By Rod Ritchie
Although men have breast tissue, not many people understand that they can get breast cancer too. Any man diagnosed with this disease will tell you the blank looks they get trying to explain a diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. So, what are the myths and facts about male breast cancer? Let’s take a look at some of the most common ones I have encountered throughout my experience with male breast cancer.
Myth 1: Breast cancer affects only women. Fact: Breast cancer occurs mainly in women, but men can get it, too — this disease is genderless. The American Cancer Society estimates in the US in 2020 about 2,620 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed and approximately 520 men will die from breast cancer. (1)
Myth 2: Affected men must have a genetic predisposition to get breast cancer. Fact: No, this is only true in around 6% of BRCA2 cases. (2) In these cases, as with women, BRCA1 and BRCA2, and mutations in CHEK2, PTEN, and PALB2 genes might be responsible for some breast cancers in men. Although certain risk factors may increase a man’s chances of developing breast cancer, in many cases the cause of most male breast cancers is unknown. (3) If there is a strong family history of breast cancer (in men or women), ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer, and/or prostate cancer genetic testing might be recommended to determine risk. (4)
Myth 3: Male and female breast cancers are the same. Fact: False. Men carry a higher mortality than women do, primarily because awareness among men is less and they are less likely to assume a lump is breast cancer, which may cause a delay in diagnosis and treatment. (5)
Myth 4: Because the disease is so rare, a man with breast cancer has no risk of developing breast cancer again. Fact: False. Men with a history of breast cancer may be at risk to develop breast cancer again and need continued monitoring with a physical exam in order to manage their breast cancer. (6)
Myth 5: Treatment is the same for male breast cancer and has been well studied. Fact: Several approaches to blocking the effects of estrogen or lowering estrogen levels are used to treat breast cancer in women. Although many of these may work in men as well, they often haven’t been studied well, if at all. To date, tamoxifen is the best-studied hormone drug for breast cancer in men and is most often used first. (7)
Myth 6: First-degree male relatives of men diagnosed with breast cancer don’t need to be aware of their risks. Fact: False. Since DNA is inherited, both male and female family members must be made aware of their risks as having one of these inherited gene changes might affect their chances of getting breast and other certain cancers. (8)
Myth 7: An annual public screening program for all men would be a good idea. Fact: False. Because the disease is rare in men, there is unlikely to be any benefit in screening men for breast cancer with mammograms or other tests. Men who are at an increased risk for breast cancer should discuss genetic counseling and testing and other ways to reduce their risk with their doctor. (9)
Myth 8: Male breast cancer has no symptoms. False. Possible symptoms of male breast cancer may include: (10)
A lump or swelling, which is often (but not always) painless
Skin dimpling or puckering
Nipple retraction (turning inward)
Redness or scaling of the nipple or breast skin
Discharge from the nipple
Myth 9: There is no difference in male breast cancer outcomes between ethnic groups. Fact: False. As with Black women, Black men have lower survival rates. (12)
Myth 10: Breast cancer survival rates for men and women are the same. Fact: False. In recent years, male breast cancer patients have had worse survival outcomes compared with those of female patients. (12)
Patient advocacy for male breast cancer
Men living with this disease are coming out and rejecting the shame and embarrassment of being diagnosed with a so-called women’s disease. Many of us are active patient advocates for our brothers and sisters with breast cancer. In the United States, alone, around 2,620 men are diagnosed annually, and over 500 will die from breast cancer. (1)
Help us spread the word: breast cancer is a genderless disease!
American Cancer Society. Key Statistics for Breast Cancer in Men. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer-in-men/about/key-statistics.html. Accessed on September 16 2020.
American Cancer Society. Risk Factors for Breast Cancer in Men. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer-in-men/causes-risks-prevention/risk-factors.html. Accessed on September 16, 2020.
BreastCancer.org. The Risk Factors for Male Breast Cancer. Available at: https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/types/male_bc/risk. Accessed on September 16, 2020.
American Cancer Society. Can Breast Cancer in Men Be Found Early? Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer-in-men/detection-diagnosis-staging/detection.html. Accessed on September 16, 2020.
National Breast Cancer Foundation Inc. Male Breast Cancer. Available at: https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/male-breast-cancer. Accessed on September 16, 2020.
Cancer.net. Breast Cancer in Men: Follow-up Care and Monitoring. Available at: https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/breast-cancer-men/follow-care-and-monitoring. Accessed on September 16, 2020.
Ref Cancer.org. Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer in Men. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer-in-men/treating/hormone-therapy.html. Accessed on September 16, 2020.
Breastcancer.org. The Risk Factors for Male Breast Cancer. Available at: https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/types/male_bc/risk. Accessed on September 16, 2020.
American Cancer Society. Genetic Counseling and Testing for Breast Cancer Risk. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/risk-and-prevention/genetic-testing.html. Accessed on September 16, 2020.
American Cancer Society. Breast Cancer Signs and Symptoms. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/about/breast-cancer-signs-and-symptoms.html. Accessed on September 16, 2020.
Cancer.net. Breast Cancer in Men: Statistics. Available at: https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/breast-cancer-men/statistics. Accessed on September 16, 2020.
National Cancer Institute. After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis, Men May Be More Likely to Die than Women. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/news-events/cancer-currents-blog/2019/male-breast-cancer-higher-mortality. Accessed on September 16, 2020.
Rod Ritchie is a Sydney-born writer, internet publisher, and breast cancer patient activist, living with breast and prostate cancers. Currently, he’s NED for both. He’s President, Board of Directors, Male Breast Cancer Global Alliance, has a website at MaleBC.org and you can follow him on Twitter @malefitness.
His articles for Health Union can be found here.
SurvivingBreastCancer.org Resources & Support: