Breast cancer is thought of as a women’s disease, with less than 1 percent of breast cancers affecting men, according to breastcancer.org. Because of that, there is a lack of awareness about the disease in males, which leads to late diagnoses and lower chances of survival.
As part of Men’s Health Month in June, learn the facts about male breast cancer and what can be done to treat it.
Everyone has breast tissue
Male bodies don’t make as much of the hormone that stimulates breast growth as female bodies, but men still have breast tissue and can even develop medium or large breasts, according to breastcancer.org.
“Usually these breasts are just mounds of fat,” the website says. “But sometimes men can develop real breast gland tissue because they take certain medicines or have abnormal hormone levels.”
While testosterone in men and estrogen in women controls their sex characteristics, those hormones are found in both sexes.
“Most people think of estrogen as an exclusively female hormone, but men also produce it — though normally in small quantities,” the Mayo Clinic says. “However, male estrogen levels that are too high or are out of balance with testosterone levels can cause gynecomastia."
Gynecomastia happens when males have swollen breast tissue which, on its own, is not a serious problem but, because both the condition and breast cancer are related to more breast tissue, one could be a sign of the other.
Male breast cancer is usually advanced
Although breast cancer in men is uncommon, it’s usually diagnosed late, meaning the cancer is more advanced.
“Overall survival is shorter in men, possibly because they tend to be older and have more comorbid conditions,” according to research in medical journal the BMJ.
Having comorbid conditions means a person has more than one disease or condition at a time. Men may also have advanced stages of breast cancer because they ignore symptoms.
“Men carry a higher mortality than women do, primarily because awareness among men is less and they are less likely to assume a lump is breast cancer, which can cause a delay in seeking treatment,” the National Breast Cancer Foundation says.
Men can check for symptoms, at home
Men with a family history of breast cancer are at a higher risk of developing it, but all men should tell their doctor if they have any of these symptoms:
- A lump or swelling, which is usually (but not always) painless
- Skin dimpling or puckering
- Nipple retraction (turning inward)
- Redness or scaling of the nipple or breast skin
- Discharge from the nipple
Before going to the doctor, men can perform a self-check, something they should do every month. That may sound like a lot, but it takes less than 30 seconds and is simple, involving looking for changes on or around the nipple and feeling in the area for lumps or discharge. Detailed instructions are available from multiple online resources.
Men can treat and beat breast cancer
If a biopsy confirms a man has cancer cells in his breast, medical tests will determine the stage. As with other cancers, a lower stage means the cancer has not progressed as far.
Treatment options could include surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, radiation therapy and targeted therapy, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Men's and women’s breast cancer survival rates are the same, so the stage is more important. For example, if men visit the doctor early, and the breast cancer is caught and treated at stage 0 or 1, there is a 100 percent survival rate, according to the American Cancer Society. That rate drops for every subsequent stage until stage 4, which has a 20 percent survival rate.
The best thing a man with a family history or symptoms of breast cancer can do is visit his doctor right away for diagnosis and treatment.
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