Men's Health Month: Breast Cancer

By Brian Hartz

Monday, June 24, 2019

Breast cancer is undoubtedly a scourge for women, but men can also develop the disease. About one out of every 1,000 men will get it, which pales in comparison to breast cancer rates for women.

But, whereas women are highly aware of their likelihood to develop breast cancer and are urged to get regular screenings, men — and even their doctors — can be largely unaware of the risk.

Schneider-in-suit.JPGSchneider

“Most men aren’t aware they can even get breast cancer, which is both fascinating and unfortunate,” Dr. Bryan Schneider, the Vera Bradley Investigator in Oncology and  professor of medicine and of medical and molecular genetics and at IU School of Medicine and a physician scientist at the IU Simon Cancer Center, says. “They don’t think about it and so, because of that, they just let it go until it’s at an advanced stage.”

Just like the female equivalent, male breast cancer presents as a lump or mass often found under the nipple, but it can also be initially detected in the armpit, Schneider says, which is why the condition can be ignored or even misdiagnosed.

“Breast cancer usually goes first to the set of lymph nodes in the armpit,” he explains. “A lot of guys think they just have a swollen gland. Or they assume it’s an abscess or cyst.”

Therein lies the conundrum of male breast cancer. Because men have much less breast tissue than women do, Schneider says, the condition is easier for doctors to detect and diagnose. But, he adds, “most men won’t seek attention until it’s grown for quite some time. And so, in doing that, the prognosis can be  a bit worse because they simply don’t point it out to a doctor.”

Translation: Do not ignore the red flags, however insignificant you might think they are. You could pay with your life.

“About 5 percent to 7 percent of men will present with the disease having already spread to another organ,” Schneider says. “Those guys can still get therapy and their life can be prolonged. For the rest where the disease is confined to the breast and lymph nodes, the goal of therapy is to improve curing the cancer altogether.”

Schneider says older men are more prone to developing male breast cancer, though the disease can appear in young men as well.

Age isn’t the only risk factor. Male breast cancer can also afflict men who have high levels of estrogen due to obesity, alcohol-induced liver disease or testicular abnormalities. Genetic mutations that are passed down from a man’s parents can play a role.

“If a man is seeing a lot of breast cancer in the family, he should talk to family members and ask his doctor whether it’s appropriate to have genetic testing,” Schneider says. “In addition to being important to that man, he may also go on to have daughters who then could have a genetic predisposition for breast cancer passed on to them where the risk is exceptional.”

Schneider encourages men to take charge of managing the non-genetic risk factors for male breast cancer, and to not shy away from reporting symptoms, no matter how minor they might appear.

“Obesity and alcohol intake are things that we, as guys, can control,” he says. “A lot of guys feel that, in some way, if you get breast cancer, it takes away masculinity and that is not the case at all. It’s important for men to become advocates for themselves.”

See other Men's Health Month stories