Most men think of breast cancer as a women’s disease. But a malignant tumour can form in men’s breast tissue, too. And their chances of recovering are often reduced by a late diagnosis, experts say, because they don’t think it can happen to them and don’t have the benefit of breast cancer screening programmes.
When symptoms arise, men typically dismiss them. “Even if they do see a doctor, that doesn’t mean the disease will be detected right away,” says Rachel Wuerstlein, a senior physician in the Department of Gynaecology and Obstetrics at the University of Munich Medical Centre.
As with women, it’s not uncommon for a lump felt in a man’s breast to be deemed benign at first, she says. So a considerable amount of time can pass before a final diagnosis is made.
It’s not yet entirely clear what causes male breast cancer. “It could be the interplay of several factors,” says Gyorgy Irmey, a doctor at the Heidelberg-based Society for Biological Cancer Defence.
There is evidence that mutations in certain genes inherited from one’s parents could increase the risk. A high level of female hormones can also encourge breast cancer.
Like women, men can have early warning signs of breast cancer. It could be a lump or thickening in their breast tissue, or a nipple that begins to turn inward. Sometimes the nipple becomes inflamed and secretes a clear or bloody discharge.
“Symptoms like these should always be examined by a doctor,” says Jens-Uwe Blohmer, director of the Breast Centre and Department of Gynaecology at Berlin’s Charite university hospital.
For men with breast cancer, as for women, surgery is often necessary. “Besides the glandular tissue, the nipple and the tissue layer bordering the pectoral muscle are removed,” Blohmer says. If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, they are removed as well.
“Since breast cancer cells in men, too, rely on hormones to grow, the patient must undergo hormone therapy after surgery,” says Blohmer, adding that this therapy can be unpleasant. Possible side effects include depression, weight gain and impotence.
In addition to hormone therapy, male breast cancer patients may have radiation therapy or chemotherapy following surgery.
Treatment, in other words, is largely the same as that for women, which is a matter of some controversy.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that there are biological differences between tumors in men and those in women,” Wuerstlein says, arguing that the post-operative treatment of male breast cancer patients should therefore differ from that of women.
Since the risk factors for male breast cancer aren’t fully clear, it’s difficult to take preventative measures.
“Lifestyle is definitely thought to play a role, though,” Irmey says. Overweight men should slim down, “which has a beneficial effect on hormone levels,” he points out. Regular exercise, a balanced diet and stress relief can also reduce risk.