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. 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. 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.
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 drip in the arm which 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 a week for around 3–6 weeks.
Hormone therapy drugs are used to treat hormone receptor positive (ER+/PR+) breast cancer. Hormone therapy involves taking a tablet every day for five years or more. The most common hormone therapy recommended for men with breast cancer is tamoxifen. Sometimes an aromatase inhibitor (e.g. Arimidex, Femara or Aromasin) may be recommended. 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 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
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.
Being with people who’d been through the same or similar experience was very empowering for me. – Ronald
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 may also find it helpful to seek support from more general cancer groups where members have a range of cancers.
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 online support groups and male breast cancer resources can be found at the bottom of this page, and in our booklet ‘Men Get Breast Cancer Too’.
Metastatic breast cancer
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.
BCNA’s free Hope & Hurdles contains comprehensive information about metastatic breast cancer and its treatments. While much of it refers to women, a lot of the information is relevant to men and it has a specific section for men. See the ‘more information’ section below to find out how to order a copy.
Sharing your diagnosis with others
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. – Matthew
Information booklet for men
If you would like to know more about breast cancer in men, read BCNA's Men get breast cancer too booklet. It provides information specifically for men, including treatments, coping strategies and common challenges that men face after a diagnosis. The booklet also mentions other resources and counselling services that are available to you. The booklet was developed with input from men who have been diagnosed with breast cancer as well as their family members, health professionals and researchers.
Personal stories from men with breast cancer
While 144 men are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, it can be isolating being diagnosed with what is considered a 'women's cancer'. It may help to read stories from other men with breast cancer to know you are not alone. Read stories from men with breast cancer, or connect with other men in a similar situation on BCNA's online network.
BCNA also provides a range of information resources on breast cancer treatment and care. While we tend to refer to women with breast cancer throughout our publications, much of the information is relevant to men diagnosed with breast cancer.
Sign up to BCNA's My Journey for tailored information for men when diagnosed with breast cancer.
Fact sheets and booklets are available on a wide range of topics, including breast cancer pathology, hormone therapies and side effects, hair loss, lymphoedema, practical and financial issues, and patient assisted travel schemes.
In 2016, BCNA carried out a consultation with a group of men diagnosed with breast cancer. The aim was to better understand what BCNA and other can do to better meet the needs of men facing a breast cancer diagnosis. A copy of the full report and executive summary of this project can be found here.
Talk to your GP about getting a referral to an appropriate specialist such as a psychologist. You are entitled to up to 10 Medicare-subsidised appointments. For more information, visit the Department of Health's 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.
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.
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 has useful information about managing the 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 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.