8 Things Guys Don't Know About Male Breast Cancer

Health Writer
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Are you a betting man? Your odds of getting cancer are higher than you think.

In fact, according to a study in the British Journal of Cancer, 54% of men born since 1960 will eventually develop cancer. This number has been rising, partly because we’re living longer but also because of obesity and certain lifestyle choices related to it. The risk for men of all ages is 40 percent, per the American Cancer Society.

Two cancers surely pop to mind: prostate—the most commonly diagnosed cancer in men—and lung, which accounts for the most deaths. But men get breast cancer too. And if the disease runs in your family, your risk is roughly the same as it is for women.

Here are eight things men need to know (but probably don’t).


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Your Risk Is Small—But Real

Many men don’t think they can get breast cancer because they don’t realize they have breast tissue, explains Julie Nangia, M.D., director of the Breast Cancer Prevention and High Risk Clinic at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Still, their overall risk is much lower: In 2018, an estimated 266,120 women were diagnosed with breast cancer, compared to just 2,550 men, according to data from the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program (SEER).


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The Red Flags Are the Same

Men should watch for the same signs of breast cancer as women, says Dr. Nangia. These include a lump in the breast, a lump in the armpit, changes to the appearance of the skin of the breast—like dimpling or puckering—or changes to the nipple, such as discharge or if one suddenly becomes inverted or retracted.


Men Have Milk Ducts Too

The most common breast cancer in men is ductal carcinoma, which forms in the milk ducts, says Rachel Brem, M.D., director of the Breast Cancer Program at GW Cancer Center in Washington, D.C.

Rare in men is lobular carcinoma, which begins in milk-producing glands (few men have them), and inflammatory breast cancer, which is characterized by a red, swollen appearance.


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Family History Matters. A Lot!

The number-one risk factor for breast cancer in men is a mutation on the BRCA2 gene, says Dr. Brem. This gene helps to repair damaged DNA and prevent cancer from developing.

You can inherit a BRCA mutation from your mom or dad. “Men with BRCA2 mutation often come from families with a lot of breast cancer among women and men,” says Dr. Brem.


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Men with BRCA2 Mutations Have a Similar Risk as Women

“Men who have the BRCA2 mutation have the highest risk of breast cancer,” says Dr. Brem.

Men who carry the BRCA2 genetic mutation have an 8% chance of developing breast cancer by the time they are 80, according to research published in the Journal of Medical Genetics. The average American woman has about a 12% chance.


Mammogram images showing a male patient's breast
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BRCA Mutations Mean More Screening

Men with a BRCA2 mutation should get screened as often as women do, says Dr. Brem. That means regular mammograms. While some women with BRCA mutations are offered a prophylactic (preventive) mastectomy, says Dr. Nangia, that’s not typically offered to men.


Micrograph of metastatic prostate carcinoma
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Family History of Prostate Cancer Is a Warning Sign

If many men in your family have been diagnosed with early-onset prostate cancer, you may want to see a genetic counselor to ask whether you should be screened for BRCA2.

“There is also an increased risk of prostate cancer that occurs earlier in men with the BRCA mutation,” says Dr. Brem.


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Breast Cancer Is More Deadly in Men

“Men are typically diagnosed at a later stage,” says Dr. Nangia. This may be because men aren’t as aware of changes to their nipples or breasts, so they may not notice something there until it’s a little more advanced.

According to a 2018 study from Denmark, significantly fewer men were diagnosed at an early stage than women, and they were more likely to have lymph node involvement when they were.

The 5-year survival rate once the cancer has spread is 25%, according to American Society of Clinical Oncology data. When cancer is caught while still local to the breast tissue, the 5-year survival rate is nearly 99 percent.