Breast Cancer: Not for Women Only

In 2016, approximately 246,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and it will claim the lives of over 40,000.  While generally regarded as a female cancer, in fact, 2600 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year and 440 will die from it.

Although male breast cancer is very rare, it does happen. And when it does, it often isn’t found until late in the disease process. Men don’t look for it and don’t have mammograms to help find it in its earliest stages. Just as women should know the factors associated with its development, so should men. Some of them are the same, some are obviously different. Most cannot be controlled, but there are some that can be, and it makes sense to do whatever  
                                                 we can to lessen the chances of it developing.

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The average risk of a man developing breast cancer is 1 out of 1000, for a woman it’s 1 out of 8 over her lifetime.

The following are lifestyle risk factors for breast cancer in both men and women
that we can control:

 Excess body weight

Excess body weight (fat tissue) leads to increased estrogen levels. Estrogen fuels the growth of  about 74% of these cancers .  In women, during the time between menarche and menopause most of the estrogen comes from the ovaries. At menopause, when the ovaries stop producing it, most of it then comes from fat tissue. The more fat tissue the more estrogen, the more estrogen the greater the risk of breast cancer. Overweight women have a 1.5 time greater risk of breast cancer than normal weight women, obese women have a 2 time greater risk.

In men, an enzyme in fat tissue changes testosterone to estrogen. Excess fat tissue means more estrogen which can increase the risk of breast cancer.

For information about healthy ways to get to a healthy weight – the National Institutes of Health offers a number of suggestions at this link:


Physical Inactivity

Physical inactivity affects weight (see above) and hormones levels. Regular exercise not only contributes to weight control, it may decrease estrogen levels and boost the immune system. (National Cancer Institute)

Data from the National Institutes of Health - Women’s Health Initiative, found that 75 – 150 minutes (1.25 – 2.5 hours)  of brisk walking a week reduced breast cancer risk by 18%.

The American Cancer Society recommends at least 150 minutes of moderately intense or 75 minutes of vigorously intense activity each week.

A brisk walk is an example of a moderate activity.  During a brisk walk, your heart rates goes up a little and you breath a little faster. You’re able to talk while walking, but you can’t sing.

Vigorous activities increase your heart rate, make you breathe faster and sweat.

Alcohol consumption

Alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer. The more you drink, the greater the risk. Compared to women who don’t drink, those who have 1 drink a day have a very small increase in risk. Those who have 2 to 5 drinks a day increase their risk about 1½ times,

Men with a liver disease like cirrhosis from alcohol have low levels of male hormones and higher estrogen levels which increases the risk of developing breast cancer.

The American Cancer Society recommends that women limit their alcohol intake to no more than 1 drink a day and men to two. (One drink is A drink is 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.


Risk factors for both men and women that cannot be controlled include:

  • Age (60+)


  • Genetic mutations or having the breast cancer genes (BRCA 1 and/or 2) (The risk for a man with a BRCA1 mutation is 1 in 5, with a BRCA 2 mutation, it’s 6 out of 100)


  • Having first-degree relatives  - parents, siblings or children with a history of breast cancer


  • Having had high-dose radiation to chest


Other risk factors for men that cannot be controlled include:

Testicular disorders
Enlarged breasts (gynecomastia)
Klinefeller’s Syndrome (rare genetic where male is born with extra X chromosome – XXY instead of XY – which causes higher levels of estrogen to be produced)


Other risk factors for women that cannot be controlled include:


High estrogen or testosterone levels (postmenopausal)

Extremely dense breasts

Ashkenazi Jewish heritage

Diethylstilbestrol (DES) exposure

Early menarche (menstruation before age 12)

Late age at first full-term pregnancy (after age 30 )

Late menopause (after age 55 years)

Never breastfed a child

No full-term pregnancies

Personal history of endometrium, ovary, or colon cancer

Recent and long-term use of menopausal hormone therapy


While it’s important to do all we can to decrease our risk of developing breast cancer, it doesn’t mean we’ll always be able to prevent breast cancer. We still need to be aware of changes in our bodies and see a health care professional if any occur.


The symptoms of breast cancer are the same for both men and women and include:


  1. A lump in the breast or under the arm which is usually painless (in men the lump is most often behind the nipple)
  2. Any puckering of the skin
  3. Nipple discharge (other than during breastfeeding)
  4. Redness, scaling or thickening of the nipple or skin
  5. Nipple retraction (turning inward)

For more information:

American Society of Clinical Oncology – Male breast cancer

National Cancer Institute

Breast Cancer


American Cancer Society

2016 Cancer Facts and Figures

2015-2016 Breast Cancer Facts and Figures

Breast cancer in men


National Library of Medicine
Breast Cancer

           Obesity and male breast cancer





Joanna Hayden, PhD, CHES is the principal of Associates for Health Education and Behavior, LLC, in Sparta, a practice focused on improving health through education. Her office offers individual and group health education, and individual health behavior change guidance.  For more information please see  To contact Dr. Hayden, email her

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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