Male breast cancer is a relatively rare cancer, but it is one that doctors often diagnose in the later stages. Knowing how to recognize the symptoms can help a person get early treatment.

Male breast cancer accounts for fewer than 1% of all cancer diagnoses worldwide.

A male’s lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is about 1 in 833, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

The outlook for male breast cancer is excellent if diagnosis occurs in its early stages. However, early diagnosis is not always possible.

One factor in diagnosis delay is a lack of awareness. Although many females know how to look out for changes that could indicate breast cancer, there is less awareness among males, which means that they may be less likely to seek help in the early stages.

Breast cancer can also affect males differently, as they have less breast tissue than females. This can make it easier to detect small lumps, but it also means that the cancer has less room to grow within the breast. As a result, it may spread more quickly to nearby tissues.

For these and other reasons, around 40% of males with breast cancer receive a diagnosis in stage 3 or 4, when the condition has already spread to other parts of the body. As a result, overall survival rates are lower for males than they are for females.

Learn more about how to recognize male breast cancer and what to do if changes occur here.

Some possible symptoms of male breast cancer include:

  • a lump in one breast, which is usually painless
  • nipple retraction, ulceration, and discharge
  • skin puckering or dimpling on the breast
  • discoloration or scaling of the skin on the breast or nipple

If cancer spreads, additional symptoms may include:

  • swelling in the lymph nodes in or near the underarm area
  • breast pain
  • bone pain

When it comes to breast cancer, males have a lower overall survival rate than females.

According to the ACS, the chances of males surviving 5 years or more after diagnosis are, on average:

  • 97% when the cancer affects only the breast tissue at diagnosis
  • 83% when it affects nearby areas as well as the breast
  • 22% when it has spread to other parts of the body

For this reason, it is essential to seek help as soon as a person notices any changes in the breast. Early stage breast cancer responds well to treatment.

Diagnostic methods and treatment options have improved during the past few years, so the chances of living for at least 5 years after diagnosis are probably higher than the above figures for people currently receiving a diagnosis.

If a person notices changes in their breast, they should contact a doctor.

The doctor will ask about symptoms and the individual’s personal and family medical history, including any history of estrogen use or radiation therapy. They will also carry out a physical examination.

They may also suggest the following tests:

Sometimes, the doctor will recommend removing a lump and carrying out a biopsy at the same time. A surgeon may only remove a part of the area that appears to be affected and carry out a test. Alternatively, they may remove the whole area, including some of the normal breast tissue surrounding it.

If the test results show that cancer is present, several treatment options are available. The choice will depend on how big the tumor is and whether or not the cancer has spread to other areas.

Treatment will also depend on histological findings, such as whether or not the cancer is hormone-positive and if certain proteins are overexpressed.

A doctor will often take a person’s treatment preferences into consideration when creating their treatment plan.

Surgery

Some surgical options include:

  • Mastectomy: The surgeon removes the whole breast and some of the surrounding tissue.
  • Lumpectomy: The surgeon removes only part of the breast.
  • Lymphectomy: The surgeon removes the affected lymph nodes.

A doctor will advise on the best options to help a person make an informed and educated decision on how to proceed.

Radiation therapy

Some people may need radiation therapy after surgery to remove any remaining traces of cancer. Radiation therapy is also a treatment option in the later stages of the condition.

Estrogen hormone therapy

In some cancers, estrogen receptors are present on the walls of the cancerous cells. In these cases, estrogen helps the cells divide and grow.

Hormone therapy can block the effects of estrogen and slow the growth of the cancer.

The following are some hormone therapy options:

  • Tamoxifen: This prevents estrogen from entering the cancerous cells. It is the most widely studied and used medication in hormone-positive male breast cancer. A doctor will typically recommend using this drug first. Another drug, called toremifene (Fareston), is similar but only has approval for use in people with late stage breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.
  • Aromatase inhibitors: These block the effects of the aromatase protein. This, in turn, reduces estrogen levels in the body. These drugs have proven effective in treating breast cancer in females, and some doctors prescribe them for male breast cancer as well. In males, aromatase inhibitors are typically combined with other hormone medications, many of which cause the testicles to stop making testosterone.
  • Fulvestrant (Faslodex): This destroys estrogen receptors. Doctors may prescribe it for people with late stage breast cancer.

Depending on the type a person undergoes, hormone therapy can have some side effects, such as:

Chemotherapy

In some cases, a doctor may recommend chemotherapy. This is treatment with a drug that kills cancer cells. Doctors often administer chemotherapy as an injection, but people can also take the drugs by mouth.

Chemotherapy can prevent cancer from returning if a person uses it after surgery. It can also treat the symptoms of late stage cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. When a person receives it before surgery, it can also shrink the cancer and make surgery less extensive.

Some side effects could include:

The above is not a comprehensive list of side effects, and not everyone will experience all of these side effects.

Most side effects of chemotherapy will resolve over the days to weeks after the treatment is complete.

Targeted therapy

Various genetic features and changes can affect an individual’s risk of cancer. As scientists learn more about the link between different genetic mutations and cancer, they are developing drugs that can target the specific changes that result.

Targeted therapy is a relatively new type of cancer treatment that affects proteins involved when specific genetic changes lead to cancer. It is different from chemotherapy in that it does not target the whole body.

Chemotherapy is nonspecific, meaning that it affects healthy cells as well as cancerous cells. This is why it causes side effects. Targeted therapy, on the other hand, attacks a specific mutation or target within the cancerous cells and does not harm most healthy cells.

For example, in some males with breast cancer, there is too much of a protein known as HER2 on the surface of the cancer cells. HER2-positive breast cancers tend to be more aggressive than some other types.

Some drugs, such as trastuzumab (Herceptin), appear to slow the progression of cancer by targeting HER2.

Mutations in BRCA genes and other genes also cause protein changes, and targeted therapy may help in these cases, too.

Scientists have identified other genes that affect the course of breast cancer, and they continue to develop drugs that may improve the outlook for people with these specific changes.

Experts do not know exactly why cancer develops in the breast, but they have identified a number of possible risk factors.

In males, a common factor appears to be a high level of the female hormone estrogen in relation to one of the male hormone groups, androgen. Genetic, environmental, and medical factors can all contribute to this.

Genetic factors

Genetic mutations may increase the risk of breast cancer. Scientists have found links between breast cancer and a mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.

Males with Klinefelter syndrome are also more likely to develop breast cancer. Klinefelter syndrome occurs when males are born with an extra X chromosome.

Additionally, there is often a family history of breast cancer in people with these changes. Around 20% of males with breast cancer have a close family member with the condition.

As with many conditions, however, genetic features alone may not lead to cancer. Environmental factors may also need to be present.

Environmental factors

Some factors that may increase the risk of breast cancer in males include:

  • Age: Males who receive a diagnosis of breast cancer are over 72 years old, on average.
  • Radiation therapy: A male who has previously received radiation therapy to the chest area may have a higher risk of breast cancer.
  • Alcohol consumption: There appears to be a link between high alcohol consumption and the development of male breast cancer.
  • Exercise: Having a low level of physical activity may increase the risk of breast cancer for males.
  • Jobs: There may be a link between breast cancer and exposure to organic solvents or working with steel and rolling mills.

Males with Klinefelter syndrome appear to have a 20–60 times higher risk of breast cancer than those without the condition.

A male may have a higher risk if they have or have had:

These conditions and certain medical treatments, especially those that involve estrogen, appear to increase the risk.

People who undergo surgery to remove one or both testicles may also have a higher risk of developing breast cancer.

Early detection can help prevent the spread of cancer.

If there is a history of male breast cancer in the family, a person should regularly check for changes in the breast and contact a doctor as soon as possible if these occur. The person may also wish to consider asking the doctor about genetic testing.

Leading a healthy lifestyle that involves exercising, maintaining a moderate weight, and limiting alcohol consumption may help prevent male breast cancer.

If a male receives a diagnosis of breast cancer in the early stages, there is a good chance of effective treatment.

However, it can sometimes be hard to get an early diagnosis since the condition is rare and can resemble other conditions that are not cancerous. For this reason, diagnosis may come at a later stage.

Being aware of the signs and symptoms of male breast cancer increases the chance of getting early treatment.