Breast cancer is often thought of as a woman’s disease, but it affects biological males, too. According to statistics from the American Cancer Society, about 2,800 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the United States, and approximately 530 will die from it. Compared to the 240,000 new cases among women each year, male breast cancer is rare, accounting for less than 1% of all breast cancer cases. Still, it is no less deadly if not detected early.
Men of all ages are at risk, so breast self-exams and awareness of the signs and symptoms must be a priority for all. Don’t assume you’re exempt. Breast cancer is an equal-opportunity disease. Know the risks, understand your body, and speak to your doctor immediately about any concerns. Again, early detection is vital.
It All Starts in Your Duct Cells
Regardless of gender, everyone has duct cells in their breast tissue. These cells are susceptible to various conditions, including cancerous transformations, typically due to unstable hormones that influence abnormal cellular growth and development.
Risk Factors for Breast Cancer in Men
Although the causes of male breast cancer remain shrouded in medical mystery, the risk factors include:
1. Genetic Mutations
BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations account for approximately 1% and 8% of breast cancer cases in men, respectively. These mutations disrupt genes responsible for producing tumor suppressor proteins. They impair the cells’ ability to repair DNA damage and regulate cell division, resulting in uncontrolled cell growth and cancer development.
2. Family history
Men with a first-degree relative who had breast cancer (mother, father, brother, or sister), face higher odds of developing the disease themselves. In fact, 15% of breast cancer cases in males have a positive family history of breast cancer. The risk increases when multiple relatives have developed the malignancy.
3. Occupational Hazards
Male breast tissue is just as vulnerable to carcinogens as female breast tissue. For industrial workers, regular exposure to organic solvents, petroleum products, pesticides, and other harmful chemicals may contribute to breast cancer occurrence, as chemicals can damage DNA in the breast cells and cause mutations.
Heat stress is another potential risk factor. Men who work in hot environments like foundries, kitchens, and engine rooms endure heat exposure for most of their workday. An analysis of case-control studies found that occupational heat exposure elevates the risk of male breast cancer. However, findings from this study provide no clear evidence.
4. Liver Problems
Excess estrogen in the male body can increase the risk of breast cancer. The liver is responsible for breaking down and removing any excess from the bloodstream. However, with liver disease and cirrhosis, estrogen levels can rise unchecked.
- Liver disease can impair the body’s ability to metabolize hormones like testosterone and insulin, disrupting normal hormone signaling pathways that help protect against cancer development.
- Men with cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) have higher estrogen levels than men without cirrhosis. This heightened estrogen exposure may lead to the growth and spread of breast cancer cells.
Excessive alcohol consumption can raise estrogen levels and lower testosterone in men. This hormonal imbalance can cause cells in the breast tissue to multiply at an abnormal rate, increasing the chance of cancer developing.
Excessive body fat is a well-known risk factor for breast cancer in women, but it also raises the risk among men. Fat cells produce an enzyme known as aromatase, which converts androgens like testosterone into estrogen. This conversion process is more intense in obese men. Obesity may also lower levels of sex hormone-binding globulin, contributing to increased circulating free estrogen. Simply put, as excess body fat boosts estrogen levels, male breast cancer may arise.
7. History of Cancer Treatments
Exposure to high levels of radiation, such as during radiation therapy treatments for a previous cancer diagnosis, may damage cells and increase the risk of breast cancer over time. Radiation exposure in adolescence or early adulthood (before turning 30) poses the most significant risk.
8. Klinefelter syndrome
Klinefelter occurs when a boy is born with an extra copy of the X chromosome, giving him two or more X chromosomes instead of the typical male chromosome pair, XY. This extra genetic material disrupts the balance of hormones like estrogen and testosterone during development.
The hormonal changes associated with Klinefelter syndrome result in abnormal breast tissue development in some men. Those with Klinefelter’s have 20 to 60 times higher risk compared to the general male population. Symptoms can include a painless lump in the breast or discharge from the nipple. Men with Klinefelter’s syndrome should monitor their breasts regularly and inform their doctor if they notice anything unusual.
Additional resource: Genetics of Breast Cancer: Risk Genes According to Recent Studies
Breast cancer risk increases with age for all genders. Most male breast cancers occur in men aged 60 and up. However, like how young women are not exempt from breast cancer, neither are young men, as evident in the real-life scenario highlighted later below.
10. Estrogen Treatment
There was a time when doctors used estrogen-related drugs for hormonal therapy in males with prostate cancer. As discussed, higher estrogen levels increase the risk of breast cancer in men.
Today, a growing concern is that transgender or transsexual individuals undergoing high-dose estrogen as part of gender-affirming hormonal treatment may face a higher risk of breast cancer. However, as research on breast cancer risk in transgender individuals is new, the extent of their vulnerability remains unclear.
11. Hormone Levels
High estrogen levels in men may contribute to breast cancer development. Estrogen stimulates breast cell growth, and too much can lead to uncontrolled growth.
Many of the aforementioned risk factors – including obesity, liver disease, exposure to harmful chemicals, and aging – can disrupt the balance between estrogen and testosterone. Identifying and addressing the underlying cause is crucial for effective management.
Although doctors have identified risk factors for male breast cancer, some men still develop the disease without exhibiting any of the above.
Male Breast Cancer in Real Life: The Story of Bret Miller
Most men never check their breasts for anything beyond chest hair. If they do notice an unusual lump or change, many choose to ignore it. When they do seek medical assistance, some doctors will dismiss it, saying “It’s probably nothing and will go away.” Such is the story of Bret Miller.
Bret Miller celebrated two incredible milestones in 2023: His 38th birthday and over a decade of being free from breast cancer’s grip. Back in 2003, at 17 years old, he felt a lump behind his right nipple, but his doctor dismissed it as calcium buildup from puberty. “It will go away,” said the medical professional. A year later, a different physician also dismissed the lump.
Miller trusted his doctors and moved on, as most people would. Believing he was okay, he lived without medical exams for the next seven years until 2010, when a yellow-orange discharge appeared from his nipple.
A job promotion provided insurance, so he finally had the lump screened for male breast cancer. The results indicated that Miller had ductal carcinoma in situ, a common form of breast cancer. As mentioned, less than 1% of this malignancy occurs in men. Miller is a prime example that anyone can be at risk.
What It’s Like to Be a Male Breast Cancer Patient
Here are some observations from male breast cancer patients:
1. “Women’s Clinic”
In April 2010, Bret Miller visited his doctor’s office on their recommendation to get an ultrasound scan. When he arrived at the facility, the sign on the door said “Women’s Clinic,” and the forms he had to complete requested details such as his last menstrual period and pregnancy status. It confused him, as the protocol and documentation were for female patients.
2. Mammography for Men Is “Alien”
When the doctor entered the examination room to review the ultrasound results with Miller, she kept doing a double take between the result and the patient in front of her. Miller was likely the first male patient in that room. She recommended following up with a mammogram, which is usually the first imaging test for breast cancer in women, to assess the anomalies from the ultrasound further. Through this additional screening procedure, they were able to identify and diagnose the concerning lump as ductal carcinoma in situ.
In addition, a mammogram involves compressing the breast between plates to capture detailed images of the breast tissue. It can be alien and uncomfortable if the patient has a small amount of breast tissue.
Since doctors did not originally offer mammograms to men, like Miller, most men detect breast cancer by themselves.
“I was surprised to learn how little awareness there was for men,” said Dr. Oliver Bogler, a cancer biologist who found out that he had metastatic breast cancer in 2012. “Breast cancer is skewed toward women, but it’s not just a woman’s cancer.”
3. Early Detection Is Critical
Men have higher rates of death compared to women with breast cancer, which experts attribute to late diagnoses.
How to Spot Male Breast Cancer
The key to surviving breast cancer, whether you’re a man or a woman, is diagnosing it early. Both genders should perform monthly breast self-exams beginning at age 20 and consult a doctor in case of the following:
- A lump or mass in the breast or underarm
- Thickening or swelling in an area of the breast
- Changes in breast size or shape
- Nipple discharge
- Sudden nipple retraction or inversion
- Irritation or dimpling of the skin around the breast
- Redness or flaky skin in the breast or nipple area
Some of these symptoms of male breast cancer can also be a sign of less severe conditions. It’s best to have a doctor evaluate them.
Deeper insights: Female vs. Male Breast Cancers: What’s the Difference?
Diagnostic Tests for Male Breast Cancer
To diagnose male breast cancer, a doctor will perform two or more of the following:
A physician will examine the breast and underarm areas for lumps or other abnormalities. Any suspicious areas will warrant further testing.
A mammogram uses low-dose X-rays to examine breast tissue. Though less common and more difficult for men to go through, it is often more accurate in detecting signs of cancer in males than females, as men do not have dense breasts or monthly menstrual cycles that can interfere with the test.
An ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to generate images of the breast tissue. It can detect the difference between fluid-filled cysts and solid masses, and determine if a breast lump is suspicious enough to require a biopsy. Doctors often perform ultrasounds in conjunction with mammograms.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging
An MRI scan uses magnetic fields to produce 3D cross-sectional images of the breast tissue. It can detect small lesions that a mammogram may miss and determine whether any cancer cells have spread to the chest wall or lymph nodes. However, MRIs have a higher false-positive rate than other imaging tests. Additional testing is often necessary.
A biopsy is the process of removing a sample tissue from the breast. A pathologist will examine the tissue under a microscope to identify cancer’s presence, type, and aggressiveness. Needle and surgical biopsies are common methods for this diagnostic procedure.
How to Cope With a Breast Cancer as a Man
Coping with the news can be challenging for anyone, including men. Here are some suggestions to help you process and survive your diagnosis:
1. Seek Support
Opening up about a male breast cancer diagnosis can feel stigmatized due to many seeing it as a “women’s disease.” Men may also feel embarrassed, ashamed, or afraid of others’ judging eyes. However, having a strong support system during this challenging time is crucial.
If you have breast cancer, your loved ones want to help and be there for you, but they can’t if they don’t know what you’re going through. Remember that your closest friends and family want the best for you and will likely offer all the support they can.
Start by telling your significant other, parents, adult children, or anyone you trust. Explain your diagnosis in simple terms. Avoid dwelling on feelings of embarrassment. Instead, focus on your need for their love and support as you navigate treatment. As difficult as it seems, especially for many men, being open and honest with the people you trust is an essential first step on your journey toward recovery.
2. Learn More About Your Diagnosis
It’s normal to feel anxious and overwhelmed. But the more you understand your condition, the less scary it will seem moving forward.
Ask your doctor to explain your diagnosis in terms you understand. Ask about the causes, risk factors, symptoms, treatment options, and prognosis. Take notes during your appointments and follow up if anything needs clarification. Your doctor is your best source of accurate medical information.
You can also research credible online sources to learn more. Websites like the American Cancer Society, National Comprehensive Cancer Network, Cancer Research Institute, and New Hope Unlimited have reliable information on malignant disorders. Avoid information from commercial or marketing websites.
3. Make Necessary Lifestyle Changes
Positive lifestyle changes are beneficial for your treatment journey and recovery. While it may take some time to adjust to new routines and habits, implementing simple dietary and exercise modifications can have a tremendous impact on your health.
- Transitioning to a healthy diet with an emphasis on nutritious whole foods lays the groundwork for healing and rehabilitation.
- Modest increases in physical activity, whether it’s walking for 15 additional minutes per day or incorporating low-impact exercises into your schedule, can have wide-ranging rewards for your physical and mental health.
4. Address Body Image Concerns
Treatments like mastectomy and lumpectomy can impact a man’s sense of masculinity and self-confidence. If you undergo these procedures, give yourself time to adjust to your new body. Gentle movement and exercise can boost mood and energy levels. Wear loose, comfortable clothing that feels right for you. Avoid comparing yourself to how you looked before.
Remember that true masculinity is much more than physical appearance. Your inner strength, character, and relationships are what defines you as a man. Focus on what makes you feel most like yourself – your hobbies, interests, and roles in life (husband, father, or son). Your body has changed, but you remain the same person on the inside, maybe even stronger. With time and acceptance, body image concerns will lessen their hold. Healing is a journey; be patient and kind to yourself along the way.
Learning how to cope with breast cancer will help reduce stress and allow you to focus on your recovery. The path ahead may not be easy, but you can work through this challenging time with the proper support and resources.
Treatment Options for Male Breast Cancer
There are conventional and alternative approaches to treating male breast cancer. Traditional treatment options include:
- Radiation therapy
- Targeted therapy
- Hormone therapy
Because large, randomized clinical trials for male breast cancer are lacking, treatments using conventional medicine rely on studies with female participants. As a result, some treatments that work for women may not be as effective on men.
On the other hand, facilities that provide alternative cancer treatments, like New Hope Unlimited, integrate conventional methods with holistic and complementary protocols. Our objective encompasses powering the immune system, stimulating tumor regression, and improving each patient’s overall quality of life through non-toxic solutions. Contact us now for more information on how we can help you beat male breast cancer.