Breast cancer in men: what you need to know
A month ago
While it does predominantly affect women, cells in any part of the body can become cancerous, and around 350 men are diagnosed breast cancer every year in the UK. That accounts for approximately 1% of all UK breast cancer cases.
Types of breast cancer in men
Much like women, there are different types of breast cancer that men can get. It usually starts in the ducts or glands, which men also have, although they are not usually functional. Some cancers also start in the breast tissue itself and are referred to as sarcomas or lymphomas, but they are not usually categorised as breast cancer.
The most common type of breast cancer in either men or women is called ‘invasive ductal carcinoma - no special type’. It means that the cancer cells have grown through the lining of the ducts into the surrounding breast tissue. However, like most breast cancers, it has no special features and accounts for around 70% of invasive breast cancers. Special type means that when the doctor looks at the cancer cells under a microscope the cells have particular features.
Some men develop rarer types of breast cancer, such as inflammatory breast cancer. Meanwhile, much more rare conditions related to breast cancer are ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), invasive lobular cancer and Paget's disease of the breast.
Spotting the signs and symptoms
As with all things, early diagnosis of male breast cancer can have a significant bearing on the prognosis, but as many men don’t even think breast cancer is something that applies to them, they don’t always notice signs and symptoms.
The NHS advises that the symptoms of breast cancer in men that you should look out for are:
- A lump in the breast – this is usually hard, painless and does not move around within the breast
- The nipple turning inwards
- Fluid oozing from the nipple (discharge), which may be streaked with blood
- A sore or rash around the nipple that does not go away
- The nipple or surrounding skin becoming hard, red or swollen
- Small bumps in the armpit (swollen glands)
More often than not, a lump is something minor like enlarged male breast tissue, a cyst or a fatty lump and while you should always get it checked to be in the safe side, the odds are it will be benign. The important thing is to know what you’re looking for. So, regarding a lump itself, there are also some key things to look out for. For example, the NHS cites that a lump is more likely to be cancerous if any of the following apply:
- The lump is only in one breast
- It’s growing under or around the nipple
- They are painless (but in rare cases they can hurt)
- They feel hard or rubbery
- They do not move around within the breast
- They feel bumpy rather than smooth
- They get bigger over time
Who is at risk of getting male breast cancer?
Anyone with breast tissue can get breast cancer at any time. So that essentially means that any of us can get it. However, there are things that can place some men in a higher risk category than others. For example, it is more common as men get older, with most being diagnosed between the ages of 60 and 70.
It is also more common in men with higher than average oestrogen levels. This can be caused by being overweight, chronic liver conditions (such as cirrhosis) and certain genetic conditions. Anyone with Klinefelter's syndrome (a very rare genetic condition) may be more susceptible to male breast cancer.
Those with a family history of breast cancer in female as well as male relatives (especially if the women were under the age of 40 at the point of diagnosis), could have inherited the same genetic fault that makes them more likely to develop breast cancer. If this is something you are concerned about, you can speak to your doctor about genetic testing to find out if you are a carrier of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.
That said, it’s important to highlight that the risks are still low. In context, a male child of a man with breast cancer who inherits the defective BRCA2 gene has only approximately 6% chance of eventually developing breast cancer and just over 1% with BRCA1. Meanwhile, a female child of a man with breast cancer who inherits the defective gene has a risk between 40% and 80% of eventually developing breast cancer. The gene can however make male carriers more susceptible to early prostate cancer.
The other thing that can increase your risk of breast cancer is if you have been exposed to radiation in the chest area for any reason.
Treatments for breast cancer in men
If the cancer has not spread, cancer treatment can often be completely curative. It will usually involve surgery to remove the lump, possibly followed by radiotherapy or chemotherapy. However, if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, it may be that treatment is used more to slow down the spread of the cancer.
Typically, surgical treatment for male breast cancer will involve a mastectomy. This will remove all the breast tissue from the affected breast, including the nipple and possibly the glands in your armpit as well as some of the muscle under your breast.
This is an operation that’s done under anaesthetic and will usually require up to around two days in hospital. Most surgeries take around six weeks to recover from in terms of letting the scar heal and feeling more like yourself. However, it can take several months to fully recover and feel easy moving around.
After the surgery you will have a scar across the breast, which will flatten over time, and possibly a dimple where the breast tissue was removed. If you want to, you can speak to your doctor about possible follow up surgeries to improve the appearance and replace the nipple.
Often with breast cancer, follow up treatment is recommended in order to either help stop the cancer coming back after surgery or slow down the spread of the cancer and relieve symptoms if a cure is not possible.
This might be in the form of radiotherapy, hormone therapy or chemotherapy.
Radiotherapy: This usually involves several targeted treatments where beams of radiation are directed at the cancer site. Each treatment usually lasts 10 to 15 minutes, and typically involves a course of up to five sessions a week for up to six weeks.
Hormone therapy: Nearly all breast cancer in men is oestrogen receptor positive with treatment including hormonal therapy, just as it does for 70% of women. Hormone therapy involves taking medication to block the effects of oestrogen. The most commonly used drug is tamoxifen, taken as a tablet or liquid every day, usually for five years.
Chemotherapy: A powerful treatment used to kill cancer cells; chemotherapy may be used if hormone therapy is not suitable. It involves several sessions where medication is delivered intravenously over a number of hours. Typically, this would involve six sessions spread out over a number of weeks.
Side effects of cancer treatments
All cancer treatments have side effects, but everyone experiences them differently and to different degrees. While the side effects might not seem like the most important thing to deal with when faced with a cancer diagnosis, they can have a significant impact on your daily quality of life.
Some side effects can be addressed with further medication. For example, chemotherapy may cause nausea, and cancer patients are often given anti sickness medication to help counter it. Other side effects of chemotherapy can include tiredness, temporary hair loss (which can also lead to an irritated scalp – something our collection of scalp soothing products can help with), dry and itchy skin and brittle nails.
Hormone therapy is also known to cause nausea, possible weight gain, difficulty sleeping, low moods and hot flushes. It can also cause a loss of libido. All of these things can be extremely challenging, but small things can help to ease the strain. For example, carefully selected aromatherapy can help nurture your mood, while a cooling spray is a simple but effective soother for hot flushes.
Radiotherapy tends to principally affect the area being treated, possibly leading to temporary hair loss in that area as well as sore, red skin similar to sunburn. This will usually heal as soon as treatment stops, but it can make it more sensitive to sunburn moving forward and can cause a little skin discolouration. Our Defiant Beauty Itchy Skin Oil can be extremely soothing and help to aid skin’s recovery as well.
With surgery, the big thing many people want to address is the appearance of the scar. While there are surgical solutions that can be discussed for things like reconstruction or nipple replacement, helping the scar itself to heal is about nurturing the skin. Naturally, this takes time but natural products such as our Defiant Beauty Smooth Skin Balm can help to reduce scarring and rejuvenate the skin to aid the healing process.
We hope you have found the information helpful, but if there us anything we have not answered or you would like to find out more about suitable products for your skin during cancer treatment, please do not hesitate to get in touch.