Breast Cancer: It Can Develop in Men Too
- Harry Nicolino felt “blindsided” when he received his breast cancer diagnosis after discovering a disfigurement in the nipple of his right breast.
- It’s a lot less common than breast cancer in women, but men can still get breast cancer. Men account for less than 1 percent of total breast cancer cases, but the American Cancer Society estimates that 2,650 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021.
- Music mogul Mathew Knowles – father of Beyoncé and Solange Knowles – is a male breast cancer survivor who works to spread awareness of the disease and urge the Black community to be proactive about their health.
“Shock is almost an understatement; you’re blindsided,” he told the Citrus County Chronicle of receiving his diagnosis. “What man thinks of breast cancer?”Read More
The news came after Nicolino found a disfigurement in his right nipple. When he went for his annual physical in April, he was given the all-clear. He had a chest X-ray that showed nothing of concern and tried antibiotics to treat the blemish, but doctors could not figure out the cause. He even had a mammogram and ultrasound, but both came back inconclusive. It wasn’t until Nicolino got a biopsy that he finally had some answers.
“It comes back positive on some things, negative on others,” he said. “It could be worse but it looks like we caught it very, very, very early.”
Nicolino will have his cancer surgically removed later this month, and then he will undergo hormone therapy for five years via a daily pill in order to help equalize his testosterone and estrogen levels.
“If this is the worst, and they can remove it … and it’s cleared … that’s the best we can ask for,” he said.
Nicolino admitted that breast cancer was not something he had ever considered for himself, but he was at a higher risk for the disease since his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer about ten years ago. Thankfully, his mother had radiation, and she’s “been fine ever since.” And now that Nicolino is waging his own battle with the disease, he said his relationship with his mother had gained another “dimension.”
“As much as you empathize with somebody who had it — especially a family member — until you are experiencing it, it takes it to a whole other level,” he said.
His prognosis is seemingly looking good thanks to an early diagnosis, but that doesn’t mean the disease hasn’t taken an emotional toll on Nicolino.
“There is this ‘coming to terms with it’ — you have to reconcile with it,” Nicolino said. “You really have to keep your mind from wandering to the dark side, and you have to think positive — look at what you weren’t diagnosed with.”
Understanding Male Breast Cancer
“Don’t ignore it, it can happen to you.”
These are Harry Nicolino’s words of wisdom for other men when it comes to breast cancer. In general, men account for less than 1 percent of total breast cancer cases, but the American Cancer Society estimates that 2,650 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021.
There are several risk factors that can increase a man’s chance of developing the disease, just like in the case of female breast cancer. If you’re a man with any, all or some of the following risk factors, vigilance is key.
Possible Risk Factors:
- Age. Breast cancer risk increases with age, and most cancers are found in patients over 50. The average age of a man diagnosed with breast cancer is 72.
- Family history. Men with close blood relatives who have had breast cancer are at higher risk for the disease.
- Genetic mutations. Patients may inherit gene defects that make them more susceptible to breast cancer. Men with a mutation in the BRCA2 gene have a 6 percent lifetime risk of developing breast cancer, and men with a mutation in the BRCA1 gene have a 1 percent lifetime risk. These gene mutations are most commonly found in families with strong histories of breast or ovarian cancer, but they have also been found in male breast cancer patients without a family history.
- Klinefelter syndrome. Men with Klinefelter syndrome are born with at least one extra X chromosome which may increase a man’s breast cancer risk by producing high levels of estrogen (a hormone responsible for female sex characteristics) and low levels of androgens (hormones responsible for male sex characteristics). This condition affects about 1 in 1,000 men, and can raise the risk of breast cancer by 20 – 60 times that of the general population.
- Hormone therapy. Men who have been treated with drugs containing estrogen are at a greater breast cancer risk. These drugs were once used to treat prostate cancer, and they are still used in sex reassignment processes.
- Conditions affecting the testicles. Testicle injuries, swelling or removal surgery can increase a man’s risk for the disease by disrupting normal hormone levels.
- Liver disease. Diseases that impede the liver (like cirrhosis) may raise men’s estrogen production and lower their androgen levels, therefore, increasing breast cancer risk.
- Alcohol. Heavy drinking is known to raise the risk of breast cancer (which may be related to alcohol’s effect on the liver).
- Radiation therapy. Men who have received radiation therapy to their chests (for conditions like lymphoma) have a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
- Obesity. Fat cells can transform androgens into estrogens, boosting the possibility of an overweight man developing breast cancer.
If any of the above risk factors applies to you, consult your doctor and feel free to ask questions. While it’s true that men can work to lower their breast cancer risk by exercising and maintaining a healthy bodyweight, the most important element of effective cancer treatment is an early diagnosis.
Symptoms of Male Breast Cancer Can Include:
- A lump developed in the breast (usually painless), or a thickening in the breast tissue
- Nipple pain
- An inverted nipple
- Discharge from the nipple, which may be clear or bloody
- Changes to the color or texture of the nipple and areola
- Changes to the color or texture of skin on the chest
- Enlarged lymph nodes under the arm
Treatment for female breast cancer is largely the same for male breast cancer. A person’s options depend greatly on a variety of factors, including the size of the tumor and how far the cancer cells have spread, but possibilities include surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, radiation therapy and targeted therapy.
Mathew Knowles’ Story
Mathew Knowles is the father of Beyoncé and Solange Knowles, an entertainment powerhouse and, perhaps less widely known, a male breast cancer survivor. Since his cancer experience, the 69-year-old “male chest cancer survivor,” as he prefers to be called, has been on a mission to spread awareness for the disease and advocate for the Black community to be proactive about their health.
Knowles was diagnosed with male breast cancer in 2019 after finding little drops of blood on his white shirts and his bedding. He later found out that he carries the BRCA2 (BReast CAncer 2) gene mutation which means that his children had a 50 percent chance of also carrying the gene. Thankfully, Knowles has previously said Beyoncé and Solange have tested negative for the gene mutation.
In a previous conversation with SurvivorNet, Knowles talked about wanting to inform men that they, too, can get breast cancer, but also wanting to urge the African American community to take control of their health.
“I felt I was worth it,” he told SurvivorNet. “I had that self-care.”
He says that distrust of the healthcare industry among people of color “goes back all the way to slavery.” He wants people of color to move forward for the sake of cancer prevention and overall healthcare.
“If there is a new day, I think we have to understand that people of color are in high positions in the medical profession and working vigorously to make change,” he said. “We can’t change what happened years ago, but we can effect change of what happens today. It’s about early detection… When we’re saying, ‘Well, I’m not going to go to the doctor because of what they did 10 years or 20 years ago,’ you’re only hurting yourself. You’re the one that will have the repercussions of not getting early detection.”
And when looking specifically at male breast cancer, Knowles is right to urge Black men, in particular, to be aware of the disease. Despite the fact that breast cancer is about 70 times less common among Black men than Black women, according to American Cancer Society statistics, both Black men and Black women tend to have a worse prognosis when it comes to the breast cancer. (Breast cancer is about 100 times less common among white men than among white women.) Men, in general, also tend to ignore breast cancer symptoms more than women which can be very dangerous.
If you ever feel like something is off, and there might be cause for concern, it’s important to promptly consult your doctor. Men tend to feel a sense of shame when it comes to a breast cancer diagnosis, but there is no reason to be ashamed. Taking care of your body should be the priority, and that means addressing all issues with your doctor – even if they feel hard to talk about.