Regardless of your gender, every person is born with some breast tissue. While men develop less breast tissue than women, the fact men have any at all means they’re vulnerable to breast cancer.
While nearly one in eight women will face breast cancer over the course of their lives, a man’s risk of breast cancer is closer to one in 1,000. That may sound encouraging, but lowered risk has also meant lowered awareness of breast cancer for men, which can lead to a delayed diagnosis and a less favorable prognosis.
Male Breast Cancer
The causes of breast cancer in men are not well understood. Nearly all male breast cancer originates in a man’s undeveloped milk ducts (ductal carcinoma), but less commonly may originate in milk glands, or on a nipple. One thing we do understand is that that, as with most forms of cancer, understanding your genetic predisposition is a critical part of understanding your risk.
Those with a family history of breast cancer are at greater risk, but even without family history, breast cancer may form. For example, a mutation of the BRCA2 gene increases a man’s risk of developing both prostate cancer and breast cancer. If you suffer from breast cancer, genetic tests can performed to determine if you have a mutated BRCA2 gene, which may also help assess the risk to your family.
Signs and Symptoms
The symptoms of breast cancer in men are difficult to detect, because it usually presents as a painless lump or thickening of the breast tissue. According to the Mayo Clinic, in rare cases where the cancer affects the nipple, symptoms include scaling, redness, and discharge. Because most men do not routinely perform breast exams, and those exams are not a part of an annual physical for men, most men will discover their cancer on their own. This often occurs only after weeks or months of dismissing symptoms, giving the cancer time to develop, and resulting in the need for more intensive treatment.
Fortunately, there are a number of treatment options, and the prognosis for patients is usually good. With the aid of surgery or chemotherapy, nearly every recent male celebrity to suffer from breast cancer has survived, including talk show personality Montel Williams, Cleveland Browns’ fullback Ernie Green, and KISS drummer Peter Criss.
Performing a Monthly Exam
Like their female counterparts, men should perform a monthly examination of their breast tissue, especially if they have a family history or carry the mutated BRCA2 gene. Fortunately, performing a self-exam is very simple.
Begin by raising your left arm over your head, and place your hand on the back of your head. With your right hand, use three fingers in a group to check the texture of your breast tissue. Starting at the edges of your chest, firmly press down at your skin, and move your fingers in small circles. Be sure to check the nipple by squeezing gently to look for retraction or discharge. Repeat this process for your entire breast, and switch arms.
Remember to take your time. Early detection can make all the difference in the world for your prognosis and treatment options. And if you find a lump, don’t panic! About 80% of breast lumps aren’t cancerous, but all of them should be examined by a doctor.
Have you or an older loved one dealt with male breast cancer? How did you find it? We’d love to hear your story in the questions below.