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Breast Cancer:
Not Just a Woman’s Issue

Photo of manEven though it’s often thought of as a woman’s disease, breast cancer can be a very real danger for men, too. read on to learn more about how breast cancer affects men.

Every October, a sea of pink washes over the country. Ribbons, yoga mats, and even football players’ uniforms turn a rosy hue in support of breast cancer awareness.

Some men may not pay much attention to the message. But perhaps they should. Although it does strike 100 women for every man, breast cancer doesn’t solely rank as a female disease. Currently, about one in 1,000 men will develop the condition in his lifetime. And cases among guys are on the rise—one study showed a 26 percent boost in male breast cancer between 1975 and 2010.

This year alone, the American Cancer Society estimates that more than 2,300 men will receive a diagnosis of invasive breast cancer. About 430 will die of the disease. When detected early, male breast cancer is highly treatable. But a lack of awareness can cause men and even doctors to miss the disease.

Wait—Men Have Breasts?

As children, girls’ and boys’ breasts don’t differ that much. Males have a nipple, fatty tissue, and even milk ducts. During puberty, female hormones like estrogen and progesterone instruct women’s breasts to grow. That’s also when they develop milk-producing lobules. This extra tissue, along with higher levels of hormones like estrogen, places women at higher risk for cancer. Their breast cells are more likely to turn cancerous and grow out of control.

But the same type of cell growth can cause tumors to form in men, too. Like women, men also have lymph nodes in their armpits and chest. These small, fluid-filled sacs usually carry cells that help fight infections. However, if tumors form in the breast tissue, cancer cells use these pathways to spread throughout the body.

Spot the Symptoms

Most men with breast cancer develop noticeable lumps in their chest. Other common symptoms include:

  • Puckered or dimpled skin around the breast or nipple
  • A nipple that inverts, or turns inward
  • Red, scaly skin around the breast or nipple
  • Fluid oozing from the nipple, called discharge
  • Lumps or swelling around the collarbone or armpits—this usually occurs when cancer has spread to the lymph nodes

Having one or more of these signs doesn’t mean a man has cancer. But it does mean he should make an appointment with the doctor to find out the cause.

Know Your Risk

Doctors can’t always predict who will get breast cancer. But they have identified factors that increase certain men’s chances. In fact, many of the same factors that raise the risk for women also apply to men. For instance:

  • Age. Male breast cancer usually occurs between ages 60 and 70. Men’s average age at diagnosis is 68.
  • Family history. One in five men with breast cancer has a close male or female relative with the disease. If a man’s mother, sister, father, or brother has the condition, his risk is about double the average.
  • Genes. Up to 40 percent of male breast cancers are genetic. The same breast cancer genes that affect women also increase risk in men. Men with the BRCA1 gene have about a one in 100 chance of getting breast cancer. About six in 100 men with the BRCA2 gene will develop the disease.
  • Klinefelter syndrome. Most men have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome. But some men are born with one or more extra X chromosomes. As a result, they have lower levels of male hormones (called androgens) and higher levels of female hormones. These men have about 20 to 50 times the chance of getting breast cancer as the average man.
  • Radiation exposure. Some men receive radiation treatment for other cancers, such as lymphoma. This can increase their risk for breast cancer.
  • Obesity. Fat cells convert male hormones into female hormones. So men who carry extra weight increase their estrogen levels and breast cancer risk.
  • Liver disease. The liver makes proteins that carry hormones through your blood. When a man’s liver is damaged, his androgen levels decrease.

Treatment Options

Men who notice changes in their breast tissue should see their doctors. In most cases, it isn’t cancer. But for those who do have breast cancer, catching it before it spreads to the lymph nodes can increase the chances of successful treatment.

Doctors use the same types of tests to diagnose breast cancer in both sexes. For instance, men may undergo a clinical breast exam, biopsy, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or ultrasound. If fluid leaks from your nipple, your doctor will probably check it for cancer cells. Similar tests can give your doctor information that will help choose the best treatment. The standard options include:

  • Surgery. Most men with breast cancer will have a modified radical mastectomy. A surgeon removes the breast, many of the lymph nodes in the armpit, the lining over the chest muscles, and often some of the muscles themselves. However, recent evidence suggests that men with early-stage cancer—just like women—may fare just as well with lumpectomy. This surgery removes only the tumor, sparing healthy breast tissue.
  • Radiation. In some cases, a machine outside the body directs radiation to the tumor. Doctors can also implant small seeds or wires inside the body to deliver radiation directly to cancer cells.
  • Chemotherapy. Medications, taken as pills or given through intravenous therapy, either kill cancer cells or prevent them from dividing.
  • Hormone therapy. Medications work to decrease levels of female hormones. This helps stop the cancer from growing.

Often, a combination works best. Many men have surgery first, then another treatment to remove any remaining cancer.

A Positive Prognosis

Men with breast cancer fare similarly as women diagnosed at the same stage.

Still, men who survive breast cancer do face an increased risk of getting another type of cancer later on. That’s especially true for men with genetic risks for breast cancer. BRCA genes, for instance, also increase the risk for prostate and pancreatic cancer.

Another way men and women differ: A breast cancer diagnosis can be psychologically challenging in different ways. In one study, men reported feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, emasculation, and depression due to their disease. Counseling may help them cope.

By Cindy Kuzma, a feature writer for Vitality. For more information, visit the American Cancer Society at and search for “breast cancer in men.”


Some risk factors for breast cancer remain outside men’s—and women’s—control. But the same healthy choices can prevent the disease in both sexes. To reduce your risk:

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
    Eating a nutritious diet and exercising regularly can keep your waistline in check. All three of these factors may ward off breast cancer.
  • Ask your doctor about screenings.
    Experts don’t recommend routine mammographies for men. But some men at higher risk may want to have regular breast exams. Both men and women should talk with their doctors about the best strategy for them.
  • Reduce alcohol consumption.
    Heavy drinking increases the risk for male and female breast cancer. Women should limit themselves to one drink per day, and men to two.

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