Due to a lack of awareness and late diagnosis, breast cancer in men is often more severe.
If you are a guy, you might be thinking you are free from breast cancer — because after all, this is a condition that is most often found in women, right?
Except men can get breast cancer too — albeit extremely rare.
Studies show that male breast cancer accounts for less than 1% of all cancer cases in males and less than 1% of all breast cancer cases overall. However, it is important to note the incidence is rapidly rising in some parts of the world, including Singapore.
Why do men get breast cancer?
Both males and females have what is known as breast tissue. Numerous hormones found in females' bodies usually stimulate the breast tissue to mature and grow into full breasts. On the other hand, males' bodies don't have much of the breast-stimulating hormones and as a result, their breast tissue naturally remains flat and relatively smaller.
Still, the presence of breast tissue in men simply implies that they can get breast cancer. But the risk is relatively low; as a man, your risk of getting breast cancer in your lifetime is nearly one per 1000!
Previously, doctors used to believe that breast cancer in men was somewhat more severe, but research has proven that the severity in both male and female is more or less the same. The main problem is that breast cancer in men is usually diagnosed later compared to breast cancer in women. This is often due to the fact that men are less likely to be suspicious of something strange in this area.
What are common symptoms of male breast cancer?
The most common male breast cancer symptoms include:
- A lump in your breast, which is usually hard, painless, and doesn't seem to move around with the breast.
- The surrounding skin or nipple becomes hard, red, and swollen.
- Swollen glands that are characterized by small bumps in your armpit.
- Presence of a fluid that oozes from your nipples, which may sometimes be streaked with blood.
- Presence of a rash or sore around your nipple that doesn't seem to heal.
- Your nipple turning inwards.
- Nipple pain.
It is imperative to note that the enlargement of both breasts is usually not a cancer symptom. The medical term used to describe this condition is gynecomastia. Sometimes a man's breasts can become quite large and this non-cancer-related enlargement of a man's breasts can be triggered by a number of factors, including heavy alcohol consumption, certain medications, weight gain, among others.
The outlook of male breast cancer usually varies depending on the stage of cancer at the time of diagnosis, or simply, how far it has reached. Just like other types of cancer, it is very possible to treat male breast cancer if it is diagnosed early. However, it can be quite hard to cure the disease once it has spread beyond the breast region.
In such circumstances, treatment can help alleviate or relieve your symptoms, allowing you to live fairly longer.
Who is at risk of developing male breast cancer?
There are many factors that might increase a man’s risk of getting male breast cancer, including:
Research shows that age is arguably the biggest risk factor for getting male breast cancer — just as is the case with our female counterparts. The average age of male patients diagnosed with breast cancer is about 68.
High levels of estrogen hormone
Breast cell growth, normal or abnormal, is initiated and stimulated by the presence of estrogen. Men can have increased levels of estrogen by being overweight, taking hormonal medication, being a heavy drinker of alcohol, having liver disease, or having been exposed to estrogens in the environment.
Having a strong family history of either breast cancer or genetic mutations
If there are other men in your family who have had breast cancer, then your chances of suffering the same is also relatively higher. What's more, the risk increases if there are proven breast cancer gene mutations or abnormalities in your family. To be more precise, men who inherit BRCA2 or BRCA1 —where BR is an abbreviation for breast and CA stands for cancer— have an increased risk of acquiring male breast cancer.
Still, it is important to mention that a significant number of male breast cancer incidences occur in men who have no family history of breast cancer and no inherited gene mutation.
Men suffering from Klinefelter syndrome have decreased levels of androgens as well as higher levels of estrogen. As a result, they have a somewhat higher risk of developing gynecomastia —which is a breast tissue growth that is not cancerous— and breast cancer. Statistically, Klinefelter syndrome usually presents during birth and affects one in one thousand men. Common symptoms of Klinefelter syndrome include a higher voice, having longer legs, and having smaller than usual testicles.
Having liver disease
Some conditions such as liver cirrhosis can potentially minimize male hormones and increase female hormones, thereby increasing an individual's risk of male breast cancer.
Other health conditions
Research also suggests that thyroid conditions, as well as diabetes, can potentially raise a man's risk of breast cancer. This is most likely due to the nature of these conditions as well as their treatment options which may lead to an increase in estrogen levels. Also, those who undergo surgery for the removal of one or both testicles may have a relatively higher risk.
How can you prevent male breast cancer?
Like all other types of cancers, early diagnosis and detection are key to preventing the spread of breast cancer in men. If there is a history of male breast cancer in your family, it is highly recommended that you get routine breast cancer screening as this may help identify any changes in your breast. Also, leading a healthy lifestyle that includes maintaining a healthy weight, regular exercise, and limiting your alcohol consumption may help lower your risk of getting male breast cancer.
Your doctor may also recommend genetic testing; if you have either BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations, your doctor will recommend the necessary steps you may need to take to keep your risk of developing male breast cancer lower.
Regardless of your health status, I recommend everyone to do regular health screenings in Singapore to ensure you are in the pink of health. For men, you may want to consider testicular screening and prostate cancer screening too.
- Zehr K. R. (2019). Diagnosis and Treatment of Breast Cancer in Men. Radiologic technology, 91(1), 51M–61M.
- Abdelwahab Yousef A. J. (2017). Male Breast Cancer: Epidemiology and Risk Factors. Seminars in oncology, 44(4), 267–272. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.seminoncol.2017.11.002
This article was written and medically reviewed by Dr Ben, M.D on 06/09/21