Male Breast Cancer Catches Many Unaware

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It happens to one in every 1,000 men.

Those aren’t high odds, but the diagnosis can still be devastating. One of every 1,000 men will develop breast cancer in his lifetime, and the chances of making a full recovery rest in large part in how quickly the cancer is discovered and how soon appropriate treatment is begun.

Male or female, everyone begins his or her life with a small amount of breast tissue, consisting of milk-producing glands, ducts that carry milk to the nipples, and fat. But during puberty, women develop additional breast tissue, while men do not. Still, that breast tissue is present for life.

Not surprisingly, most men don’t dwell on the thought that they could develop breast cancer. But it can happen. And experts say that because men don’t anticipate getting breast cancer, they may be less aware of the signs and symptoms that women are educated to be familiar with all their lives.

Just recently, a local man was referred to us for mammogram screening by his physician. As many of you know, the Northwest Georgia Health Partnership provides free or reduced cost mammography for women in our service area through the Susan G. Komen program. But what is less well known is that we also provide those services for men who suspect they may have breast cancer or who are referred to us for breast cancer screening by their physicians.

Each year, we see a fair number of women taking advantage of free mammography. After all, with a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer over their lifetimes, women’s odds for developing the disease are pretty high.

But because men don’t anticipate getting the disease, they often ignore the early symptoms of breast cancer and/or delay visiting a physician until the cancer has gone from an early stage, stage one or two, to a more advanced stage, stage three or four.

Women are told to be aware of any changes to their breasts, and men can benefit from this advice as well. There are many similarities in terms of early symptoms with both women and men. As with women, signs and symptoms of male breast cancer can include:

  • A painless lump or thickening in your breast tissue
  • Changes to the skin covering your breast, such as dimpling, puckering, redness or scaling
  • Changes to your nipple, such as redness or scaling, or a nipple that begins to turn inward
  • Discharge from your nipple

We don’t know why some men develop breast cancer. As with women, the risk increases with age. It’s thought that some men inherit abnormal genes from their parents that increase the risk of breast cancer, especially a gene called BRCA2, which increases the risk of developing both breast and prostate cancers. These abnormal, or mutated, genes are not as effective at protecting women and men from developing cancer.

A recent study on male breast cancer patients lead by Dr. Fatima Cardoso and others is showing that about 92 percent of men had estrogen receptor positive cancer (ER+). In contrast, about 70 percent of women breast cancer patients are ER+.

The study is also showing that 56 percent of male breast cancers are diagnosed when the tumors are very small, yet only 4 percent of patients had breast-conserving surgery.
And because male breast cancer is rare, it’s often considered a “woman’s disease,” and men often delay seeing a physician, resulting in a later stage of diagnosis. So while there’s been improvement in overall survival for male breast cancer patients over time, the prognosis for men with the disease hasn’t improved as much as it has for women.

That provides an opportunity for all men to become more aware that they can develop breast cancer over their lifetimes, and that if they do, they need to be proactive about the disease and report any signs of unusual lumps or inflammation to their physicians.
To that end, it’s helpful to be aware of any of the risk factors for males who develop breast cancer. These include:

  • Aging
  • Exposure to estrogen (including hormone therapy taken after prostate surgery
  • Family history
  • Klinefelter’s syndrome
  • Liver disease
  • Obesity
  • Radiation exposure
  • Testicle disease or surgery

Diagnosing male breast cancer can be done through several methods: clinical breast exam; imaging tests; and biopsy.

 

The good news is that male breast cancer that’s caught at an early stage is very curable. By being aware that the risk is out there, and by seeking appropriate medical attention early on, we should be able to provide male patients with the best treatment that’s truly tailored to their bodies and their cancer.

 

If you have questions about our free and reduced price mammogram services, please contact us at 706-272-6664. We’re always here to help.

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