As a society, our relationship with them is sometimes complex, but everyone has them. Yes, everyone. Even men.
Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers, with as many as one in eight American women developing the condition over their lifetime. The condition occurs when normal breast cells begin to grow out of control and invade healthy tissues. If cancer spreads out of the breast and into other areas of the body, it can be very serious.
While it is more common in women, men can also suffer from breast cancer. Let’s take a look at the relationship between men and breasts.
Boys and Breasts
All boys are born with a small amount of breast tissue. In fact, at birth, they have the same amount of breast tissue as girls. This changes at puberty, when the ovaries kick in and begin producing estrogen. The breast tissue that had previously been just a few ducts under the nipple grows, with more ducts and lobules forming. As boys generally retain low levels of female hormones throughout their lives, their breast tissue stays the same.
In some cases, men develop a condition called gynecomastia. This is not a type of breast cancer: it is just an increase in the amount of breast tissue a man has. While male breast tissue isn’t usually noticeable, in gynecomastia small breasts may develop. In other cases, the breast tissue only grows big enough to be felt but can’t be seen.
Gynecomastia is most often seen in teenage boys and older men. If you do feel any changes in your breast tissue, consult your doctor to be safe.
Causes of Gynecomastia
Gynecomastia is sometimes caused by hormone changes that cause a male body to suddenly start producing more estrogen. These changes come about for many reasons; obesity is a major contributing factor. Some other hormone conditions can also cause the estrogen boost, as can some liver problems. Gynecomastia can also be a side effect of certain medications.
Most men who have gynecomastia won’t need any kind of medical treatment, but the condition can be embarrassing and have a negative impact on self-esteem. Compression vests may help: check out If your gynecomastia is caused by obesity, your doctor may recommend a weight-loss program.
In rare cases, if gynecomastia is painful or causing problems, it may require further treatment with either medication or surgery. If your breasts continue to grow, or are painful or tender, visit your doctor to discuss a treatment plan. Some medications can actually be the cause of gynecomastia, so be sure to let your doctor know if the problem occurred only after you began a drug regimen.
In very exceptional circumstances, your doctor may recommend that your breasts are surgically removed. This is usually a last resort and is only considered after all other treatment options have failed and if your quality of life is suffering.
Surgery is a last resort because the operation is more complicated than it might seem. As with any other surgery, how complicated is determined by the specifics of your situation but some men will require more than one procedure. This generally only occurs in cases where large breasts have been removed and excess skin may need to be removed once the chest has healed.
Men and Breast Cancer
Because men have breast tissue, they can develop breast cancer. It is much more common in women, but men can get almost all the same types of breast cancer that women can (the exception being cancers of the milk ducts).
As with female breast cancers, there are certain risk factors. Men with gynecomastia are at slightly increased risk, but some other scenarios and conditions make men more likely to develop the disease. Please remember that having one or more risk factors does not mean you will definitely develop cancer, nor does not having any risk factors mean that you won’t.
Similarly to most other cancers, aging is a primary risk factor for the development of male breast cancers. Scientists still aren’t sure why aging is the biggest risk factor for cancer, but studies have shown that nearly half of all cancer cases happen in people over the age of 70. Most men diagnosed with the disease are elderly.
As a general rule, any condition that impacts on hormone levels increases the risk of developing cancer. The liver has a huge role to play in balancing hormones, so men with liver disease may have higher levels of estrogen that increase their risk of breast cancer.
Genetics also play a large role, with men having a higher risk of developing the disease if they have relatives, either male or female, who have had it in the past. Men also have the BRCA2 gene which, if mutated, increases the risk of developing breast cancer to 6%.
A congenital genetic condition called Klinefelter Syndrome, where men have multiple X chromosomes instead of just one is another risk factor for breast cancer. The condition causes men to have higher levels of female hormones and lower levels of male hormones than the norm and can increase the risk of developing breast cancer by as much as 60%.
Diagnosing male breast cancers
Diagnosing male breast cancers is often different than diagnosing female breast cancers, as men are significantly less likely to be regularly checking for changes and are less likely to visit their doctor right away if they do find something. Many men will wait until they have more severe symptoms before visiting the doctor, meaning male breast cancers are often detected much later.
If a man suspects he has breast cancer, his doctor will use the same tests to confirm or deny the diagnosis as are used on women. A physical examination of the lump will be first, followed by mammograms and biopsies if they are thought to be necessary.
Which treatment plan is appropriate will depend on the type and stage the cancer is at; options include excision via surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormone therapy, and immunotherapy.