Can Men Get Breast Cancer?

Every breast cancer campaign seems to be directed at women. And with good reason too – it is, after all, one of the most common cancers among women, with 1 in every 8 women developing invasive forms of breast cancer.1

But did you know that men can get breast cancer too? According to the American Cancer Society, about 2,600 American men will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2016 and around 440 men will die because of it.

Wondering how men can get breast cancer when they do not have breasts? Technically, till puberty, both sexes have some breast tissue comprising a few ducts under the nipple and areola. It is just that when girls hit puberty their ovaries produce female hormones that cause their breasts to grow.

Because men normally have low levels of female hormones even after puberty their breast tissue does not really grow much. But like any other cell in the body, the duct cells in a

man’s breast can turn cancerous.2

Breast cancer, however, is not very common in men. The risk of getting breast cancer for a man is about 1 in 1000 – making it about 100 times less common for them than it is for women.3 This is because men’s breast duct cells tend to be less developed and they generally have lower levels of female hormones that influence the growth of breast cells, thus inhibiting the chances of malignant cells.

Though breast cancer is relatively rare among men, the outlook for those who get it is not as good as it is for women. The survival rate for breast cancer depends to a large extent on how far it has spread before it is detected. And since men have very little breast tissue, cancers do not have to grow too much to reach the nipple or the muscles below the breast.

By the time it is detected, the cancer

has often already spread to tissues nearby or to the lymph nodes. Lack of awareness is another factor that makes this a deadly disease for men – many men do not even know that they can get breast cancer and tend to ignore or dismiss symptoms.4

Signs To Watch Out For

As with women, catching breast cancer early can help to ensure a good outcome in men too. Here is what you need to watch out for:

  • You might notice a small, hard lump or swelling in one of your breasts. This lump is usually found below the nipple and areola – and it tends to be painless in most cases. Sometimes, breast cancer may spread to lymph nodes around the collarbone or under the arm and you may notice a lump or swelling there before the original tumor in the breast is large enough to be detected. Though breast lumps in men are usually just an enlargement of breast tissue (a harmless condition known as gynecomastia), it is
    important to get any changes in breast tissue checked out by a doctor.
  • Your nipple might begin to retract or become inflamed or hard.5
  • Your breast skin might become red or scaly, or start to dimple.
  • You might notice a fluid discharging from the nipple.6

Factors That Put You At Risk

Though it is not clear what exactly causes breast cancer in men, some factors have been found to increase your chances of getting it.

  • The risk of breast cancer goes up in men as they grow older. It is unusual among young men, with most cases occurring in men aged between 60 and 70.7
  • Genetics plays a role in the development of this condition. Men who inherit a mutation in the BRCA2 or BRCA1 gene have a greater chance of getting breast cancer. You are also more likely to get it if a close relative like your sister or mother
    has it.8
  • High levels of the female hormone estrogen or prolonged exposure to it can make male breast cancer more likely. Men may have increased levels of estrogen due to hormone treatments (say, for prostate cancer), obesity (as fat cells convert male hormones into female hormones), or liver diseases such as cirrhosis (scarring of the liver often caused by heavy drinking). A rare genetic condition called Klinefelter syndrome also causes lower levels of males hormones and high levels of estrogen in men.9
  • Certain working environments may also be harmful. Men whose workplace are unusually hot (such as steel works, blast furnaces, or car manufacturing plants) are twice as likely to develop breast cancer as those who work in cooler places. High temperatures in these environments may damage testicles, which could translate to higher levels of estrogen. Men who work in soap and perfume manufacturing have also been found to be at greater risk – they
    are seven times more likely to get breast cancer than the general population. Exposure to harmful chemicals is thought to be one reason though this is notcertain yet.10
  • Exposure to radiation in the chest area (say for treatment of a cancer like lymphoma) can increase your chances of getting breast cancer.11

If you notice any indication of breast cancer, get it checked by a doctor immediately. Treatment usually involves surgery followed by a course of medication that blocks the effects of hormones which stimulate the growth of cancer.12 Remember, early detection and treatment can save your life!