It’s rare for a man to be diagnosed with breast cancer, but it happens more than you might think.
While cases of male breast cancer only account for 1 percent of breast cancer diagnoses, close to 2,500 new cases of male breast cancer are diagnosed in the United States every year.
Each day that’s about seven new cases diagnosed and one death.
For the most part, the outcomes and treatments are the same for breast cancer, whether it occurs in a man or a woman.
But for men diagnosed with the disease, experts say the disease can present them with a real challenge to find support and treatment.
Treatment geared toward women
Complicating things for Stuart Weaver was the fact that, after his initial diagnosis, his private insurer refused to pay for a drug to treat the disease because he’s a man.
While laws and insurers are different in Britain, many of the same problems plague men who are diagnosed with the disease in the United States, says a doctor who specializes in breast cancer.
“Many breast cancer trials often exclude men from getting into the study,” Dr. Bhuvaneswari Ramaswamy, director of the breast medical oncology division at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told Healthline. “This is changing, thankfully. The medical community is making efforts to include men in breast cancer studies unless there’s a biological or scientific reason to exclude them. But even if you do include them, you can imagine how few of them would be in the study.”
Diagnosis, risk factors
Genetics doesn’t play a big role in breast cancer in women, but it does in men.
“In women, the risk factor for developing breast cancer is that you’re a woman and you’re getting older,” said Ramaswamy. “So age and being a woman are the most important risk factors for women. People often ask about family history and whether you carry the gene and things like that, and the risk factor of carrying an inheritable gene mutation is only between five to 10 percent in females.”
For men, the risk factors are completely different, says Ramaswamy.
“The most common reason for men to develop breast cancer is not aging, and it’s not because they’re men. It’s carrying the genetic mutation,” she said. “The risk factor difference is flipped because the most common reason for a man to develop breast cancer is because he carries the gene mutation.”
Ramaswamy also points out that more than 90 percent of breast cancers in men are of the estrogen receptor positive subtype, while that number falls to about 70 percent in women.
This means that more than 90 percent of breast cancers in men are dependent on estrogen.
Male breast cancer is largely a fluke, but are there any preventative measures men can take?
“You can’t modify a gene and you can’t modify your family history, obviously,” said Ramaswamy. “But you can modify your lifestyle. Men have an increased risk of developing breast cancer if they are overweight and if they drink. Because both obesity and alcohol consumption lead to higher estrogen in the body.”
A lonely battle
Breast cancer tends to be the most commonly diagnosed cancer among women in the United States, so there is no shortage of support options for women diagnosed with the disease.
But for men, finding support can be difficult.
“The emotional aspect is so different between the two groups and I think this is something that’s important to highlight,” said Ramaswamy. “If a man is diagnosed, he’ll often feel very isolated. Almost all of my male breast cancer patients have verbalized that they feel isolated.”
There is also a stigma many of the men feel.
“Some of them also feel a little bit, kind of shameful, to share with their friends that they have breast cancer,” Ramaswamy added. “It’s not as masculine as saying that they have prostate cancer. There are also lots of concerns about taking medications like estrogen pills and how that will affect the idea of being a man.”
Men also can have problems finding information.
“The interesting, or ironic, part of this is that there is so much information, so much constantly being said about breast cancer on the web and everywhere else — but it isn’t about their specific problem,” Ramaswamy added.
Outcomes largely the same
Despite the unique challenges that breast cancer presents in men, treatment of the disease is pretty much the same for men and women.
“Stage for stage, the outcomes are no different for male and female breast cancer,” said Ramaswamy. “So if you compare them at the same stages and types and subtypes, the outcomes are pretty much the same.”
This is relatively good news for men who are diagnosed as they can utilize the same treatment methods as women — and, increasingly, the same medications as well.
But because the disease is so rare in men, detection can be difficult.
“There is some data that male breast cancers are diagnosed a little bit late because men are not doing self-exams or getting mammograms, so there is some data on delayed diagnosis of male breast cancer,” said Ramaswamy.
She added that since 99 percent of breast cancers occur in women, treatment and support services will always necessarily be geared toward women.
“It’s definitely a very unique situation for men with breast cancer,” said Ramaswamy. “It’s not that there’s an agenda on this. It’s just that women are far more likely to develop breast cancer.”