In recent years, fantastic work has been done to raise public awareness about breast cancer in women, yet it still comes as a surprise to many people that men can suffer from this disease as well.
While men don’t develop breasts like women, they do have breast tissue, most of it located directly behind the nipple. In breast cancer, cells that grow in an uncontrolled, abnormal manner in the tissue of the breast cluster together to form a malignant tumour, which can invade surrounding areas and spread to other parts of the body.
According to Cape Town-based doctor Jacques Badenhorst, “Breast cancer is not nearly as prevalent among men as it is in women – about 99% of all breast cancer patients are female – but it is as dangerous. The severity depends on the stage of the disease, which is determined by the size of the tumour and on whether it has spread anywhere else in the body.”
There’s a good chance of a cure if the disease is diagnosed at an early stage, but unfortunately it’s commonly only detected in men once it has started to spread to other organs.
The most common sign of breast cancer in men is a firm but normally painless lump beneath the nipple. Other symptoms include a swelling of the breast, changes in the skin of the breast, including puckering, ulceration and dimpling, changes in the nipple, such as redness, scaling and retraction (when the nipple turns inward), an opaque or bloody discharge from the nipple, and lumps under the arm.
If the cancer has spread to other regions it can also cause pain there along with other typical cancer symptoms like weakness, weight loss and a general sense of feeling unwell.
Consult your doctor without delay if you experience any of these warning signs. “The disease is so rare,” says Badenhorst, “that, unlike in the case of women, there are no guidelines advising regular self-examination for men.”
Who gets it?
While it can occur at any age, the chances of breast cancer in men rises as they get older and most commonly happens between 60 and 70. The risk of breast cancer increases in men who:
• Have been exposed to ionising radiation in the breast area
• Have elevated levels of the female hormone, oestrogen
• Suffer from a liver disease such as cirrhosis, which affects the functioning of the liver and the concentration of oestrogen in the blood
• Have a history of breast cancer in their family
• Are obese
• Have a disease or injury of the testicles, or an undescended testicle
• Have a rare, inherited condition called Klinefelder’s syndrome
The diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer is very similar in men and women. Treatment options depend on the stage to which the cancer has developed.
The most common initial course of action in men is a surgical procedure known as a mastectomy in which the affected breast lining over the chest muscles, the nipple, parts of the underarm lymph nodes, as well as portions of the muscles of the chest wall may be removed.
Also used, especially if the disease has spread to the lymph nodes, are chemotherapy, radiation therapy and hormone therapy, either individually or in combination.
For more information, email the Cancer Association of South Africa at [email protected] or contact CANSA’s toll-free call centre at 0800 22 66 22.
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