Male breast cancer: What you need to know from signs and symptoms to causes

A link between male breast cancer and infertility has been identified
Men with infertility problems may be more likely to develop male breast cancer. (Getty Images)

This Breast Cancer Awareness month is the perfect time to talk more about male breast cancer, as it's not just women who are affected.

Men have a small amount of breast tissue behind the nipples, putting them at risk too.

Of course while comparatively this risk is low – Cancer Research UK suggests around 350 men and 55,000 women are diagnosed in the UK each year – increasing awareness of the disease is crucial to saving lives.

So, as you might not know much about male breast cancer (don't worry, scientists need to uncover more too), here's a deep-dive of what we know so far, from interesting studies to signs and symptoms.

Read more: How to check for breast cancer symptoms and detect the condition early

Male breast cancer research

More has been done in recent years to try and understand male breast cancer better. One study earlier this year, for example, found that infertile men may be twice as likely to develop the condition than those without fertility issues.

The research found there were significantly more men with no children among those who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, when looking at 1,998 men newly diagnosed with the disease in England and Wales over a 12-year period.

As male breast cancer is rare, research into the disease is usually limited to a small number of patients. So studying a larger group of men enabled the team to show a statistically significant association between infertility and risk of invasive breast cancer in men.

The men were asked whether they had biological children, if they or their partners had ever experienced problems conceiving, or if they had visited a doctor or clinic for fertility concerns.

Researchers directly compared the fertility of the men with breast cancer to 1,597 men with no history of the disease. While the biological reason is unclear, they discovered that men diagnosed with breast cancer were more likely to report fertility issues.

Study author Dr Michael Jones, senior staff scientist in genetics and epidemiology at the The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), said, “These are important findings linking infertility to breast cancer in men.

“Our study suggests that infertile men may be twice as likely as those without fertility issues to develop breast cancer.

“The reasons behind this association are unclear, and there is a need to investigate the fundamental role of male fertility hormones on the risk of breast cancer in men."

Jones said he hopes this could lead to insights into the underlying causes of male, and possibly even female, breast cancer.

He added, “Breast cancer is often thought of as something that only affects women, but men can also be diagnosed with the disease.”

Read more: Why aren't men visiting the doctor? 'Essential' more's done to identify issue, says GP

Male Patient And Doctor Have Consultation In Hospital Room
Don't delay in seeing your GP about potential breast cancer symptoms. (Getty Images)

But while men can be diagnosed too, other studies show many are unsure about the signs and symptoms to look out for. Only 20% of men would see their GP immediately with common symptoms of breast cancer, whilst 78% of men believe there to be poor awareness of the disease, stats from revealed.

Meanwhile, 24% of British men don’t think they will be diagnosed with the condition – rising to 42% in the 18-24 age bracket.

But echoing the risk to men, Dr Jan Schaefer, chief medical officer at MEDIGO, said, “In fact, men have a 1 in 1,000 chance of getting it and, while the risks are significantly higher for women, men should also be aware of any potential warning signs.”

The biggest concern for experts is the lack of awareness surrounding male breast cancer, which can often mean a late diagnosis. “In cases of male breast cancer, once the condition is diagnosed, 30-40% of the time it is at a III or IV stage,” Dr Schaefer added.

“At MEDIGO, a handful of the 80,000 patients we have helped were men with breast cancer and, unfortunately, all of them were already at a late stage, which supports the fact that there is a lack of awareness, not just amongst men but amongst their partners and caregivers too.”

Male breast cancer first-hand

Dave, 64, from Bristol, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. He has since had a mastectomy (removing all breast tissue from the affected breast as well as the nipple, and possibly glands and muscle in nearby areas), treatment, and is now in good health, but is still taking drugs to reduce the chances of the cancer returning.

“I was on holiday in Florida, celebrating my birthday, when I found a lump on my chest in the shower," he said.

“It wasn’t painful and I didn’t tell anyone about it because life just seemed normal.

“I wasn’t aware that men should check for breast cancer, but I know that if your body changes, you shouldn’t leave it so I went to see my GP as soon as I got home and they referred me to see a specialist consultant.

“Despite being told it was probably just a fatty deposit, I had an ultrasound and biopsy. One week later I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The tumour was the size of a golf ball.”

He added, “My mother died from ovarian cancer when she was 68 years old, and I knew there was a link between ovarian and breast cancer, but generally little is known about male breast cancer.

“People will say, ‘I didn’t realise men could get that’ and to be honest, I didn’t think I would ever get it."

Portrait of a senior man in fitness wear running in a park. Close up of a smiling man running while listening to music using earphones.
A healthy lifestyle could help to reduce your chances of breast cancer. (Getty Images)

Male breast cancer causes

As mentioned, more research is needed on the exact cause of breast cancer in men. But while it's not known for sure, there are some factors that can increase your chances of getting it.

These including, according to the NHS, genes and family history (this includes inheriting 'faulty' genes called BRCA1 or BRCA1 that increase your risk of breast cancer), an increased level of the hormone oestrogen in the body (cause by conditions like obesity, Klinefelter syndrome, and scarring of the liver), and previous radiotherapy to the chest area.

While, again, it's not certain, it's thought that eating a balanced diet, losing weight if you're overweight and not drinking too much alcohol might help reduce your risk.

Breast cancer usually affects men over 60, but can occasionally affect younger men too.

Male breast cancer symptoms

The most common symptoms for men with breast cancer, according to Cancer Research UK, include:

  • lump in the breast that is nearly always painless

  • oozing from the nipple (a discharge) that may be blood stained

  • a nipple that is pulled into the breast (called nipple retraction)

  • swelling of the breast (gynecomastia)

  • a sore (ulcer) in the skin of the breast

  • lump or swelling under the arm

  • a rash on or around the nipple

Read more: Men and depression: How to spot the signs and address it

When to see a GP

If you have any of these or other worrying symptoms, or you have a history of breast cancer (in men or women) in your family and you're worried about getting it, don't delay in getting checked or speaking to a doctor.

While it's unlikely to be cancer, your GP will examine your breast and can refer you for further tests and scans if needed, or be referred to a genetic specialist to discuss your chances of getting it.

Possible treatments might include surgery, a mastectomy, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, medicines, which depends on how far the cancer has spread.

For more information on breast cancer see the NHS website, Cancer Research UK or Breast Cancer Now.

Other than finding support from your family and doctors, you can talk on the phone or by email to another man who has had breast cancer through Breast Cancer Now's Someone Like Me service, or call the charity on 0808 800 6000 to find out what else is available.

Walk the Walk also helps to organise a monthly virtual meet-up for men diagnosed with breast cancer supported by a number of charities.

Additional reporting PA.