Major Surgery More Likely in Men with Breast Cancer

There are many different treatment options—and experts want men to know about all of them.

Medically reviewed in August 2021

It’s easy to forget that men can develop breast cancer, just like women can. However, men are much more likely than women to receive major mastectomy surgery to treat the disease, according to the largest-ever study of male breast cancer treatment. And researchers say that is often unnecessary.

Male breast cancer is rare. In fact, the American Cancer Society estimates that male breast cancer rates will make up just under one percent of the 271,270 breast cancer cases that are estimated to be diagnosed in 2019. And according to the National Cancer Institute, male breast cancer typically occurs in men between 60 and 70 years old, and between 400 and 500 men die of the disease every year. With those numbers, male breast cancer has received little attention from researchers.

In the study, researchers from the University of Colorado School of Medicine analyzed a National Cancer Institute database to compare breast cancer treatment in approximately 4,200 men and more than 700,000 women between 1973 and 2008. The researchers found males undergo mastectomy—in which all the breast tissue is removed—87 percent of the time, compared with only 38 percent for women. The study was published in the November 2013 issue of the International Journal of Radiation, Oncology, Biology and Physics.

Though men have less breast tissue to remove than women, a mastectomy still carries all the risks of a major surgery, say the researchers, and leaves a large scar. For men with early, localized disease, a lumpectomy, or breast-conserving surgery to remove the isolated cancer area rather than the whole breast, is just as effective. But in the study, fewer than 5 percent of men had the smaller surgery. Radiation therapy appeared to be underused, also.

Researchers hope this research will serve as a reminder that men can get breast cancer, and do have choices for treatment.

Ways to reduce your risk
While there is no sure-fire way to prevent any cancer, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.

  • Know your family history. Do you have a family history of breast cancer? Talk to your doctor and learn about genetic testing to determine your specific risk.
  • Get moving. It's no secret that regular exercise is good for you. Physical activity benefits your waistline and helps reduce your risk for certain diseases, including cancer.
  • Limit or avoid alcohol. Research shows that even one alcoholic drink per day could up your risk of many types of cancer, including breast, colorectal and esophageal cancer. When it comes to cancer prevention, it’s best to avoid alcohol altogether.  

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s important you talk with your healthcare provider about the most effective treatment for your situation. Mastectomy may not be your only option.

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