It's Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and we're happy to celebrate every single warrior who has fought (or is fighting) the good fight — even those who are often unrecognized. We're talking men, here. Yup, we may not hear about it very often, but males are not immune to breast cancer, and all of your loved ones should be on the lookout for breast cancer symptoms.
According to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, it's estimated that there will be 2,470 new cases of invasive breast cancer in men in 2017 and 460 male breast cancer deaths in the United States alone.
And as bitter as this pill is to swallow, Doctor On Demand physician Dr. Heather Hawthorne says some of the more stereotypical male behaviors could be playing into these recurring male breast cancer rates. "Men should think twice about those extra beers and wings while watching football," she explains. "Heavy drinking and obesity can increase the levels of female hormones like estrogen in men. Abnormal levels of these hormones can put men at risk for breast cancer."
Early stage breast cancer usually doesn't cause symptoms. Most often, the disease is first noticed as a painless lump in the breast or armpit. As the undiagnosed tumor grows, it can change the appearance and feel of the breast which is why early detection is key and why men are encouraged to get and lumps checked by their doctor.
Any change in the breast tissue or surrounding area should be brought to the attention of a doctor. "Although most breast changes in men are noncancerous, men should be examined right away if they notice breast lumps, nipple discharge, skin dimpling or lumps under their armpits or around their collar bone," Dr. Hawthorne says.
Even with such a morose subject, there is a bit of a silver lining. As women, we've got it drilled into us to start doing breast self-exams at a young age, normally recommended by our OB/GYN when we start our annuals. Breast cancer is easier to detect in men — that's the good news. But men may not get the same treatment from their doctor. In a man, an asymmetrical lump in the breast tissue will be much more obvious, though men are more likely to ignore many of the symptoms above, including lumps, pain in the breast and discharge from the nipples.
A man's doctor also may not encourage self-checks or even mention these symptoms in an annual wellness exam. And while the warning signs aren't any different in men, they can more deadly if detection is delayed. An interesting 2016 study showed that "tough men" are less likely to let down their guard and be honest with their doctor. "Studies also show that men are 70 to 80 percent less likely to see a doctor than women," Dr. Hawthorne says.
Dr. Homayoon Sanati, medical oncologist and medical director of the MemorialCare Breast Center at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, says that he most frequently sees moderately aggressive breast cancer, or Luminal B subtype, in men — making this lack of early detection all the more dangerous. For male breast cancer patients, Dr. Sanati recommends genetic counseling and testing right off the bat to provide the most targeted (and hopefully the most successful) form of treatment.
We're talking about your life here, and any good doctor is going to take you seriously if you notice changes in you or your male partner's breast tissue. Though male breast cancer happens in less than 1 percent of breast cancer cases, as Dr. Sanati reminds us, the symptoms are still serious and not something that should be ignored. In other words, they aren't going to go away on their own if you bury your head in the sand.
Though these symptoms are most often not cancerous, another health problem could be the cause. Many people are alive and well today because their breast cancer was detected and treated early. And whether you're a man or a woman, you know what's going on with your body. You're probably going to notice if there's a big change in your breast tissue or if something doesn't feel quite right. The risk of breast cancer increases with age, family history and lifestyle factors, but regardless of risk, a lot of the success in early detection comes down to knowing what's normal for your breasts — and knowing when to ask for help.
"Don't delay, see your doctor today," Dr. Hawthorne urges. It really is that simple: Awareness and early detection save lives. Sadly, as Dr. Hawthorne has seen firsthand, breast cancers are often diagnosed at more advanced stages in men when they are harder to treat. More often than not, men ignore the symptoms or try to tough it out, Dr. Hawthorne says.
Originally published October 2009. Updated October 2017.
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