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 2018, it is estimated that in Australia:
- About 148 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer.
- About 28 men will die from breast cancer.
In New Zealand, 26 men were diagnosed with breast cancer and 2 men died from it in 2013.
The good news is that about 85% of men who are diagnosed with breast cancer are still alive 5 years later.
Most people don’t know that male breast cancer exists
Many people are unaware that men can 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.
Part of the reason for this lack of awareness could be the relative rarity of male breast cancer, which means that there are fewer patients who could be studied by researchers.
Differences that affect early detection of breast cancer between men and women
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 doctors) 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 help and ultimately results in later diagnosis.
Public awareness may also play a role in the delay. For example, awareness of breast cancer in women may be higher because of widespread women’s advocacy, education, screening programs such as annual breast exams, and breast cancer-related health campaigns—initiatives that don’t exist for male breast cancer.
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.
Risk factors for male breast cancer
Risk factors for male breast cancer include:
- Getting older
- Having a strong family history of female or male breast cancer or ovarian cancer on either side of the family
- Exposure to radiation.
- Having a disease that raises oestrogen levels in the body (for example, cirrhosis of the liver or a genetic disorder called Klinefelter syndrome).
Symptoms to watch for
Symptoms of male breast cancer include:
- Fluid discharge from the nipple
- A change in shape or appearance of the nipple or pectoral muscle
- A lump in the breast, chest, or underarm area. The lump is usually painless but may be tender.
- Dimpled or puckered skin.
Always talk with your GP if you have any questions about the disease and to learn if you should be screened for it.
- 1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2017. Cancer in Australia 2017. Cancer series no.101. Cat. no. CAN 100. Canberra: AIHW.
- 2. Ministry of Health. 2016. Cancer: New registrations and deaths 2013. Wellington: Ministry of Health.
- 3. da Silva TL. Male breast cancer: medical and psychological management in comparison to female breast cancer. A review. Cancer Treat Commun. 2016;7:23-34.