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Doctors often say to patients, “If you see something, say something,” when it comes to detecting cancer. That’s exactly what Matthew Knowles, father to R&B star Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, did when he noticed dots of blood on his T-shirts and bed sheets. His symptoms eventually led to a breast cancer diagnosis this fall.
Although breast cancer in men is rare — less than 1% of all breast cancer cases develop in men — it appears to be rising. One report suggests that breast cancer in men has increased 26% in the past 25 years.
“Just as women are born with breast cells and tissues, men are born with them too,” says April Swoboda, MD, a medical oncologist at Rush who specializes in breast cancer. “Even though men do not develop milk-producing breasts, their breast cells and tissue can still develop cancer.”
One of the challenges of breast cancer for men is the lack of awareness, education and advocates. Because it is somewhat rare, men do not know that they could develop breast cancer — or their own risk factors.
“Just as women are born with breast cells and tissues, men are born with them too.”
Like women, the main risk factors include age, family history of breast cancer, having the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 genes. Additionally, black men have a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer. In fact, black men have a greater than threefold increased risk of dying as a result of their breast cancer compared to white men. And overall, black men with breast cancer have a worse prognosis than white men do.
“That’s why Knowles, a black man, publicly discussing his diagnosis is so powerful,” Swoboda says.
Following are more details about the breast cancer risk factors for men:
Family history and gene mutations: If a man tests positive for genetic mutations that are associated with breast cancer – either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene – he has a higher risk of developing breast cancer — and his children have a 50% chance of carrying the genetic mutation, as well.
If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, Swoboda recommends you and your family see a genetic counselor who specializes in cancer. The counselor can help you find out if you have the BRCA genes and if you’re at a higher risk for breast cancer.
Obesity and hormone imbalances: Studies have shown that obesity plays a role in breast cancer risk for women and men. The reason is that fat cells in the body convert male hormones, or androgens, into female hormones, or estrogens. This means that obese men have higher levels of estrogens in their body, which can contribute to a risk of breast cancer.
Age: As with women, the incidence of breast cancer in men increases with age. Men also tend to be approximately five to 10 years older than women at the time of diagnosis.
Treating male breast cancer is very similar to women’s breast cancer. “The type of breast cancer that men and women are diagnosed with determines the course of treatment,” Swoboda says.
The most common type of breast cancer in men is hormone-receptor positive, which refers to breast cancer that expresses estrogen and/or progesterone receptors. Once your care team determines the type of breast cancer, they will work with you to determine the best care plan, which may include surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.
Swoboda stresses that there is absolutely no reason for men to feel ashamed when receiving a breast cancer diagnosis. She notes that bringing awareness to the issue, such as Knowles did, can help men understand that breast cancer is not only a women’s disease.
“Men shouldn’t feel embarrassment nor keep their diagnosis hidden,” says Swoboda. “We need to continue to educate others in order to decrease the stigma and increase the awareness of breast cancer in men.”
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