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Think Men Can’t Get Breast Cancer? Think Again

Men are often surprised to learn that they, too, can get breast cancer. To be sure, it’s not common, with the average man having a 1 in 1,000 lifetime risk of breast cancer.

The disease should not be taken lightly. In fact, breast cancer tends to present more advanced in men by the time it’s diagnosed. That’s because they often ignore signs of the disease in its earlier stages.

Are You at Risk?

Males and females both start with a small amount of breast tissue when they are children. After puberty hits, breast tissue in women starts expanding as their ovaries begin producing female hormones. Men also have some female hormones, but usually not enough to boost further growth of breast tissue. Still, that residual breast tissue is vulnerable to cancer.

As with women, some men are at higher risk for the disease. Risk factors include:

Genetics: Men, for example, can also carry a genetic mutation in the BRCA2 gene that increases the risk for breast cancer.  Men with a BRCA gene mutation have an 8 percent higher risk by the age of 80.

Aging: Most breast cancers occur after age 50.

Family history: Your risk is higher if a close family member has breast cancer. The risk may be even greater if several family members have been affected.

Radiation therapy: This is related to treatments in the chest area, which are less frequently used now.

Hormone therapy treatment: Treatments that contain estrogen and/or progesterone (hormones that play a key role in female sexual and reproductive development).

Liver disease: A possible side effect of cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver is an increase in estrogen levels in men.

Obesity: Older men who are overweight are at greater risk.

How To Examine Yourself

Routine mammograms aren’t recommended for men, since the incidence of male breast cancer is so small. That makes it even more important for men to learn how to examine their own breasts for signs of cancer. Fortunately, cancerous lumps are often easier to detect in men, since they don’t have as much breast tissue as women.

There are no specific guidelines on when to start, though male breast cancer tends to happen after the age of 50. And if you are at higher risk for male breast cancer, you should perform a monthly self-exam.

Watch for any abnormalities in either of your breasts. These include a firm lump in the breast or armpit, nipple pain, an inverted nipple, fluid discharge from your nipple, sores or rashes around the areola, changes in your breast skin and changes in the size or shape of your breast.

For a self-exam, follow these steps:

  • Stand in front of a mirror with your arms on your hips to tighten your chest muscles and inspect yourself. Look for any changes such as a lump, misshapen breast or nipple abnormality.
  • Raise your arms above your head and continue to examine your breast and armpit areas.
  • Using mild pressure, move your fingertips around the breast in a circular motion starting with the nipple and extending outward. In addition, feel for enlarged lymph nodes in the armpit.
  • Extend your exam up to the collarbone and down to the lowest rib. Complete on both breasts.

Treating Male Breast Cancer

Treatment for male breast cancer is the same as in women. This could include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormonal therapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.

It is also likely that your doctors will recommend genetic testing and counseling. This could help refine your treatment. And it could provide valuable health information to your close relatives, who may be at greater risk.

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