Tests can find these genes.
- Lifestyle factors including being overweight or obese and not exercising.
Symptoms of male breast cancer to watch for:
- A lump in the breast, chest, or underarm area. The lump is usually painless but may be tender.
- Dimpled or puckered skin.
- Red, scaly nipple or skin.
- Fluid discharge.
Always talk with your healthcare provider if you have any questions about the disease and to learn if you should be screened for it.
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- 10. American Society of Clinical Oncology. Breast Cancer in Men: Risk Factors and Prevention. Accessed July 31, 2017.
- 11. MedlinePlus. Male Breast Cancer. Accessed July 31, 2017.