Even though men don't have breasts like women’s, they have a small amount of breast tissue. The "breasts" of a man are similar to the breasts of a girl before puberty. Girls’ tissue grows and develops, but men’s doesn't.
But because they still have breast tissue, men can get breast cancer. Men get the same types of breast cancers that women do, but cancers involving the parts that make and store milk are rare. The risk of a man getting breast cancer in his lifetime is about 1 per 1,000.
Doctors used to think that breast cancer in men was more severe than it was in women, but it now seems that it's about the same.
The major problem is that breast cancer in men is often diagnosed later than breast cancer in women. This may be because men are less likely to be suspicious of something strange in that area.
Which Men Are More Likely to Get Breast Cancer?
It's rare for a man under age 35 to get breast cancer. Your chance of getting breast cancer goes up with age. Most breast cancers in men happen between ages 60 and 70.
Other things that raise the odds for male breast cancer include:
- Breast cancer in a close female relative
- History of radiation exposure of the chest
- Enlarged breasts (gynecomastia) because of drug or hormone treatments, some infections, or poisons
- Taking estrogen
- A rare genetic condition called Klinefelter's syndrome
- Severe liver disease, called cirrhosis
- Diseases of the testicles such as mumps orchitis, a testicular injury, or an undescended testicle
Symptoms of breast cancer in men are similar to those in women. Most male breast cancers are diagnosed when a man finds a lump on his chest.
But men tend to delay going to the doctor until they have more severe symptoms, like bleeding from the nipple. By that point, the cancer may have spread.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Treatments for men and women are generally the same. Many men benefit from a combination of treatments, such as:
- Surgery. The typical treatment for men is a mastectomy, in which your entire breast is removed. Breast-conserving surgery -- in which only the tumor is taken out -- is sometimes done. Often, the surgeon also takes out one or more lymph nodes to see if the cancer has spread.
- Radiation therapy. You may have treatment with radioactive rays or particles after surgery. It can help kill off any cancer cells that surgery missed. If the cancer is inoperable, radiation may be your main treatment.
- Chemotherapy. With this treatment, you’ll be given drugs -- by mouth or by injection -- to attack the cancer cells. You may have chemotherapy after surgery to lower the risk of the cancer coming back. For men with advanced cancer or cancer that has spread to other parts of the body, chemotherapy may be the primary treatment.
- Hormone therapy. Some kinds of breast cancer need certain hormones to grow. This therapy blocks the effects of these hormones, stopping the cancer’s growth. It often works better in men than in women because about 90% of men’s cancers are hormone receptor-positive. The drug tamoxifen is the standard hormone therapy for male breast cancer. Sometimes, removal of the testes reduces the amount of certain male hormones in the system. Men with breast cancer should never take testosterone, because it causes breast cancer cells to grow.
You may have hormone therapy after surgery to lower the risk of the cancer coming back. For men with locally advanced or metastatic cancer, it may be the primary treatment.
- Targeted therapy. Some men have an excess of a protein (HER2) that makes cancer spread quickly. Trastuzumab (Herceptin) is one of the drugs that has been approved to treat breast cancer that has spread to other areas of the body. It stops this protein from making cancer cells grow. It may also boost your immune system, giving it more strength to fight the cancer.
Remember, like anyone who has breast cancer or who has recovered from it, you'll need to have checkups with your doctor for the rest of your life. Getting regular medical care is key to staying healthy.