Male breast cancer

Originally Published: March 23, 1995 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: July 20, 2012
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(1)

Dear Alice,

Are there any differences in breast cancer between men and women?

—Gender sensitive

(2)

Dear Alice,

I feel that I might have male breast cancer. But I don't know how this is possible. I am young, younger than 18. And I would like to know how male breast cancer is contracted. Plus if I do, I'm afraid of telling my parents. What should I do?

Dear Gender sensitive and Reader,

Right off the bat, many of you may read this question and be perplexed with the idea of male breasts. But the truth is that all men have breasts! There is breast tissue behind the nipples of a male's chest. Breast cancer occurs quite infrequently in men, accounting for only 1 percent of all male cancers, and less than 1 percent of all breast cancer cases. In 2012, it is estimated that approximately 2,190 new cases of male breast cancer will be diagnosed in the United States. Male breast cancer is extremely rare for boys under 18. The average age of a male breast cancer patient is nearly 65 years old.

Male breast cancer usually presents in the form of a small lump, similar to female breast cancer cases, and the microscopic structure of the tissue in male breast cancer is identical to female breast cancer. Treatment is also identical for both genders. The main difference between male and female breast cancer is in prevalence — breast cancer is about 100 times less common among men than among women.The prognosis (outlook) for men with breast cancer was once thought to be worse than that for women, but recent studies have found this to be false. In fact, men and women with the same stage of breast cancer have a fairly similar outlook for survival.

For the young reader — do not fret. When boys go through puberty, their breasts often grow, becoming swollen and tender. This is totally normal, and gradually goes away. Abnormal causes of enlarged breasts in men (a.k.a. gynecomastia) can include a hormonal imbalance, certain diseases or tumors, and estrogen therapy. What makes you think that you might have male breast cancer? Have your breasts grown? Have you discovered a lump or bump in one or both breasts? Are you having bleeding from the nipple? Lumps or bumps in the breast or bleeding from the breast are more concerning.

While no one knows why some boys or men get breast cancer and some don't, here are some factors that may increase a person's risk:

  • Aging
  • A family history of breast cancer
  • Inheritance of certain genetic mutations
  • Use of certain hormones (in particular, those that contain estrogen)
  • Klinefelter's syndrome (a condition in which a boy is born with an extra X chromosome)
  • Exposure to radiation
  • Heavy alcohol use, which can contribute to liver disease (another risk factor)
  • History of testicle injury or infection, or undescended testicles
  • Obesity

If you are still concerned, it is important that you tell a parent or someone you feel close to (e.g., another family member, a friend's parent, or a school nurse). S/he may be able to provide support and take you to a health care provider, perhaps someone you've been seeing for a long while, and/or someone you like and can trust.

You mention that you're afraid of talking with your parents about this. Remember, they likely care a lot about you and would want you to have peace of mind. Even though this is hard, it's important to do, and can be a way to create closeness. Perhaps you can say something such as: "Mom or Dad — Can I talk with (your health care provider's name) about... I know it may sound weird... breast cancer in men? I know men can get it, and I want to make sure that I don't have it... because I'm a little worried that I do." If not your parents, perhaps another trusted family member can help you make an appointment, and maybe even go with you. When you have a major concern such as this one, it's really important to get it checked so that you can either take action or allow yourself to let go of your worry.

For more information, you can check out the American Cancer Society’s page on Breast Cancer in Men.  

Alice