Find out about male breast cancer, treatment and where to get help and support.
About male breast cancer
Breast cancer is rare in men. There are about 390 men diagnosed each year in the UK. This compares to around 54,800 cases in women.
There are some similarities between male breast cancer and female cancer. But there are also important differences between the two. The most common type in both women and men is called 'invasive breast carcinoma - no special type'.
Some men develop rarer types of breast cancer, such as inflammatory breast cancer. Or they might develop conditions related to breast cancer but these are very uncommon. They include:
- ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)
- Paget's disease of the breast
Risks and causes of male breast cancer
The risks and causes of male breast cancer include:
The single biggest risk factor for male breast cancer is getting older. Most breast cancers are diagnosed in men between the ages of 60 and 70.
High oestrogen levels
All men produce small amounts of the hormone called oestrogen. This is perfectly normal. But high oestrogen levels have been linked to a higher breast cancer risk. High oestrogen levels can occur in:
- men who are very overweight (obese)
- chronic liver conditions, such as cirrhosis
- some genetic conditions
Klinefelter's syndrome is a rare genetic condition where a man is born with an extra female chromosome. So he has XXY chromosomes instead of XY. This leads to a hormone imbalance where their body makes less testosterone.
Men with Klinefelter's have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. But this doesn't mean that they will definitely develop it. Breast cancer in men is rare. So even if men have an increased risk (as with Kleinfelter’s), their risk remains quite low.
Exposure to radiation
Men who have been exposed to radiation repeatedly, over a long period of time, are more likely to develop male breast cancer. This is particularly true if they were young when the radiation exposure took place.
A family history or a recognised breast cancer gene in the family
Men who have female relatives with breast cancer have an increased risk of breast cancer, especially if the women are close relatives (mother or sisters). The risk also increases if the women were diagnosed at a young age (below 40). Men, as well as women, can inherit faulty genes that can cause breast cancer.
Around 3 in 100 breast cancers diagnosed in women (3%) are thought to be due directly to an inherited faulty gene. In men, this may be more common. We think that between 10 and 20 out of every 100 diagnosed in men (10 to 20%) are due to inherited faulty genes. In men with breast cancer the BRCA2 faulty gene is more common than BRCA1.
Symptoms of male breast cancer
The most common symptom for men with breast cancer is a lump in the breast area. This is nearly always painless. Other symptoms can include:
- oozing from the nipple (a discharge) that may be blood stained
- swelling of the breast
- a sore (ulcer) in the skin of the breast
- a nipple that is pulled into the breast (called nipple retraction)
- lumps under the arm
- a rash on or around the nipple
If you have any of these symptoms it is important to go to your GP straight away. Finding a cancer early gives the best chance of successful treatment.
Diagnosing the cancer
You usually have a painless scan using sound waves, called an ultrasound. You might also have a breast x-ray (mammogram).
If your scan shows an area that could be cancer, your specialist takes a sample (biopsy) of breast tissue. This is then examined under a microscope by a specialist. If these tests show that you have breast cancer, you might have other tests to see whether the cancer has spread.
These tests include:
- MRI scan
- lymph node ultrasound scan
- liver scan
- bone scan
Treatment for male breast cancer
The same treatments are used for breast cancer in men as for women.
To decide on the most appropriate treatment, doctors generally take into account:
- the type of breast cancer
- the size of the cancer and whether it has spread (the stage)
- how abnormal the cells look under the microscope (the grade)
- whether the cancer cells have receptors for particular hormones
- whether the cells have receptors for biological therapies
To treat your cancer, you might have one or more of the following treatments:
- hormone therapy
- biological therapy
The most common operation is removal of the whole breast (mastectomy) including the nipple. There is not very much breast tissue in men, so it isn't usually possible to leave any behind. Sometimes the surgeon also removes part of the underlying muscle if it is close to the cancer.
The surgeon might also remove some of the lymph nodes from the armpit. They send the nodes to the laboratory to see if they contain cancer cells. Or the surgeon might check the lymph nodes closest to the breast using a procedure called sentinel node biopsy.
This photo shows the marks made before a mastectomy and sentinel node biopsy.
The chest 1 day after a mastectomy operation.
The same man 3 months after the operation.
Creating a new nipple
Once treatment has finished your surgeon can make a new nipple for you if you want it. You need to wait a few months after the mastectomy to allow any swelling to go down and the wound to heal.
The surgeon might be able to create the shape of a nipple using the skin from another part of your body (a skin graft). For example, the surgeon might use skin from your groin. The new nipple won't have any feeling, and won't respond to touch or temperature.
Other options include tattooing a new nipple and areola on to the chest. Or you can use stick on nipples. Your breast care nurse can tell you where to get them.
You might have chemotherapy after surgery. This helps reduce the chance of the cancer coming back or spreading.
Your doctor will usually recommend chemotherapy if you have one or more of the following:
- cancer cells in the lymph nodes under the arm
- a tumour larger than 2 cm
- you are young
- the cancer is high grade
Very rarely, chemotherapy is given before surgery to shrink a large cancer and make it possible to remove it.
Your specialist is likely to suggest radiotherapy after surgery. This treatment lowers the risk of the cancer cells growing back in the area of the breast in the future. You usually have radiotherapy for a few minutes each day from Monday to Friday, for 3 to 6 weeks. Some hospitals give radiotherapy on alternate days, rather than every day.
Some breast cancer cells are stimulated to grow by the hormones oestrogen or progesterone. Men have small amounts of oestrogen and progesterone in their body. Most male breast cancer cells have receptors for these hormones. This is called hormone receptor positive breast cancer.
Your specialist will arrange receptor tests on your cancer cells when you are first diagnosed. If your cancer cells have hormone receptors, your doctor might prescribe hormone therapy for you. This can help to reduce the chance of the cancer coming back. You usually take these therapies for at least 5 years.
The most common hormone therapy for male breast cancer is tamoxifen. Side effects include:
- hot flushes
- loss of sex drive
- feeling sick – this might wear off once you have been taking it for a while
- weight gain
- difficulty sleeping
- sadness and depression
Your doctor will check your cancer cells for receptors called HER2 receptors. If your cancer cells have a lot of these receptors, your doctor will prescribe a biological therapy for you.
The most common biological therapy for breast cancer is trastuzumab (Herceptin).
If the cancer has spread beyond the breast
Some men are diagnosed with cancer that has already spread. Or the cancer might come back and spread after treatment. This is called secondary breast cancer, advanced breast cancer or metastatic breast cancer.
In this situation your doctor might recommend:
- hormone therapy
- biological therapy
- a combination of these treatments
It is very common to hear about breast cancer in women. But it isn't common to hear about it in men.
Coping with a diagnosis of cancer can be difficult, both practically and emotionally. It can be especially difficult if you have a rare cancer. Being well informed about your cancer and its treatment can make it easier to make decisions and cope with what happens.
As male breast cancer is rare, you are likely to have treatment in a large, specialist hospital. So your consultant may know other men with breast cancer you could talk to.
Look at Cancer Chat
Cancer Research UK’s discussion forum is a place for anyone affected by cancer. You can share experiences, stories and information with other people who know what you are going through.
You can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They will be happy to answer any questions that you have.
A charity called Breast Cancer Care has male volunteers you can talk to.
You have regular check ups once you finish your treatment. At your check up appointments your doctor or specialist nurse examines you and asks about your general health.
This is your chance to ask questions and to tell your doctor if anything is worrying you.
It’s important to remember that you can still contact someone if you are worried about a symptom between appointments. Don’t just leave it. Speak to your GP, or contact your consultant or specialist nurse.
How often you have check ups depends on your individual situation.
Trials and research
It is difficult to organise trials and research for rare cancers. For example, it can be hard to recruit enough men with breast cancer within a certain time. So a group of experts from all over the world has developed an International Male Breast Cancer Program.
They aim to collect information about men who were diagnosed with breast cancer over the past 20 years. And they also collect information about men being diagnosed now.
The programme will look at:
- risk factors for male breast cancer
- types of breast cancer
- the proteins (markers) on the cancer
- how well treatment works
The programme aims to be able to run clinical trials specifically for men with breast cancer.
There are similarities between male breast cancer and breast cancer in women. But some researchers think there are important differences. These differences might help to develop new treatments in the future if researchers can understand them more fully.
Some breast cancer trials are recruiting women only. But increasingly, treatment trials are recruiting men with breast cancer as well as women.
Trials are trying to improve standard treatments for breast cancer, as well as looking at new treatments.