Breast Cancer in Men: 8 Subtle Signs and Symptoms
Fewer men get breast cancer than women, but men still need to be aware of it. Here are some of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer in men.
Cases of breast cancer in men may be relatively rare, but it’s a real diagnosis. In fact, the American Cancer Society estimates that in 2019, there were about 2,670 new cases of invasive breast cancer in men and 500 men died of the disease. “Unfortunately, male breast cancer is often detected in advanced stages,” says Hamid Abdollahi, MD, a surgeon at The Plastic Surgery Center based in New Jersey. “This is partially in part due to the lack of awareness that man can develop breast cancer.” To shed light on this disease, here are some signs and symptoms to keep an eye out for if you happen to be a male. Make sure you know the 8 other surprising health risks men need to watch out for.
Men with breast cancer may notice a firm, painless lump on what they would refer to as their pecs (pectoral muscles) that is behind or close to their nipple area. “This is different from the breast lumps found in benign gynecomastia—enlarged breasts in men due to hormonal imbalance,” according to Brandon Behjatnia, MD, a TopLine physician based in Pembroke Pines, Florida. “Gynecomastia usually manifests as an easily compressible, mobile, soft mass behind the nipple.” However, he explains that lumps related to cancer are not mobile or soft. Instead, they’re rather firm and are not easy to move under the skin. To determine whether or not a lump is cancerous, breast imaging and sometimes a needle biopsy are required.
Changes in breast shape or size
In addition to the appearance of a lump in the breast or pectoral region, men may notice an odd change in size. This change may be a size increase over time or even overnight, says Dr. Abdollahi. It may also be a change in shape. “This is also a sign of something happening under the skin,” he says. “This is often painless and [involves] very slight changes to the area, but serious nonetheless.” Be aware of the 13 signs of cancer men are likely to miss.
If you notice changes in the appearance, shape or texture of your nipples, it’s worth mentioning to your doctor. “These changes may include nipple retraction, or inversion (where the nipple is inverted), redness, scaling or discharge,” explains Dr. Behjatnia. Dennis Holmes, MD, a breast cancer surgeon and researcher and interim director of the Margie Petersen Breast Center at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, explains that the most common reason for nipple retraction is a cancer that is stuck to both the skin and the pectoralis muscle. It’s important to note, however, that nipple retraction in men can also be caused by benign conditions.
Sometimes, the first sign of breast cancer can be skin changes on the chest. “Men with inflammatory breast cancer can present with skin redness or a rash and edema, or the accumulation of fluid in the chest muscle tissue, that can mimic an infection,” says Sharon H. Giordano, MD, the investigator chair at the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and professor of medicine in the department of breast medical oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Oftentimes a rash or subtle redness can go unnoticed, as a patient may refer to it as caused by friction from a physical activity or even an unhealed wound. Other concerning skin changes can be firm nodule or ulceration on or near the nipple. Here are 13 common health conditions that affect men and women differently.
In women, nipple discharge, even in women who aren’t pregnant or breastfeeding, can be normal. The same is not true for men. In fact, it is often an early warning sign of breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. “This one, men usually don’t ignore and this is the trigger that gets them to realize that something is not right and an underlying issue,” says Dr. Abdollahi. This discharge may be clear, but it can also be accompanied by blood, in which the patient would notice it by stains on their shirt. If you notice a discharge of any kind, make an appointment with your doctor immediately.
Breast or nipple pain
While breast pain is a nonspecific sign and can be seen with many non-cancer causes too, Dr.Behjatnia warns that it may be a sign of breast cancer. “The pain related to breast cancer is usually focal and persistent, unrelated to any trauma or physical activity,” he says. “The pain is predominantly in the nipple area.” If you’re experiencing unexplained pain in your nipple or breast area that does not go away after a few days, schedule an appointment with your practitioner. Check out the 15 breast cancer myths you can safely ignore.
Typically, breast cancer in men is diagnosed in later stages, which means it could potentially spread outside of the breast to other parts of the body. According to Dr. Giordano, bone is the most common site for breast cancer to spread. “When this happens, bone pain is the most common symptom and can lead men to seek medical care and get diagnosed.”
Enlarged lymph nodes
Another place cancer can spread is to the lymph nodes. “As a result, when breast cancer does develop in a man, there is a higher chance that the cancer would have spread to the lymph nodes by the time the cancer is detected in the breast,” says Dr. Holmes. If you notice one or more painful lumps near or under your armpit area, schedule an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible. Don’t be ashamed to ask your doctor these questions about your underarms.
If you develop any of these signs or symptoms, you should be evaluated by your doctor as soon as possible. “Men can undergo mammograms and ultrasound to further evaluate any suspicious lesions and then have a biopsy [if] necessary,” says Dr. Giordano. “Although male breast cancer is relatively rare—about one percent of all breast cancers occur in men—it is important for men to be aware that they, too, can be affected.” There is no reason to delay evaluation if you believe you have one or several of the symptoms mentioned. “Diagnosing cancer at the earliest stages will lead to the best outcomes and better survival,” Dr. Giordano adds. While the research isn’t as clear with men, here are six habits that may help prevent breast cancer.
- American Cancer Society: Breast Cancer Facts and Figures 2019-2020
- Hamid Abdollahi, MD, a surgeon at The Plastic Surgery Center, New Jersey
- Brandon Behjatnia, MD, a TopLine MD physician, Pembroke Pines, Florida
- Dennis Holmes, MD, breast cancer surgeon and researcher and interim director of the Margie Petersen Breast Center at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center, Santa Monica, California.
- Sharon H. Giordano, MD, BCRF investigator chair and professor of medicine in the department of breast medical oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston