Health & Fitness

Breast cancer in men: Early detection is key to best treatments and outcomes

Patty Tenofsky
Patty Tenofsky Courtesy

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October is a time to shine the spotlight on the importance of early detection of the disease. Most people are aware of breast cancer, but it’s important to have a plan to detect the disease in its early stages and encourage others to do the same.

I am often asked, “Can men get breast cancer?” The answer is yes, it can happen, but it is fairly rare. In the U.S., one man will get breast cancer for every 100 women who do. Nearly 2,000 men a year in the U.S. are diagnosed with breast cancer.

How does breast cancer occur in men?

Boys and girls are both born with a small amount of breast tissue. At puberty, a girl’s ovaries make female hormones which cause the breast ducts to grow and lobules to form at the end of ducts. Later, the lobules and ducts work together for breast feeding. Boys go through puberty and their testicles make hormones that restrict further growth of breast tissue, but men still have a small amount of non-functioning breast tissue. A man’s breast cells can undergo cancerous changes. Breast cancer in men is much less common than women, because their breast duct cells are less developed and because their breast cells are not constantly exposed to female hormones.

How is breast cancer identified in men?

Breast cancer in men is usually diagnosed by a physician’s exam or by a patient’s self-exam. The most common symptoms are a lump in the chest area, skin dimpling/puckering, or nipple changes. The mass is often irregular, firm or hard and fixed to the skin or muscle. The lump usually does not hurt. If breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body, then symptoms such as bone pain, malaise, weakness and weight loss may occur.

Men may not realize that they can develop breast cancer, and this can delay their diagnosis. Because men have less breast tissue than women, their cancer will be able to grow into the skin or chest muscles quicker than in women and this makes the surgery to remove the cancer more difficult. It is therefore much easier to treat male breast cancer surgically when it is caught early. The survival rates for breast cancer are the same for men and women and are based on how advanced the cancer is.

Conditions that increase the risk of breast cancer include:

▪ A strong family history of breast cancer (male or female relatives) or if there is a genetic mutation in the family (BRCA2 mutation).

▪ A genetic condition such as Klinefelter’s syndrome which increases estrogen levels which can increase the risk.

▪ Age. Breast cancer in men, just like in women, is more common as they get older.

▪ Chronic liver disorders, alcoholism and obesity, which increase the amount of estrogen.

▪ Being exposed to ionizing radiation to their chest as a teenager or young adult, their risk is increased.

What is the outcome for men with breast cancer?

It is very similar to the prognosis in women. The overall survival rate for each stage of breast cancer is similar in men and women.

The five-year survival rate for Stage 1 is 96 percent; Stage II is 84 percent; Stage III is 52 percent and Stage IV is 24 percent. Educating men about the possibility of breast cancer is important, so the cancer can be caught in the earliest stage.

Dr. Tenofsky is a breast care specialist at Via Christi Clinic in Wichita.

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