Are you a man who has been diagnosed with breast cancer?
Many people are surprised to learn that men can develop breast cancer. Fortunately, breast cancer in men is rare and it accounts for less than 1 per cent of all cancers in men.
The good news is that most men survive breast cancer. In Australia, 87 per cent of men diagnosed with breast cancer are alive five years later. Most men fully recover, and the breast cancer does not return.
Men of all ages can be affected by breast cancer. However, the average age of diagnosis is 71.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer can leave you feeling surprised, anxious, and angry. You may have been unaware that men can develop breast cancer and may feel shocked. As breast cancer is often considered a "women’s cancer" and is represented by the colour pink, your diagnosis may also leave you feeling uncomfortable and isolated. Learning about breast cancer and its treatment may help you feel more in control. It may also prepare you for what your doctors might discuss with you.
There are many different types of breast cancer. The treatment recommended for you will depend on the type of breast cancer you have and your personal situation. Read more about the Types of breast cancer.
Here are a few common treatment options for breast cancer in men.
Surgery aims to remove all cancer cells from the breast. The most common type of surgery for men is a mastectomy. This involves removing the whole breast, including the nipple and the area around the nipple.
Breast-conserving surgery (also called lumpectomy) involves removing only the cancerous part of the breast. This procedure is usually unsuitable for men because there is not enough breast tissue in the male breast. However, a lumpectomy may be an option for small cancers.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells that may have started to spread to other parts of the body. It is usually given through a intravenous (IV) drip in the arm that slowly releases the drug into the bloodstream. Not all men with breast cancer need chemotherapy.
Radiotherapy (also called radiation treatment) uses X-rays to kill any cancer cells that may be left in the breast or lymph nodes under the arm (axilla) after surgery. It is more common after breast-conserving surgery but is sometimes recommended after a mastectomy. Radiotherapy is usually given five days per week for around three to six weeks.
Hormone-blocking therapy is used to treat hormone receptor-positive breast cancer. Hormone-blocking therapy involves taking a tablet every day for five years or more. The most common hormone-blocking therapy recommended for men with breast cancer is tamoxifen.
Sometimes an aromatase inhibitor (e.g. Arimidex, Femara or Aromasin) may be recommended. This is often given in combination with a drug called a gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonist, such as goserelin (Zoladex). This causes the testicles to stop making oestrogen and testosterone. Research on the use of aromatase inhibitors in men is very limited.
Targeted therapies are drugs used to treat certain types of breast cancer. In a small number of breast cancers in men the cells have too many copies of the growth-promoting protein HER2 which causes the cancer to grow and spread. Targeted therapies are drugs that target specific proteins or enzymes that play a role in the growth of cancer cells. Trastuzumab is a targeted therapy often used to treat HER2-positive breast cancer.
While breast reconstruction is not common in men, it is sometimes possible. Breast reconstruction typically uses 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.
A nipple reconstruction may also be an option. Nipple reconstruction involves rebuilding the nipple and the areola (the area around the nipple). This 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.
If you think breast reconstruction is something you might be interested in, talk to your breast surgeon.
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.
As a man diagnosed with breast cancer, you will be looking for information and support that is tailored to your needs. BCNA’s My Journey is a tailored online resource with a dedicated section for men with a breast cancer diagnosis.
My Journey provides the latest information about breast cancer, treatment and care, including services and support available to you.
Looking after your wellbeing is easier if you have a strong support network. Friends, partners and family are a crucial part of that support network. Some men also find it valuable to connect with others who are living with breast cancer. You may like to talk to a member of your treating team to see if they know of other men or suitable support groups you could connect with. A counsellor, social worker or GP may also be able to connect you with local support services. You might find it helpful to seek support from more general cancer groups where members have a range of cancers.
Being with people who’d been through the same or similar experience was very empowering for me.
Some men diagnosed with breast cancer can develop metastatic breast cancer, where the breast cancer cells spread from the breast to other more distant parts of the body such as the bones or lungs.
You might find it difficult to tell others about your diagnosis. If so, it can be helpful to start by telling your family and close friends first. This will help you become familiar with people’s responses and reactions. As breast cancer in men is rare, you may find that people want to ask you questions. You may like to have a few answers prepared.
Many people who are diagnosed with cancer find that it affects their friendships. Sadly, this usually happens when friends and family don’t know how to cope with the news. Sometimes, a person you thought would be there for you will respond by stepping back. At other times, the opposite happens, and people who you do not have regular contact with you may respond by making contact and offering help. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong way to respond to breast cancer. Just find what works for you, your family and your friends.
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.
Some men find it easier to connect through online groups, including overseas websites, designed for male breast cancer survivors. It is important to be mindful that these groups are not always professionally facilitated, so some of the posts may not align with your own views. A list of support and services can be found at the bottom of this page.
Here are some of the support services available to men living with breast cancer:
Talk to your GP about getting a referral to an appropriate mental health specialist, such as a psychologist. You are entitled to up to 10 Medicare-subsidised appointments. For more information, visit the Australian Government Services Australia website.
Cancer Council Helpline (13 11 20) is a free telephone information and support service run by Cancer Councils in each state and territory. Trained health professionals are available to speak with you about breast cancer. They can also arrange for you to speak with a counsellor or connect you to local support groups in your local area.
Cancer Connect (13 11 20) is a free service run by the Cancer Council in each state and territory. People diagnosed with cancer, or their family and friends can connect with someone who has been through a similar experience.
MindSpot is a free online service for Australians experiencing stress, worry, anxiety, low mood or depression. The website has useful information about managing the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Listen to BCNA’s podcast Men get breast cancer too.
Watch the BCNA webcast on Men and breast cancer – Treatment, managing side effects and finding support.
Read BCNA’s booklet Men get breast cancer too. It provides information specifically for men, including treatments, coping strategies and common challenges that men face after a diagnosis.
Visit Cancer Australia’s website for information about breast cancer in men.
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