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Symptoms of male breast cancer

October 8, 2020 • read

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Symptoms of male breast cancer

Men and women both have breast tissue, but on men it’s less developed, making their breasts flatter. Just like women, it’s possible for men to develop cancer in their breasts. Men account for about 1% of all breast cancer cases in Canada. 

Breast cancer in men can be life threatening, and requires treatment to reduce the risk of the cancer spreading to other areas. But with proper care there’s reason to be optimistic — 80% of men diagnosed with breast cancer make a full recovery.

Symptoms

The most common symptom men with breast cancer experience is a small, painless lump under the nipple. Other possible symptoms include:

  • Nipple discharge.
  • Bleeding from the nipple.
  • Swollen or sore breasts.
  • A suddenly inverted or inward pointing nipple.
  • An open sore, pimple, or rash on or near the nippple.
  • A lump in the armpit. 
  • Crust forming on the nipple.

Causes

Cancer forms in the body when cells start to multiply at a rapid rate, making them cancer cells. As they reproduce, the cancer cells overcrowd healthy cells and form tumours. The cancerous cells can spread to healthy tissue if cancer is left untreated. When that happens, it’s called metastasizing. 

There are certain risk factors that make some men more likely to develop breast cancer. They include:

Family history

If a close relative in your family has had breast cancer, your chances of developing it are higher. 

Exposure to radiation

Radiation causes cells to multiply rapidly and form tumours. If your chest has been exposed to radiation, that’s an even greater risk factor. 

Estrogen exposure

Men who take hormone therapy may have estrogen levels that are higher than normal. High estrogen levels have been linked to an increased risk in breast cancer in men and women. 

Klinefelter syndrome

This is a rare genetic condition where males are born with an extra X chromosome. It causes higher levels of estrogen and lower levels of androgens — the hormones responsible for male characteristics. The increase in estrogen production makes men with Klinefelter syndrome more likely to get breast cancer.  

Age

Men in their 60s and 70s are the highest risk group for breast cancer, though it’s possible in younger men too.

BRCA gene mutation

In both men and women, the BRCA2 gene mutation increases the likelihood of breast cancer. The mutation is passed from parent to child. The BCRA1 mutation comes with a higher risk of breast cancer too, but it’s rarer than BCRA2.

Obesity

When you’re overweight, your body carries a high number of fat cells. Fat cells can turn androgens into estrogen. High estrogen contributes to breast cancer formation.

Heavy drinking

Drinking too much alcohol damages your liver. It leaves scars, creating a condition called cirrhosis. Cirrhosis of the liver triggers an increase in the production of estrogen and lowers androgen production, which may cause breast cancer.

Diagnosis

There are several ways that doctors test for the presence of breast cancer in men, including:

  • Biopsy. Small samples of cells from the breast lump are sent to a lab to see if they’re cancerous.
  • Clinical breast exam. During this exam a doctor manually checks for lumps in the patient’s breast tissue or their underarms. 
  • Diagnostic mammogram. If you have any abnormalities during your clinical breast exam, this is the next step. A mammogram is a low-dose x-ray that produces images of the patient’s breast tissue. Doctors examine the images for any abnormalities or lumps that have formed in the breast.

Stages

If breast cancer is confirmed in a patient, their doctor will evaluate how far the cancer has advanced. The stages of cancer are:

  • Stage zero. No cancerous tumours have formed yet, but abnormal cells have been detected.
  • Stage one. There’s a small amount of cancer present, contained to one part of the body.
  • Stage two and three, where cancer has spread to tissue near the original cancer site, including the lymph nodes.
  • Stage four. Cancer has spread throughout the body. 

Treatments

To treat breast cancer in men, options include:

  • Surgery. Surgeons remove the cancerous tumour in a procedure known as a lumpectomy. 
  • Chemotherapy. This is a drug treatment program that kills or suppresses the growth of cancer cells over time.
  • Radiation. This method uses powerful x-rays to destroy cancerous cells or reduce a tumour’s size.
  • Hormone therapy. These therapies either increase, decrease, or eliminate the presence of a given hormone. When it comes to breast cancer, hormone therapy would be used to reduce estrogen production. 

Because breast cancer in men is rare, sometimes men ignore symptoms until cancer has developed to an advanced stage. This can put men in a dangerous position. With early intervention, men can recover from breast cancer. If you’re noticing abnormalities in your breast tissue, make an appointment with your doctor to check if everything is healthy.

Cancer is a scary disease to cope with on your own. If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer,  or want to understand your personal risk factors, an oncology navigator can help. You can talk to an oncology navigator online from the comfort of your home.

Speak to an oncology navigator online

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