Most men think breast cancer is a disease that only affects women. The thinking is, “this doesn’t happen to guys”. Nonetheless, the Breast Health Foundation recorded that in South Africa, 1-3% of all breast cancers happen in men. It is estimated that South Africa has the highest incidence of male breast cancer in the world.

Male breast cancer is of concern, because it tends to be diagnosed at a later stage due to ignorance.

Some comments from men that were diagnosed with male breast cancer include: “It’s really hard to talk about breast cancer in men and it was really tough to tell my friends and my family about my situation” and “As a guy, it’s really surprising and shocking to ever get the news that you have breast cancer, as breast cancer is something that’s usually occurs in women”.

Early detection is crucial

Although minimal in quantity, men do have breast tissue that has the potential to become malignant similarly to women, albeit much less commonly.

The most common sign of breast cancer is a new lump or mass.  A painless lump that is hard and has uneven edges is more likely to be cancer, but some cancers are tender, soft and rounded.  You need to have anything unusual lump or mass checked by a doctor.

Early detection of the condition can lead to effective treatment and a positive prognosis.  The treatment of breast cancer in men follows the same principles of management as for women.

Factors that increase the risk of male breast cancer include:

  • Older age. Breast cancer is most common in men ages 40 to 80.
  • Family history of breast cancer. About 1 in 5 men with breast cancer (20%) have a close relative who has also had breast cancer.
  • Genetically inherited. The genes store the biological information inherited from parents.  Men who have a BRCA mutation (a mutation or change in a gene that predisposes them to breast cancer) are at a greater risk.
  • Radiation exposure. If one has received radiation treatments to the chest, such as those used to treat cancers in the chest, one is more likely to develop breast cancer later in life.
  • Exposure to oestrogen. If one takes oestrogen-related drugs, such as those used as part of sex reassignment surgery, the risk of breast cancer is increased.  Oestrogen drugs may also be used in hormone therapy for prostate cancer.  Although all men have oestrogen in their bodies, obesity, cirrhosis (liver disease) and Klinefelter’s syndrome (a genetic disorder) increase oestrogen levels.
    • Klinefelter's syndrome. This genetic syndrome occurs when a boy is born with more than one copy of the X chromosome.  Klinefelter's syndrome causes abnormal development of the testicles.  As a result, men with this syndrome produce lower levels of certain male hormones (androgens) and more female hormones (oestrogens).
    • Being a heavy user of alcohol, which can limit the liver's ability to regulate blood oestrogen levels.
    • Liver disease. If one has liver disease, such as cirrhosis of the liver, the male hormones may be reduced and female hormones may be increased.  This can increase the risk of breast cancer.
    • Obesity may be a risk factor for breast cancer in men because it increases the number of fat cells in the body.  Fat cells convert androgens into oestrogen, which may increase the amount of oestrogen in the body and, therefore, the increased risk of breast cancer.

For more information download this “Fact Sheet on Breast Cancer in Men” from the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA).