Although the majority of Australians diagnosed with breast cancer are women, many people are surprised to learn that men can develop breast cancer too. Breast cancer in men is rare, accounting for less than 1% of all cancers in men, and less than 1% of all breast cancers.
The average age of diagnosis in Australian men is 69, although men of all ages can be affected.
Most men survive breast cancer. In Australia, 85 per cent of men diagnosed are alive five years later. The majority of men recover and the breast cancer does not return.
'I am grateful for the lessons learnt through my illness and know that I will live the rest of my life wisely and well.' – Ron
Why do men get breast cancer?
Like women, men have breast tissue, although in smaller amounts. This means that men can develop breast cancer, although it is not common. The risk of a man being diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 75 is one in 1,258. The risk of a woman being diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 85 is one in eight.
There are a number of factors that increase a man’s risk of developing breast cancer:
- Age – a man’s risk of developing breast cancer increases with age
- A known BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation or a strong family history
- Higher oestrogen levels (caused by obesity, long-term liver conditions, or some genetic conditions such as Klinefelter’s syndrome)
- Past radiotherapy treatment particularly of the chest area.
Breast cancer treatments
Just as there are many different types of breast cancer, there are many different treatments. The treatment recommended for you will depend on a number of factors.
The aim of surgery is to remove all the cancer cells from the breast. The most common type of surgery for men is a mastectomy, where the whole breast (including the nipple and area around the nipple) is removed. Breast conserving surgery (also called lumpectomy), where only the part of the breast with the cancer is removed, is often not suitable for men because of their lack of breast tissue.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells that may have started to spread to other parts of the body. It is usually given through a drip in the arm which slowly releases the drug into the bloodstream. Not all men will need chemotherapy.
Radiotherapy (also called radiation treatment) is the use of X-rays to kill any cancer cells that may be left after surgery. It is often recommended after breast conserving surgery, and sometimes after a mastectomy. Radiotherapy is usually given five days a week for around 5–6 weeks. Each radiotherapy session lasts around 20 minutes.
Hormone therapy drugs are used to treat hormone receptor positive breast cancer. They are tablets taken every day for five years or more. The most common hormone therapy recommended for men with breast cancer is tamoxifen. Rarely, an aromatase inhibitor (Arimidex, Femara or Aromasin) may be recommended although research on the use of aromatase inhibitors in men is very limited.
Targeted therapies are drugs used to treat certain types of breast cancer. Herceptin is a targeted therapy often used to treat men with HER2-positive breast cancer.
'I was on tamoxifen for five years. I had some uncomfortable side effects during the first six months. After that, it settled down. I suffered little discomfort.' – Gavin
Breast reconstruction is not common in men, however it is sometimes possible.
Your surgeon may be able to perform a reconstruction using your own tissue from your back, abdomen or buttock. Reconstruction using breast implants is not possible for men because currently, breast implants are specifically designed to recreate the look of a woman’s breast, and are not suitable for men.
A nipple reconstruction may be an option for some men. This involves the rebuilding of the nipple and the areola (the area around the nipple), which can then be tattooed to match the colour of the other nipple.
If you prefer not to have further surgery, a nipple and areola tattoo can be performed by itself. You can also opt for a special stick on nipple prosthesis which stays in place for a few days. These are available to buy from breast prosthesis suppliers.
Coping with your diagnosis
You may have been unaware that men can develop breast cancer, and may feel shocked, anxious and scared. As breast cancer is often considered a ‘women’s cancer’, your diagnosis may leave you feeling embarrassed.
There tends to be little awareness of male breast cancer. It can be challenging to connect with other men in a similar situation, and this can leave you feeling isolated and alone. There are also very few information resources specifically for men with breast cancer, which can leave you feeling desperate for information.
'My surgeon gave me a pile or brochures about breast cancer but only one was for men.' – Ron
It can help to talk with someone about how you are feeling rather than trying to cope by yourself. Your GP, breast care nurse or hospital social worker may be able to provide you with some strategies to help you cope with your diagnosis. If you think it will help, your GP can refer you to a counsellor or psychologist. Some men tell us that talking with a counsellor or psychologist in private helps them feel like a burden has been lifted.
Sharing your diagnosis with others
You may also find it difficult to tell others about your diagnosis. People may find your diagnosis surprising, especially if they didn’t know men can develop breast cancer. You may find it helpful to start by telling family and close friends to help you become familiar with people’s reactions.
You may find that you receive questions about breast cancer in men. It may help you to have some answers prepared to common questions.
'People seemed stunned, and asked questions like ‘does it run in the family?’ A few commented that it’s very rare.' – Matthew
Many people diagnosed with breast cancer find that friendships can be affected by their diagnosis. Sadly, friends and family sometimes do not know how to cope with the news of a breast cancer diagnosis and respond by stepping back. Sometimes, the opposite can happen – those who do not keep in regular contact with you can respond by making contact with you after your diagnosis. There is no right or wrong way to respond to this issue – find a way that works for you and your own situation.
Comprehensive booklet for men
BCNA's Men get breast cancer too booklet provides information specifically for men diagnosed with breast cancer about the disease, its treatments, and ways to deal with some of the common challenges that they may face after a diagnosis. The booklet also mentions other resources and counselling services available for men diagnosed with breast cancer. The booklet was developed with men diagnosed with breast cancer and their family members, health professionals and researchers.
Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA)
BCNA provides a range of information resources on breast cancer treatment and care. While we refer to women with breast cancer throughout our publications, much of the information is relevant to men diagnosed with breast cancer.
- The Men get breast cancer toobooklet provides information for men diagnosed with breast cancer about the disease, its treatments, and ways to deal with common challenges they may face after a diagnosis.
- My Journey Kit for people newly diagnosed with early breast cancer.
- Hope & Hurdles for people diagnosed with secondary breast cancer.
- Our website has reliable, accurate information about breast cancer treatment and care, including information on treatment-related side effects.
- Personal stories of men diagnosed with breast cancer.
- Fact sheets and booklets on a variety topics such as breast cancer pathology, hormone therapies and their side effects, hair loss, lymphoedema, the practical and financial issues relating to breast cancer, patient assisted travel schemes.
- Cancer Australia’s Breast cancer in men website.
- Cancer Council SA’s Breast cancer in men webpage.
- Breast Cancer Care UK’s Men and breast cancer webpage and booklet (UK based).
- Cancer Research UK’s Breast cancer in men webpage (UK based).
- American Cancer Society’s Breast cancer in men website (USA based).
- The Breastcancer.org Male breast cancer webpage (USA based).
- National Cancer Institute Male breast cancer treatment webpage (USA based).
- Cancer.net’s Breast cancer – male webpage (USA based).
Support and services
- Join BCNA’s online network to connect with other men diagnosed with breast cancer.
- Medicare-subsidised mental health plans – your GP can refer you to an appropriate specialist, e.g. a psychologist, and you will be entitled to up to 10 Medicare-subsidised appointments. For more information, speak with your GP.
- Cancer Council Helpline (13 11 20) – a free telephone information and support service run by Cancer Councils in each state and territory. Trained health professionals can speak with you about breast cancer treatment and care, the financial and practical issues on cancer, and arrange for you to speak with a counsellor.
- Cancer Connect (13 11 20) – a free service run by the Cancer Council in each state and territory. People diagnosed with cancer, or family and friends are able to connect with someone who has been through a similar cancer experience.
- Relationships Australia (phone 1300 364 277) offers face-to-face, online and phone counselling services.
- MensLine Australia (1300 789 978) is a telephone support and information service for men with relationship issues.
- MindSpot is a free telephone and online service for Australians experiencing stress, worry, anxiety, low mood or depression. The website provides useful information and practical skills to help manage symptoms of depression and anxiety.
- Look Good ... Feel Better offer a 'Gent's Grooming' program to help men manage the side effects of cancer treatment such as hair loss and changes to the skin. For more information visit the Look Good… Feel Better - Gent's Grooming listing in BCNA’s Local Services Directory. You can also read tips on managing these side-effects by visiting the US-based Look Good... Feel Better For Men website.
- Entering a World of Pink is the personal blog of an American man diagnosed with breast cancer. In the blog, he shares his experiences with his diagnosis, treatment and beyond.
'Seek out support that is available to you like family, friends, doctors and nurses. Ask lots of questions and get as much information as you can to understand the disease. I found reading online forums, books and pamphlets helpful.' – Matthew