Men Get Breast Cancer, Too

Many men may find this to be startling news, but breast cancer doesn't happen only in women. Although men don't have breasts in the sense that women do, they do have breast tissue and enough of it to make breast cancer possible.

In men, breast tissue is primarily composed of tubular passages called ducts which are located under the nipple and in the areas surrounding it. (Women can also develop a second type of breast cancer which settles in their milk-producing glands.)

When girls reach puberty, female hormone levels rise causing breast ducts to grow by increasing the amount of fatty tissue surrounding the breast area. Male hormones prevent the tissue from growing, so breasts don't develop. According to the American Cancer Society, about 2,140 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in men this year; of that, about 456 men will die as a result.

While breast cancer is about 100 times more common in women than in men, when it is detected in men the cancer is often advanced. Why? It boils down to denial. Not only are men less suspicious of abnormalities in the breast region, but experts believe it's also more challenging for men to detect tumors given the small amount of breast tissue they typically have. When left untreated, tumors can spread more quickly to the surrounding tissue making treatment more difficult.

One worrisome finding showed that women with breast cancer have a much greater rate of survival then men. In a study of more than 2,500 men with breast cancer in Denmark, Finland, Switzerland, Norway, Singapore, and Sweden, researchers found that only 25 percent of men with breast cancer were alive 15 years after diagnosis, compared with 44 percent of women. Knowing the risk factors and the symptoms can help you live a longer, healthier life.

What You Need to Know

Researchers aren't certain about what causes breast cancer in men, but they do know that the number of cases has been stable for the last 30 years. Some risk factors seem to be related to estrogen levels in the body. Being obese and having liver disease both increase estrogen and make men more susceptible to breast cancer. Estrogen is often used in the treatment of prostate cancer so men with this problem have higher rates of developing breast cancer as well.

Age is another factor. Though diagnoses are rare before the age of 35, that same breast cancer study (mentioned above) also showed that men were diagnosed at an older age than women: 69 vs. 61. Family history of breast cancer in a close female relative and a history of radiation exposure of the chest can also increase the risk. Men who have had abnormal enlargement of their breasts in response to drug or hormone treatments for other conditions (like prostate cancer) also seem to be at risk as well as individuals with a rare genetic disease called Klinefelter's syndrome (sufferers have an extra X chromosome) Additionally, diseases of the testicles, testicular injury, or an undescended testicle are all linked to male breast cancer.

Doctors use physical exams, mammograms, and biopsies (examining small samples of the tissue under a microscope) to diagnose breast cancer in men and women just as surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and hormones are all used to treat the disease. One interesting difference is that men with breast cancer respond better to hormone treatments than women do.

If you have any of the following symptoms, consult your doctor immediately: 

  • Swelling
  • Skin dimpling or puckering
  • Redness or scaling of the skin on the nipple or breast
  • A small lump in the breast. One study found more than half of the male breast cancer tumors were less than 1.5 inch in diameter.
  • Nipple retraction. Changes in the nipple itself, especially when they start to turn inward.
  • Nipple discharge. Since all male breast cancers originate close to the nipple and are more likely to spread to the nipple itself, men are more likely to have nipple discharge. The discharge generally appears crusted, scaly, and red and certain areas of the nipple may even itch, ooze, burn, or bleed.

It's a good idea to periodically check for lumps in the breast.




American Cancer Society

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

American Association for Cancer Research