Every October the world wears pink to bring awareness to breast cancer. It is estimated that over 300,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with some type of breast cancer in the next 12 months. But did you know that just over 2600 men will also be diagnosed with breast cancer this year? Of those men, about 20% will die from this dreaded disease.
Breast cancer starts when cells in the breast tissue grow out of control forming a tumor. This causes a lump or swelling. Frequently, it’s a painless growth that most men disregard. They don’t associate these seemingly harmless nodules with the “big C.” If it’s detected early, there’s a good chance that the cancer is cured. Left untreated, the cancer can spread to the lymph nodes under the arm or around the collarbone area before invading other parts of the body.
Additional signs of breast cancer in men are the same as those of women:
- Dimpling or puckering of skin on the breasts
- Nipple turning inward
- Redness or scaling of the nipple or breast plane
- Discharge from the nipple
In general, men do not receive regular mammograms or breast exams at doctor appointments. When a lump is found, it’s usually because of some injury or accident, a bump to the chest for example, that causes an immediate painful reaction. A lump is felt at the time and is associated with the injury not a potential cancer nodule.
Men don’t think of themselves as being at risk for breast cancer. They don’t even think of themselves as having breasts; they are “pecs.” For the majority of men, it’s unthinkable that they would get cancer in their pectoral area, it’s just not manly. So even when they do find a small nodule, they often don’t say anything to their healthcare provider which leads to delayed treatment. And that’s why breast cancer in men is so dangerous.
It’s not clear why men develop breast cancer. It could be that some men inherit mutated genes that put them at increased risk. Research has established that men are at a higher risk for breast cancer if they are over the age of 50. Most cases in men are detected between the ages of 65 and 70. Additional risk factors include:
- Family history of breast cancer (women included)
- Liver disease
- Exposure to estrogen
- Klinefelter’s Syndrome
- Testicle disease or surgery
Having one or more risk factors does not guarantee that someone will get breast cancer. And people with no risk factors nevertheless get breast cancer. But knowing what puts you at risk can put you in a better position for early detection. Knowing that a grandfather, for example, had breast cancer is significant for a man because the incidence is so rare. If a sister or mother has had breast cancer, the chances increase 30%. And if a man has breast cancer, the potential to pass that risk on to a daughter is 40% to 80%. He also has an increased risk of getting prostate cancer.
Treatment for breast cancer in a man is the same as it would be for a woman: removing the breast tissue with a mastectomy or a lumpectomy to get rid of the lump. This might be combined with radiation, chemotherapy or hormone therapies. While specific treatments for men have not been fully developed, the FDA has published guidance for developing drugs better targeted to men’s breast cancer.
This October, while we honor those women who have fought breast cancer, remember that breast cancer doesn’t discriminate. Be sure to ask your healthcare provider about any unusual lumps or tenderness at your next check up.