5 Things you need to know about breast cancer (in men)
1. MEN GET BREAST CANCER (Rarely)
Breast cancer starts in breast tissue and men have breast tissue just like women, whether you can see it or not. In general, their breasts are less developed and therefore breast cancer in men is rare.
Another reason for the difference in risk levels between men and women, is that men’s breast cells are not constantly exposed to the female hormone estrogen, which is an established risk factors in the development of some forms of breast cancer.
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, less than 1% of all breast cancers occur in men. An estimated 220 new cases of male breast cancer were diagnosed in Canada in 2015, and 60 men will die from the disease.
2. RISKY BUISNESS
Like women, there is no known single risk factor for breast cancer in men but their risk increases with age (the majority of men diagnosed are over the age of 60.)
Angelina Jolie made the BRCA gene top of mind for everyone concerned or affected by breast cancer or ovarian cancer, but most people still think it’s a gene that only affects women. The truth is BRCA1 and BRCA2 also have serious health implications for men. The defects, while rare, are linked to aggressive prostate cancer and a higher risk of pancreatic cancer, melanoma and breast cancer.
Men who carry these gene mutations may pass them along to their children; and children of men with breast cancer are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer. Another significant factor is being Ashkenazi Jewish decent because BRCA defects are 10 times more common in that ethnic group than in the general population. These are non-modifiable risk factors for male breast cancer and breast cancer for women as well.
Other risk factors include Klinefelter syndrome, previous radiation exposure to the chest, gynecomastia (enlarged male breasts) and cirrhosis of the liver all cause an increased risk of developing breast cancer. Obesity, drinking alcohol, estrogen therapy and work hazards are potential risk factors that need more research.
3. IT’S A FAMILY AFFAIR SOMETIMES
Men who develop breast cancer should get tested to see if there is a genetic link to their breast cancer because another clue in the puzzle of genetics is family history. Men who have a family member with a BRCA mutation, or a close relative with ovarian cancer or a male relative with breast cancer put them at a higher risk.
Men should also consider testing with two or more female relatives who had breast cancer at any age on the same side of the family, or one who developed breast cancer before 50. Genetic testing and counselling often involves a detailed family history, blood work, a conversation about the physical and psychological implication of testing positive for BRCA1 or BRCA2, and some strategies to convey the information to other family members depending on the results. Siblings and children have a 50% chance of having the gene if a person has it, so the implications for family members is significant.
See a list of questions to ask your doctor about diagnostic tests.
4. EQUAL TREATMENT
While there is still some inequality between the sexes, all is fair in cancer treatment for men and women. Men are often treated with the same protocols like surgery (lumpectomy, mastectomy), chemo, radiation and hormonal therapy.
Men often experience similar side-effects to women from treatment like hot flashes, fertility issues, lymphedema, and significant impact on their body image. Men who suffer from erectile dysfunction as a result of treatment or have lasting chest scars like women, can suffer from serious self-esteem issues.
5. STIGMA + SUPPORT
Obviously a cancer diagnosis for anyone can lead to many challenges. A breast cancer diagnosis for men leads to a whole other set of complications. Since breast cancer is primarily seen as a disease that affects women, many men find it difficult to talk about their breast cancer diagnosis for fear of embarrassment and humiliation.
For this reason, many men do not report symptoms of breast cancer to their doctors and are often diagnosed at a later stage than women. It is important that more awareness is raised that men get breast cancer so that they feel less alienated and able to come forward should something feel abnormal for them.