According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer in men is 100 times less common than breast cancer in women.
Each year, 2,600 men receive the news that they have a form of breast cancer. Of these, 440 will die from the disease. The lifetime risk of men developing cancer of the breast tissue is approximately 1 in 1,000. This rate has remained stable for the past 30 years.
How Breast Cancer in Men Develops
All breast cancer starts with one or more malignant tumors in the breast tissue that sometimes spreads to other parts of the body. Many people are unaware that men even have breast tissue, let alone that it can be the origination point for cancer. If you are a male with breast cancer or your loved one has been diagnosed with it, understanding the normal structure of breasts can help you make sense of the disease.
Breasts consist primarily of the following:
- Ducts: These are tiny tubes that transport milk from the lobules to the nipples
- Lobules: These glands can produce milk, but only when enough female hormones are present
- Stroma: Stroma are connective and fatty tissues that surround the lobules, ducts, lymphatic vessels, and blood vessels.
Until they reach puberty, both boys and girls have a small amount of tissue surrounding the breasts that contain ducts. These ducts are located directly below the areola and nipple. In girls, puberty prompts the production of hormones that cause the stroma to increase, the breast ducts to grow, and lobules to protrude from the end of the ducts.
Boys and men retain a tiny fraction of female hormones after puberty, but the breast tissue normally doesn’t grow. Males have ducts, but they normally don’t develop lobules. Additionally, breast duct cells typically remain undeveloped. Men with breast cancer typically have overactive breast duct cells.
Male Breast Cancer Symptoms and Types
The first indication of breast cancer is similar for men and women. Common symptoms include:
- A thickening or painless lump in the breast tissue that can be felt upon self-examination
- Any type of discharge from the nipple
- Skin changes on or near the breast, such as scaling, dimpling, or redness
- Changes to the nipple such as an inward turn
Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is the least serious type of breast cancer in men. Doctors normally diagnose it as non-invasive or pre-invasive. It makes up 10 percent of all male breast cancer and is easily treatable with surgery.
Invasive ductal carcinoma originates in the milk duct of a breast. It eventually penetrates the duct wall and starts growing in the fatty tissue of a man’s breast. Once this happens, cancer cells can multiply by traveling through the bloodstream or lymphatic system. Approximately 80 percent of male breast cancer cases involve invasive ductal carcinoma.
Invasive lobular carcinoma starts in the lobules of the breast. In women, this is a collection of cells that can produce milk. Once cancerous cells develop in the lobules, they can grow in the breast’s fatty tissue. This type of breast cancer is rare in men since they do not have much lobular tissue. It makes up just two percent of male breast cancer diagnoses.
Paget disease of the nipple is one type that appears more often in men than women. It starts in the ducts, spreads to the nipples, and may cause bleeding, itching, oozing, and a burning sensation. It can also cause a lump to develop in the breast itself. Paget disease is often associated with invasive ductal carcinoma or ductal carcinoma in situ.
Inflammatory breast cancer is extremely aggressive, but it is rare in men. Instead of causing a lump, the breast feels tender, swollen, and warm to the touch. It causes extreme redness and may be mistaken for a breast infection.
Men can also develop benign breast tumors, but this too is quite rare for their gender. The most common male breast disorder is gynecomastia, a disorder that causes unwanted breast growth. Like cancer, gynecomastia occurs due to an excess of female hormones.
Support is Essential for Male Breast Cancer Patients
Due to its rarity and association as a female disease, men with breast cancer often feel alone and hesitate to reach out for help. Please speak to your doctor about obtaining resources and support for your breast cancer journey.
Please note, the information provided throughout this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and video, on or available through this website is for general information purposes only. If you are experiencing related symptoms, please visit your doctor or call 9-1-1 in an emergency.