Men and Breast Cancer: Good and Bad News
The American Cancer Society and its partners do a great job promoting October as Breast Cancer Awareness month, don’t they? From fundraisers to races to parties, it seems that no opportunity to build awareness is missed, even NFL football games.
One thing that does tend to get lost in the sea of pink is that men get breast cancer too. Admittedly the incidence is low: just one in 1,000 men will contract the disease, according to the American Cancer Society, as opposed to one in a about eight women.
So, if you’re an average guy, why should you care?
You should know that although it’s relatively rare for men to get breast cancer, when it happens, the survival rate is lower than it is for women. There’s no reason for a guy to be unduly alarmed, but knowledge is a good thing.
In that spirit, here are a few things to know.
How Men Contract Breast Cancer
Many people don’t realize that men have small amounts of breast gland tissue, but it’s true. That’s essentially why men can suffer tumors just like women do if the cells undergo abnormal changes. The risk of developing breast cancer is lower for men for two main reasons: male breast tissue is not as well developed as female tissue and men have lower levels of estrogen in their bodies. You can read more about exactly how cancer develops and spreads here.
Why Breast Cancer Survival Rates are Lower for Men
Experts agree that a general lack of awareness about breast cancer in men can lead to later diagnosis of the disease and often a less favorable prognosis. Several years ago, researchers in Madrid found that more than 40% of men with breast cancer aren’t diagnosed until the disease is at Stage III or IV. What this means, according to the non-profit breastcancer.org, is that when found, breast cancers in men tend to be larger, more aggressive and more widespread.
What You Can Do
Few medical professionals would recommend that you rush out to get a mammogram. However, there are some things you can do that make good sense.
Understand male breast cancer risk factors. You are more likely to develop breast cancer, says breastcancer.org, if you:
• Have higher than usual estrogen levels, due to being overweight, taking certain medications, drinking heavily and so on. Read more about male breast cancer risk factors here
• Have a family history of breast cancer. Your risk is greater if a man in the family has the disease, or if breast cancer gene abnormalities (BRCA1 and particularly BRCA2) run in the family
• Have Klinefelter syndrome. You can learn about Klinefelter syndrome in a blog post we published here
• Have undergone chest radiation treatment
• Are older, as risk increases with age in both sexes
Be alert for symptoms. Symptoms of breast cancer for men and women are similar. Keep an eye out for:
• Lumps you can feel and surface irregularities you can see
• Breast or nipple pain
• Nipples that become inverted or begin to discharge fluid
• Sores on the breasts, nipples or areolas
• Enlarged lymph nodes near your armpit
If you notice any of these changes, now is not the time to “suck it up” and just carry on, and it is definitely not the time to feel embarrassed. Visit your primary care doctor—he or she will know what to do.
It’s possible you may be experiencing gynecomastia, or benign breast growth commonly referred to as man boobs. If that’s the case, your physician should be able to spot it and may refer you to a plastic surgery practice that specializes in gynecomastia like ours in New York. Or you may be headed to an endocrinologist to investigate your hormone levels.
If your doctor does suspect male breast cancer, don’t despair. Breastcancer.org refers to a small study of guys that found it takes longer than 18 months (on average) after noting the first symptom for a guy to seek help. Don’t be that guy! The earlier you seek treatment, the better the outlook.
More Good News About Male Breast Cancer
Remember the scientists in Spain we referred to? Those same oncologists found that when they adjusted for age and stage, survival rates for men are about the same as for women. That means awareness can make all the difference.
There are a few online resources specifically for men with breast cancer. You may find information, support and new friends here:
If October passed by without your giving a thought to the possibility, however remote, that you could get breast cancer, it’s time to change your mind!