Health A to Z
Breast cancer is often thought of as something that only affects women, but men can get it in rare cases. It develops in the small amount of breast tissue men have behind their nipples.
It usually occurs in men over 60, but can very occasionally affect younger men.
This page covers:
Signs of breast cancer in men include:
Read more about the symptoms of breast cancer in men.
See your GP if you have:
It's very unlikely you have cancer, but it's best to get checked out. Your GP will examine your breast and can refer you for tests and scans for breast cancer if needed.
If you don't have symptoms but have a clear family history of breast cancer, your GP may refer you to a genetic specialist to discuss your risk of getting it.
There are some inherited genes that increase your risk of cancer and a blood test can be done to check for these. Read about testing for cancer risk genes.
The treatment for breast cancer in men depends on how far the cancer has spread.
Possible treatments include:
Many men have surgery followed by one or more of the other treatments. This can help stop the cancer coming back in the future.
Read more about treatments for breast cancer in men.
The outlook for breast cancer in men varies depending on how far it has spread by the time it's diagnosed.
It may be possible to cure breast cancer it it's caught at an early stage.
A cure is much less likely if the cancer isn't found until it has spread beyond the breast. In these cases, treatment can relieve your symptoms and help you live longer.
Speak to your breast care nurse if you'd like to know more about the outlook for your cancer.
The exact cause of breast cancer in men isn't known, but there are some things that increase your risk of getting it.
The main symptom of breast cancer in men is a lump in the breast. The nipple or skin may also be affected.
See your GP if you have a breast lump or any other symptoms that worry you.
It's very unlikely you have cancer, but it's best to get checked out.
Cancerous breast lumps usually:
Most lumps and swellings aren't a sign of cancer.
A GP can check your lump and refer you for tests and scans for breast cancer if needed.
Other signs of breast cancer in men include:
Further symptoms may develop if the cancer spreads to other parts of the body, such as the bones, lungs or liver.
These symptoms can include:
See your GP if you have symptoms of breast cancer. They will examine you and ask about your symptoms.
Your GP can refer you to a specialist breast clinic for the following scans and tests if needed.
An ultrasound scan of your breast may be carried out to look for a lump in your breast and see it it's solid or filled with fluid. A solid lump is more likely to be cancerous.
An ultrasound scan uses high-frequency sound waves to produce an image of the inside of your breasts.
You'll need to remove your top for the test, which involves a small device being moved over your chest to create an image on a screen.
Sometimes an X-ray of your breast, called a mammogram, may be carried out to look for any lumps or unusual areas.
But these aren't done very often these days because they can be uncomfortable (your chest will be firmly pressed against a special plate while the scan is taken) and they don't usually show much more than an ultrasound scan does.
If a lump or unusual area is found in your breast, a biopsy will be carried out to check if it's cancer.
This is where a small piece of breast tissue is removed using a needle. Local anaesthetic is used to numb your skin so the needle doesn't hurt.
The piece of tissue will be checked in a laboratory to see if it contains any cancer cells and to find out more about the cells (such as whether hormone treatment might work).
Being told you have breast cancer can cause a wide range of emotions, such as shock, fear, confusion and, in some cases, embarrassment.
Feelings of isolation are also common. This may be because there's little in the way of information and advice for men with breast cancer.
Speak to your GP or care team if you're struggling to come to terms with your diagnosis. They can offer support and advice.
You may also find it useful to talk to other men with the condition. The charity Breast Cancer Care has an online forum for men with breast cancer. Cancer Research UK also has Cancer Chat, an online forum for anyone affected by cancer.
The treatment for breast cancer in men largely depends on how far the cancer has spread. Possible treatments include surgery, radiotherapy and medication.
This page has information about:
You'll be cared for by a team of specialists who will help you make decisions about your treatment.
Your recommended treatment plan will depend on how far the cancer has spread, but the final decision about going ahead with treatment is yours.
You may find it useful to write a list of questions you'd like to ask your team. For example, you could ask about the advantages and disadvantages of particular treatments.
If the cancer hasn't spread very far beyond your breast, a cure may be possible. This will usually involve surgery, possibly followed by radiotherapy or a course of medication.
If the cancer has spread into other parts of your body, a complete cure may not be possible. But treatment can help relieve symptoms and slow down the spread of the cancer.
An operation called a mastectomy is the main treatment for breast cancer.
This involves removing all the breast tissue from the affected breast as well as the nipple, and possibly also the glands in your armpit and some of the muscle under your breast.
The operation is carried out under general anaesthetic (where you're asleep). You'll probably need to stay in hospital for a day or two.
It can take several months to fully recover. The Royal College of Surgeons of England has a leaflet for people recovering from a mastectomy with detailed information and advice.
After surgery, there'll be a straight scar across your chest where your nipple used to be and possibly a dent where the breast tissue was removed.
The scar will be raised and red at first, but it should flatten and fade with time. The area will also be bruised and swollen for the first few weeks.
It may be possible to have further surgery at some point to improve the appearance of your breast and create a replacement nipple. Other options include tattooing a new nipple on to your chest.
Talk to your care team about how your chest will look after surgery and what your options are for improving its appearance if necessary.
Side effects and risks of a mastectomy include:
Before having surgery, talk to your surgeon and breast care nurse about the possible risks.
Radiotherapy is a treatment where radiation is used to kill cancer cells. In breast cancer in men, it may be used to:
It involves several treatment sessions where a machine is used to carefully aim beams of radiation at the cancer. Each session usually only lasts for 10 to 15 minutes and you can go home afterwards.
A typical course of treatment involves two to five sessions a week over three to six weeks, although palliative radiotherapy may involve fewer sessions.
Radiotherapy isn't painful, although you'll probably get some side effects. Most of these should pass once treatment stops.
Common side effects of radiotherapy include:
Read more about the side effects of radiotherapy.
Hormone therapy is a treatment that involves taking medication to block the effects of a hormone called oestrogen.
Around 9 in 10 breast cancers in men are "oestrogen receptor positive", which means the cancer cells need oestrogen to grow.
Hormone therapy can be used to:
The most commonly used hormone medicine is tamoxifen. This is taken as a tablet or liquid every day, usually for five years.
Tamoxifen can cause some unpleasant side effects, such as:
Tell your care team if you have any troublesome side effects. Other hormone medicines, such as a type called aromatase inhibitors, are available if needed.
In breast cancer in men, chemotherapy may be used to:
It involves several treatment sessions where medicine is given directly into a vein. Each session usually lasts a few hours and you can go home afterwards.
A typical course of treatment involves six sessions, with a break of a few weeks between each one to allow your body to recover.
Chemotherapy can cause a range of unpleasant side effects, although most of these should pass once treatment stops.
Side effects of chemotherapy can include:
Read more about the side effects of chemotherapy.
Trastuzumab (brand name Herceptin) is a medicine that blocks the effect of a substance called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2).
In some breast cancers in men, HER2 contributes to the growth of the cancer cells.
Trastuzumab is usually used after radiotherapy or chemotherapy to help stop the cancer coming back.
It's given as a liquid directly into a vein or as an injection under the skin. You come into hospital for treatment and go home shortly afterwards.
A typical course of treatment involves a treatment session every three weeks for a year.
Trastuzumab can cause some unpleasant side effects, such as:
Read more about the side effects of trastuzumab.
When John found a lump in his breast, he had no idea it was a sign of cancer. He tells his story.
"My wife and I were a bit concerned when we discovered a lump in my breast, so we went to the doctor. He said it was probably scar tissue caused by contact sports (I'd done a lot of judo in the past).
"Around that time, I also noticed that my nipple had become inverted. It didn't worry me – I just thought it was something that happened when you get older and a bit overweight.
"A couple of years later, my wife read that an inverted nipple could be a sign of breast cancer. We phoned her cousin, who's a GP, and she told us to get it checked out. So we went back to my GP and I ended up having a needle biopsy. Surprisingly, it showed that I had breast cancer.
"Things happened very quickly after that. The following week, I was in hospital having a mastectomy (breast removal). While surgeons were removing the breast, they noticed that the lymph glands were cancerous, too, so they removed some of them from under my arm. The operation was straightforward and almost painless afterwards. I was released on the Saturday morning and went back to work on Monday.
"Then, a few months after the operation, I started chemotherapy. This was the real killer. It made me feel queasy all the time. I got really grumpy and was shouting at everyone. I had it once a week, for six months, followed by a course of radiotherapy.
"After the radiotherapy, they put me on a breast cancer drug called Arimidex (anastrozole) for five years. It's the same treatment for men as it is for women. My joints and muscles ached when I was on this medication, but these side effects disappear after you finish the course.
"I don't know what caused my breast cancer, although I've heard it can be hereditary, and my late mother had breast cancer. I'm all right now and my life is back to normal.
"The doctors got rid of my cancer just in time. I was very lucky. I couldn't fault the NHS. All the staff were superb. Even when I was going through chemotherapy and getting grumpy with everyone, they understood and weren't offended."