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Male Breast Cancer: Recognizing the Uncommon, But Real Threat

Breast cancer is one of the most commonly reported cancer in India and a leading cause of mortality in women. But how often do we hear about male breast cancer? A large chunk of the population still brushes off the possibility of breast cancer in men because it is regarded as a woman’s illness.

Recently, a man in the UK opened up about a rare breast cancer he endured and the challenges he faced. It highlights the importance of conversations and awareness around breast cancer in men. While it is true that breast cancer primarily affects women due to the presence of more breast tissue and higher estrogen levels, the incidence of male breast cancer in India accounts for approximately 0.5-1% of all breast cancer cases. Regrettably, this seemingly small percentage doesn’t exempt men from the potential risks and challenges of this condition.

In this article, we aim to delve deeper into the realm of male breast cancer, dispelling misconceptions and raising awareness about the risks faced by men. By understanding the unique challenges and symptoms associated with this condition, we can empower individuals to seek early detection, prompt medical intervention, and support networks necessary to combat this condition.

Continue reading this article to learn more about male breast cancer.

What is male breast cancer?  

Male breast cancer refers to the condition where cancerous tumour forms in the breasts of boys or men. Cancerous or malignant tumours divide uncontrollably to form large lumps, which can later break away and spread to other body parts like the lungs, liver and brain. If left untreated, breast cancer, like other cancers, can spread to other body parts or can cause more damage. 

Male breasts consist of nipples, areola, fatty connective tissue, ducts and lobules. Ducts connect the lobules to the nipular region. Male breast cancer can start in both ducts and nipples.

What is the difference between male and female breast cancer? 

The primary difference between male and female breast cancer is in the incidence rate, where the former faces less risk due to the structural difference.
At first glance, it’s easy to assume that the breasts of both boys and girls are virtually identical, showcasing similar components such as nipples, areola, lobules, ducts, and connective tissue. Male breasts even possess the potential to lactate. However, the fascinating journey of puberty acts as a differentiator between male and female breasts.

During the transformative stage of puberty, the hormone estrogen (female hormone) prompts the development of breasts in both females and males. In males, the presence of testosterone, the quintessential male hormone, restricts the growth of the breast’s glandular (lobules and ducts) and non-glandular tissue (fibrous and fatty tissue) beyond a certain threshold. 

Conversely, females experience a surge in estrogen levels after menarche (their first period), leading to the proliferation of both glandular and non-glandular breast tissue, resulting in larger breasts in women. The lobules within the female breasts generate milk, which is subsequently transported to the nipples through ducts.

The difference in breast composition partly explains the lower incidence of breast cancer in men. 

Women, possessing more tissues within their breasts, including additional lobules and ducts, are more susceptible to developing cancerous tumours in these areas. 
Interestingly, men can also experience cancerous growths in their ducts and lobules, though they are often categorized differently than traditional breast cancer, such as sarcomas or lymphomas of the breast.

Another difference is that women are more exposed to high levels of estrogen when compared to men, making them more vulnerable to ER-positive breast cancer. 

The signs and symptoms of breast cancer remain identical in both women and men, disregarding gender differences.

What are the signs and symptoms of male breast cancer?

The most commonly reported cancer in men is a type of adenocarcinoma. Men also face ductal carcinoma, lobular carcinoma, inflammatory breast cancer, and Paget’s disease of the nipple. Other than that, they can also suffer from benign tumours like papillomas and fibroadenomas. Benign tumours need not be life-threatening, and often, medical experts rule out the treatment process if it doesn’t affect overall human health. 

Depending on the condition or location of the tumour, men can feel large lumps in their breast region, like women. A UK-based male nurse conversed with the media about how he felt a polo mint-sized lump in his breast while drying himself with a towel. He underwent an imaging test and a biopsy, where the latter revealed that he had stage II breast cancer. 

Like in the case of women, men also should not ignore lumps and bumps under the skin. It is important to note that not all lumps and bumps are cancer. It can also be a benign tumour, cyst or calcium deposit. 

Other signs and symptoms of male breast cancer are as follows; 

  • Unusual change in size or shape of the breast
  • Nipples turning inward
  • Nipple discharge 
  • Change in appearance of the breast skin or areola region 
  • Unusual pain in the breast region

How is male breast cancer diagnosed?

Male breast cancer can be diagnosed through mammography, an X-ray imaging method that helps in checking the presence of tumours and other breast health issues. Other imaging tests like MRI and ultrasound or sonomammography also help. 

A biopsy helps in determining whether the tumour is benign or malignant. A biopsy is a process where a sample of the tumour is taken and tested under laboratory conditions.

How is male breast cancer treated?

Surgery is the most effective method of treatment when it comes to the treatment of breast cancer in both women and men. While it may alter physical appearance, surgical removal of the breasts does not pose significant health risks. The choice of surgery depends on the extent of the cancer’s growth: a lumpectomy removes abnormal tissue, while a mastectomy involves complete breast removal. Surgery is highly successful in curing breast cancer when the tumour is small and localized.

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are other crucial treatment options. Chemotherapy involves the administration of powerful drugs to destroy tumours, while radiation therapy uses radiation to target and kill cancer cells. In cases where the tumour has spread to the lymph nodes, chemotherapy is essential to kill the cancerous cells in the body (called adjuvant therapy). 

Additional treatment options include targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and hormone therapy. Targeted therapy focuses on specific genetic markers or proteins in cancer cells to inhibit their growth. Immunotherapy harnesses the body’s immune system to recognize and eliminate cancer cells. Hormone therapy disrupts hormone receptors that fuel certain types of breast cancer.

With this range of treatment choices, personalized and comprehensive care is available to empower individuals in their battle against breast cancer.

What are the male breast cancer risk factors?

A study published in the American Cancer Society revealed that 80% of all reported male breast cancers are ER positive. Men who experience elevated levels of estrogen find themselves at an increased risk of developing breast cancer. This hormonal imbalance can occur due to various factors, including genetic conditions such as Klinefelter’s syndrome, obesity, and even liver cirrhosis. Additionally, certain ailments like orchitis, characterized by inflamed testicles, further heighten the risk of breast cancer in men.

Another crucial consideration lies in genetic predispositions. Men who possess the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations, which have long been associated with breast cancer in women, find themselves at a heightened risk. Furthermore, those with a family history of breast cancer must pay special attention to their health, considering the potential inheritance of these genetic markers. In such cases, undergoing regular screening and testing for cancer becomes paramount to early detection and timely intervention.

This eye-opening revelation challenges the notion that breast cancer is exclusively a women’s health issue. By recognizing the multifaceted factors that contribute to male breast cancer, we empower individuals with the knowledge they need to protect their well-being.

In conclusion,

Another male patient who suffered from breast cancer opened up about his experiences getting treatment for the disease. After his diagnosis, medical experts stepped in with an unconventional approach: tamoxifen, a drug primarily used in the treatment of female breast cancer. The scarcity of data on male breast cancer necessitates such adaptive measures to provide much-needed relief and hope. Apart from the low incidence rate, the stigma around male breast cancer led to the lack of data. A study published in PubMed Central stated that there is also a significant stigma around male breast cancer because it is often dubbed as a woman’s illness. Men who suffer from the condition often find it difficult to open up about the condition.

Since 1975, the number of male breast cancer cases has increased by 42% globally.  

The reluctance of men to openly discuss their journey with breast cancer is understandable. Yet, it is precisely in moments like these that an outpouring of compassion, empathy, and understanding becomes paramount. Breaking down the barriers requires a collective effort between medical experts and caregivers—a concerted push for a safe space where patients can be open and vulnerable about their experiences.

Found in the lump in your breasts? Looking for mammography? 

CancerMitr provides various testing and screening packages for early detection. Check out our website for more details. 

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