Breast Cancer in Men 

Updated: Feb 11, 2021
Author: Bagi RP Jana, MD, MBA, MHA, FACP; Chief Editor: John V Kiluk, MD, FACS 

Overview of Male Breast Cancer

The etiology, diagnosis, and treatment of breast cancer in males is similar to that in females. Unlike breast cancer in females, however, breast cancer in men is rare. Although its frequency has increased in recent decades—particularly in the urban United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom—breast cancer in males accounts for less than 1% of breast cancers.[1, 2] In the United States, males are expected to account for only 2650 of the estimated 284,200 cases of breast cancer predicted to occur in 2021.[3]

Unfortunately, this rarity has largely precluded prospective randomized clinical trials. It may also contribute to the infrequency of early diagnosis. Men tend to be diagnosed with breast cancer at an older age than women and with a more advanced stage of disease, and they have proportionately higher mortality, although outcomes for male and female patients with breast cancer are similar when survival is adjusted for age at diagnosis and stage of disease.[4]

See the image below.

A partially circumscribed retroareolar mass in a m A partially circumscribed retroareolar mass in a male with suspicious microcalcifications; this is known breast cancer.

For more information, see the following:

For patient education information, see Male Breast Cancer.

 

Etiology

Environmental and genetic risk factors for male breast cancer have been identified. Male breast cancers are reported to be associated with the following[5] :

  • Marital status (never married at higher risk)
  • Previous breast pathology
  • Gynecomastia
  • History of testicular pathology
  • Family history of breast cancer

The family history is positive for breast cancer in approximately 30% of male breast cancer cases. A familial form of breast cancer is seen in which both sexes are at increased risk for breast cancer. Familial cases usually have BRCA2 rather than BRCA1 mutations.[4] Men who inherit BRCA2 have about a 6% lifetime risk of breast cancer, which is 100-fold higher than in men without the mutation.[6]

Klinefelter syndrome is the strongest risk factor.[4] Males with the syndrome have a risk of breast cancer that approaches that of females.

Exogenous hormone therapy, such as treatment for prostate cancer, is not associated with an increased risk of male breast tumors.  No association with smoking history was reported. Meta-analysis of epidemiology of male breast cancer failed to reveal any clear association with other potential risk factors such as reproductive history, education, various diseases, or exposure to drugs. Case-control studies on this subject have been confounded by small numbers or contradictory results.  

Overall, male breast cancer shares risk factors associated with female breast cancers, especially high estrogen levels. A few transsexual (male to female) patients have been reported with breast cancer 5-10 years after initiation of estrogen therapy; however, it is not known whether these patients are at increased risk compared with non-transsexual males.[1]  Excessive estrogen levels in men may also be related to obesity, liver disease, and thyroid dysfunction. 

These epidemiologic factors, in addition to studies suggesting that men with breast cancer have elevated estriol production, indicate a relationship between male breast cancer and hormones in addition to the well-established relationship with genetics. 

 

Diagnosis

Male breast cancer usually presents as a painless lump. In 75% of cases, the lump is a hard and fixed nodule in the subareolar region, with nipple involvement more common than in women.[7] Often, the disease is not detected until late in its course: more than 40% of patients have stage III or IV disease at diagnosis.[4] Lack of awareness that men develop breast cancer may possibly contribute to diagnosis of breast cancer in men at more advanced stages than in women. 

In patients with clinical features completely consistent with gynecomastia, breast cancer may be excluded on clinical grounds, and no further evaluation may be necessary. If findings are equivocal, however, mammography can be useful in diagnosis.[1] See Male Breast Cancer Imaging for further information on this topic.

Fine-needle aspiration biopsy can confirm the diagnosis.[8] Histologically, the majority of breast cancers in men are infiltrating ductal carcinomas, but the entire spectrum of histological variants of breast cancer has been seen. Papillary carcinoma is a distant second in frequency. Lobular carcinoma is uncommon.[1]  Most male breast cancers (~80%) are hormone receptor positive, 15% overexpress human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2), and 4% are triple negative (estrogen receptor, progesterone receptor, and HER2 negative).[9]

 

Treatment & Follow-up

Treatment of male breast cancer comprises surgery, radiation therapy, and systemic therapy. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a draft guidance encouraging the inclusion of male patients in breast cancer clinical trials, noting that many treatments are approved for women only and further data may be necessary to support approval for use in men.

Surgery

The general principles of surgical management of male breast cancer are similar to those of breast cancer in women. Simple mastectomy remains the usual choice for T1 and T2 breast tumors. Nipple- and skin-sparing mastectomy are common in women, but generally not practiced in male breast cancer. Cosmetic outcomes are of secondary concern, but where feasible, surgeries with better cosmetic outcomes can be considered in men as well.

Retrospective studies indicate that breast-conserving surgery can be performed in carefully selected patients.[10] Male breast cancer patients who present with locally advanced tumors (ie, T3, T4) can be offered therapy similar to that for locally advanced breast cancer in women, with neoadjuvant chemotherapy followed by surgical resection.  

Radiation therapy 

Principles of radiation therapy are same as in breast cancer in women.  No randomized controlled studies have evaluated radiation therapy in men with breast cancer; instead, the recommendations are based on evidence derived from data from clinical trials in women. One difference is that most expert opinion suggests a lower threshold for recommending radiation therapy in men than in women, due to the anatomy of the male breast. The typical indication for adjuvant radiation includes T3 or higher tumor stage, four or more positive lymph nodes, and positive surgical margins.

Systemic therapy

Recommendations for use of systemic therapy in male breast cancer are generally the same as in female breast cancer, because the rarity of male breast cancer has precluded the performance of clinical studies. Tamoxifen is the recommended adjuvant endocrine therapy. Duration is at least 5 years and in appropriate patients can be extended to 10 years, given the results of the Adjuvant Tamoxifen: Longer Against Shorter (ATLAS) trial.[11]  

American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) guidelines recommend offering tamoxifen to men with hormone receptor–positive breast cancer who are candidates for adjuvant endocrine therapy. The initial treatment duration is 5 years; men who have completed 5 years of tamoxifen, have tolerated therapy, and still have a high risk of recurrence may be offered an additional 5 years of tamoxifen therapy.[12]

Data are limited regarding the use of aromatase inhibitors in men. A retrospective study indicates that aromatase inhibitors may be associated with poorer outcomes in men when compared with tamoxifen. The overall survival (OS) of tamoxifen-treated female and male patients had similar 5-year OS, 85.1 and 89.2%, respectively (P = 0.972). Notably, in patients treated with an aromatase inhibitor, 5-year OS was significantly greater in females than in males (85.0% versus 73.3%; P = 0.028).[13, 14]

ASCO guidelines recommend that men with hormone receptor–positive breast cancer who are candidates for adjuvant endocrine therapy but have a contraindication to tamoxifen may be offered a gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonist/antagonist and an aromatase inhibitor.[12] National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) guidelines also advise that when an aromatase inhibitor is used in men, a GnRH analog should be given concurrently.[15]  

In addition, NCCN guidelines note that available data suggest single-agent fulvestrant has similar efficacy in men as in women. Although newer agents such as CDK4/6 inhibitors (in combination with an aromatase inhibitor or fulvestrant), mTOR inhibitors, and PIK3CA inhibitors have not been systematically evaluated in clinical trials in men with breast cancer, the NCCN considers it reasonable to recommend these agents to men with advanced breast cancer, based on extrapolation of data from studies comprised largely of women. Use of chemotherapy, HER2-targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and PARP inhibitors for advanced breast cancer mirrors the use of those agents in women.[15]

ASCO guidelines recommend that men with advanced or metastatic, hormone receptor–positive, HER2-negative breast cancer should be offered endocrine therapy as first-line therapy, except in cases of visceral crisis or rapidly progressive disease. Options include tamoxifen, an aromatase inhibitor plus a GnRH agent, and fulvestrant. CDK4/6 inhibitors can be used in men as they are used in women. Those men who exprience a recurrence of metastatic, hormone receptor–positive, HER2-negative breast cancer while receiving adjuvant endocrine therapy should be offered an alternate endocrine therapy, except in cases of visceral crisis or rapidly progressive disease.[12]

ASCO guidelines also recommend that targeted therapy guided by HER2, PDL-1, PIK3CA, and germline BRCA mutation status may be used in the treatment of advanced or metastatic male breast cancer, using the same indications and combinations that are offered to women. Management of endocrine therapy toxicity is similar to the approach used for women.[12]

Palbociclib, a cyclin-dependent kinases (CDK) inhibitor, gained FDA approval in 2109 for treatment of men with breast cancer. It is indicated for treatment of adults with hormone receptor–positive/HER2-negative advanced or metastatic breast cancer in combination with an aromatase inhibitor as initial endocrine-based therapy in men or postmenopausal women, or in combination with fulvestrant in patients with disease progression following endocrine therapy. For men treated with combination palbociclib plus aromatase inhibitor therapy, consider treatment with a luteinizing hormone–releasing hormone (LHRH) agonist.[15, 16]

Most cases of metastatic male breast cancer are estrogen receptor (ER)–positive, and guidelines from the European School of Oncology and the European Society for Medical Oncology recommend endocrine treatment with tamoxifen as the preferred option for these patients, unless they have suspected or proven endocrine resistance or rapidly progressive disease that requires a fast response.[17]  Second-line hormonal approaches include orchiectomy, aromatase inhibitors, and androgen ablation.[18] However, chemotherapy can also provide palliation.

Long-term monitoring

Men who have had breast cancer are at increased risk for a second ipsilateral or contralateral breast cancer. The risk of breast cancer recurrence continues beyond 15 years after primary treatment. The risk of subsequent contralateral breast cancer is highest in men who were younger than 50 years when their initial cancer was diagnosed. Thus, periodic screening is probably advisable.[19] The NCCN notes that only limited data support screening for breast cancer in men.[15]

ASCO guidelines include the following recommendations regarding follow-up[12] :

  • Patients should be counseled about the symptoms of breast cancer recurrence, including new lumps, bone pain, chest pain, dyspnea, abdominal pain, or persistent headaches.

  • Continuity of care for patients with breast cancer is recommended and should be performed by a physician experienced in the surveillance of patients with cancer and in breast examination, including the examination of irradiated breasts.

  • Men with a history of breast cancer treated with lumpectomy should be offered ipsilateral annual mammography if technically feasible, regardless of genetic predisposition.

  • Men with a history of breast cancer and a genetic predisposing mutation may be offered contralateral annual mammography.

  • Breast magnetic resonance imaging is not routinely recommended in men with a history of breast cancer.

  • Male patients with breast cancer should be offered genetic counseling and genetic testing for germline mutations

In men with early-stage breast cancer who receive adjuvant GnRH analog therapy, NCCN guidelines recommend bone density assessment at baseline and every 2 years. Low bone density in those patients should be managed according to standard guidelines.[15]

 

Questions & Answers