Despite how they look on the outside, the build of women’s and men’s breasts are more similar than most people think. The human breasts of both biological sexes contain fatty tissue, breast cells, ducts, and nipples. Both sexes also share a few of the same risk factors for breast cancer. Men and women can have inherited mutations in their BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which can increase cancer risk. And, whether born male or female, both sexes generate the hormone estrogen, which, at certain levels, may raise breast cancer risk.
So, why do fewer men get breast cancer?
Less than 1 percent of all breast cancers occur in men. In 2021, the American Cancer Society estimated that around 2,650 men were to develop breast cancer, compared to almost 300,000 women.
Here are three reasons why breast cancer affects more women than men.
- Men have less lobules and ducts
Breast cancer in men is significantly rarer than in women because even though the breast tissue in both sexes is similar, in general, male breasts mostly contain fibrous tissue and fat called stroma. Furthermore, unlike women, they have fewer lobules and ducts, said Sramila Aithal, MD, Hematologist and Medical Oncologist at the Cancer Treatment Center of America (CTCA) in Philadelphia, PA.
During puberty, when women’s breasts begin maturing, their lobules and ducts develop to produce and store milk after childbirth. The majority of breast cancers in women arise in those ducts and lobules. In contrast, most men have far fewer and smaller ducts. Furthermore, it is unusual for men to produce lobules, though it is a rare possibility.
- BRCA mutations in men are more likely to cause prostate cancer
BRCA gene mutations can increase the risk of cancer risk in men and women, but the effects differ per gender. Although BRCA mutations do increase men’s risk of breast cancer, they have a higher risk of developing prostate cancer than breast or other malignant diseases.
- Men produce less estrogen
In general, women produce more estrogen than men. A potential reason for male breast cancer’s rarity is their lower estrogen levels, hypothesized Cynthia Lynch, MD, Medical Director of the Breast Center at CTCA in Phoenix, AZ.
Men with high estrogen levels may develop gynecomastia — a relatively common condition in which male breast tissue grows or swells. Gynecomastia itself is not a risk factor for male breast cancer, meaning men do not have to worry about its effect on their health. However, some underlying conditions that predispose men to gynecomastia through elevated estrogen levels may contribute to male breast cancer development. Therefore, it is still necessary to differentiate gynecomastia from male breast cancer through the help of a medical professional.
Challenges of diagnosing and treating breast cancer in men
The uncommon incidence of male breast cancer, as with other rare cancers, can cause unique challenges for the people who develop it and the doctors who treat it.
Here are the two main challenges.
- Breast cancer treatments for men are based on studies involving women
Clinical studies about treating breast cancer in female patients typically guide the treatment for male breast cancer. There are some differences in the techniques used, and additional considerations are imperative when using hormone therapy in men diagnosed with breast cancer.
- Men do not screen themselves for breast cancer
Due to male breast cancer’s rarity, most men do not have themselves checked for the disease and remain oblivious to the symptoms. And, when men do encounter symptoms, fears of emasculation and perceived stigmas may hinder them from consulting a doctor. In consequence, doctors often diagnose men with advanced breast cancer.
Most men have poorer outcomes compared to women due to late diagnoses and older age. According to the National Cancer Institute, 68 years old is the median age of men diagnosed with breast cancer. Meanwhile, the average age of women diagnosed with breast cancer is 62, and about one-third of all diagnoses occur in women younger than 55.
Stigmatization of male breast cancer
Being diagnosed with breast cancer can be emotionally devastating for both men and women. Patients may struggle with a sense of loss, particularly if surgery to remove one or both breasts is a requisite. Some patients may also find it difficult to cope with newfound body image and intimacy issues.
Dr. Aithal stressed that men, in particular, may also feel less masculine following a diagnosis and be less inclined to seek support the way women often do.
“Breast cancer in males may be quite distressing,” said Dr. Aithal. Strong feelings of shame, embarrassment, loneliness, and anxiety often overwhelm them due to their gender and the stigma around male breast cancer. Moreover, most men do not express emotions and they are unlikely to join support groups since there are fewer men with breast cancer. Joining women’s support groups is not an option for most men either, since it may fuel their embarrassment and anxiety further.
“Given that this is primarily a malignancy in women, studies have identified that men can feel isolated in their diagnosis,” revealed Dr. Lynch. “They also report feelings of embarrassment and emasculation.
Raising more awareness about male breast cancer is one way to help reduce and eliminate feelings of isolation and embarrassment surrounding this diagnosis.
More facts about breast cancer in men
Knowledge is a powerful ally against breast cancer. In addition to the information above, it pays to know that:
- Female and male breast cancers share similar symptoms, including a lump on the breast, changes in the shape or size of the breast, swelling, redness or irritated skin, and any changes in the nipple.
- Affecting 1 in 500 to 1,000 newborns, Klinefelter syndrome is a condition wherein men are born with two X chromosomes. They produce excessive estrogen in most cases, thus increasing their risk of breast cancer.
Men who are experiencing unusual symptoms or have conditions that raise their risk of male breast cancer should never hesitate to seek medical attention. The sooner the diagnosis, the easier to treat.
If diagnosed with male breast cancer, it’s important to learn about the different treatment options. An available solution is the comprehensive and alternative treatment here at New Hope Unlimited, which aims to reverse cancer symptoms and maximize the rate of survival. Call us at 480-666-1403 to schedule a consultation.