Whenever you hear about breast cancer, the average person immediately associates it with women. The simple reason is that women have the nicely squeezable organ that makes milk for babies. The natural milk factory was eulogised by a certain Owerri, Imo State musician known simply as Ogu, who sang that males never outgrow their attachment to breasts, which they consider a very important part of the female anatomy – from babyhood to adulthood and ultimately in marriage.
But people who think that breast cancer is a medical condition that affects women only should after reading this have a rethink. Men also may suffer from breast cancer, but the occurrence is not common. No matter what, it does happen, because all babies (boys and girls) are born with breast tissue that contains milk ducts. Though it develops differently over time, both men and women can get breast cancer. Women have a much higher risk. Less than one per cent of all breast cancer cases are in men.
Several years ago, in 2005, while on the hunt for a health story on cancer in children, this writer visited the Oncology Unit of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Idi Araba, Lagos, to speak with Dr. Remi Ajekigbe, who later became a professor, and on that visit met a man in his late sixties, who came that day for radiotherapy for breast cancer, prior to commencing chemotherapy. Like an average reader of this piece, the question, do men have breast cancer rolled off this writer’s tongue? Despite the rarity of breast cancer in men, every man needs to learn how to spot the early signs. When cancer is diagnosed early, the condition becomes easier to treat successfully.
Spot the symptoms
You might notice a lump or thick area in your breast tissue. You may also spot something different about your nipple, like redness, scales, or discharge.
What causes breast cancer in men?
No one knows exactly what causes male breast cancer. Studies suggest changes in your genes or hormone levels can play a role.
As a man gets older, the chances of getting male breast cancer go up. The average age of men when they get a diagnosis is 72.
If you’re a heavy drinker, it puts you at higher risk for male breast cancer. Alcohol can damage the liver, which could put your hormone levels out of balance. For instance, the estrogen levels may rise, which could raise the chances of the person getting breast cancer.
Medical issues that raise risk level
If a man had once been treated with radiation for another type of cancer, he has a greater chance of getting male breast cancer. Your odds also go up if the man took estrogen for prostate cancer or had testicular issues like an undescended testicle, surgery to remove a testicle, or you’ve had mumps as an adult.
The role of genes
A man is at an increased risk if a blood relative, whether a man or woman – has had breast cancer. That’s also true if the man inherited a gene change (called a mutation) like BRCA1 and BRCA2. Klinefelter Syndrome, in which boys are born with an XXY chromosome instead of XY, raises the odds of getting male breast cancer 20 to 60 times.
Most cases of male breast cancer is ductal carcinoma, or cancer that starts in the milk ducts. Lobular carcinoma, that is, cancer of the glands that make milk, is even rarer. This is because men have so few of those glands in their breast tissue. Other rare types are Paget’s disease of the nipple and inflammatory breast cancer, which makes the breast feel swollen and warm.
Depending on your symptoms, your doctor makes a diagnosis based on a combination of tests and procedures. During a breast exam, the doctor looks for visual changes and uses the fingers to feel for lumps. You may have an imaging test, like a mammogram or ultrasound, for an inside look. You may get a biopsy. In this procedure, the doctor uses a needle to remove tissue to check for cancer cells.
Your doctor can check the stage of your cancer with bone, CT, or PET (positron emission tomography) scans. Breast cancer stages range from 0 to IV. Stage 0 means that the cancer hasn’t left the milk ducts. Stage IV means that it has spread to other parts of your body. This is also called metastatic cancer. Once you know your stage, your doctor can narrow down your treatment options.
Surgery is the most common treatment for male breast cancer. It usually involves a mastectomy, which removes your breast tissue, nipple and areola, and any surrounding lymph nodes where the cancer may have spread. Radiation therapy, hormone therapy, or chemotherapy may also be used to slow growth and kill cancer cells.
You’ll have follow-up visits after surgery to make sure everything’s healing well. You’ll also get exams and tests every three to six months to see if the cancer has come back. If you stay cancer-free for five years or more, you may move to a yearly visit. You’ll also have an annual mammogram if you still have breast tissue in one breast.
Pay attention to breast changes
A lot of men aren’t aware that breast cancer can be a problem for them. As a result, men are less likely to speak up about breast changes and often get diagnosed at a more advanced stage of breast cancer than women. Always see your doctor if you notice anything unusual in the area of your breast.
If you are a male with breast cancer, you should consider talking to a genetics counselor to see if genetic testing is right for you. A simple blood test can determine if you have certain genes that could make it more likely for you to get certain other cancers as well.