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4 Things to Know About Breast Cancer in Men

When you think of a breast cancer survivor, you probably don’t think of your husband, your dad or your brother. That’s because only 0.5 to 1 percent of breast cancer cases each year are in men. But for those men, it’s a very real diagnosis.

“It’s not something many men think about, but it can happen,” says Daniel S. Oh, MD, PhD, a radiation oncologist with UNC REX Cancer Care.

Although many symptoms and treatment options look similar between men and women, there are some differences. Here are four things about breast cancer every man should know:

  1. Get the lump checked.

The most common symptom of breast cancer for both men and women is a new lump or mass on the breast. Because men typically have less breast tissue, Dr. Oh says it’s possible for men to recognize new lumps sooner than women typically would.

That said, men are less likely to go to the doctor to get checked once they find a lump. That means the cancer is more likely to spread and become more advanced before it’s diagnosed.

“Anytime a man finds a lump on his breast, he should seek medical attention.”

“Anytime a man finds a lump on his breast, he should seek medical attention,” Dr. Oh says. “It can be anxiety-provoking, but if it’s caught early, there is usually a good prognosis.”

Besides a lump, other symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • Swelling of the breast
  • Skin dimpling
  • Breast or nipple pain
  • Nipple retraction
  • Nipple discharge
  1. Men are more likely to get a mastectomy than women.

When it comes to treatment, many women struggle to decide whether to have a mastectomy. But Dr. Oh says men are more likely to opt for the procedure. “Because men have smaller breasts, men are more likely to get a mastectomy because there’s not much breast to preserve,” he says.

Treatment options for men are approached the same as for women. Male patients may receive radiation, chemotherapy or hormonal therapies, which reduce the estrogen that can cause breast cancer spread. 

  1. Men have unique risk factors.

Hormonal imbalances can cause men to be more at risk for breast cancer. For example, if a man’s testicles are injured, they may not properly produce testosterone, which in turn, could create higher estrogen levels in his body. Undescended testicles carry the same risk. Higher estrogen levels raise a man’s risk of breast cancer.

Klinefelter syndrome can also increase a man’s risk. Men are born with one X and one Y chromosome. Women are born with two X chromosomes. With Klinefelter syndrome, a man is born with at least one extra X chromosome.

Klinefelter syndrome can also increase a man’s risk. Men are born with one X and one Y chromosome. Women are born with two X chromosomes. With Klinefelter syndrome, a man is born with at least one extra X chromosome. As a result, men with Klinefelter syndrome often have smaller testicles, lower levels of male hormones and higher estrogen levels.

Because breast cancer in men is rare, there has been no evidence to suggest that the same screening guidelines for women are beneficial for men with a heightened risk, Dr. Oh says.

  1. There’s often a stigma associated with male breast cancer.

For many men, a breast cancer diagnosis is often followed by the shock of having a disease that predominantly targets women. But there’s nothing to be ashamed of, Dr. Oh says. Breast cancer is a complex condition, and there are many support resources available.

UNC Cancer Care and UNC REX Cancer Care offer support services for patients, families and caregivers through treatment, recovery and survivorship. Services include education, counseling, mental health services, exercise, nutritional support and more.

“Having breast cancer doesn’t make you less than a man,” Dr. Oh says.

Talk with your doctor about what resources are available to you.

UNC Health Care offers mammography screenings and comprehensive breast services at several locations across the Triangle. Learn more about our programs in Wake County and Chapel Hill.

Daniel Oh, MD, PhD, is a radiation oncologist with UNC REX Cancer Care and an assistant professor with the UNC School of Medicine.