Find out more about the treatments used for breast cancer in men.
Types of treatment
Many treatments for breast cancer in men are the same as those used for women. However, there are some differences.
The aim of surgery is to remove cancerous tissue and to find out whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the armpit. Men with breast cancer commonly have a mastectomy, which removes the cancer, surrounding breast tissue and sometimes nearby muscle. Some or all of the lymph glands in the armpit are also removed.
It is less common for men to have a lumpectomy (where the lump and a small margin of healthy tissue are removed) than women, although doctors will try to remove as little healthy tissue as is safe and possible. This is because men have much less breast tissue than women and so their breast cancer can quite often invade the surrounding tissue unless caught early.
Radiotherapy is a common treatment for breast cancer in men. The aim of radiotherapy is to destroy any remaining cancer cells and reduce the chance of the cancer coming back.
There have been very few studies of drug treatments for breast cancer specifically in men. Therefore, drug therapy tends to be based on treatments known to work well in women. Most breast cancers in men are sensitive to hormones (known as hormone positive breast cancer). This means the cancer is stimulated to grow by the hormone oestrogen.
Oestrogen is considered a female hormone, but men produce oestrogen too. Hormone therapies that block the action of oestrogen can be effective in treating these types of breast cancers, alongside other therapies. For example, as with female breast cancer patients, evidence suggests that the hormone treatment tamoxifen increases men’s survival when used with other treatment.
Men may also be offered chemotherapy (anti-cancer drugs). This is often given as a combination of different drugs, which are the same as those used in women.
Targeted (biological) therapies are another option, but they will only be suitable for a small number of breast cancers in men. These directly attack cancer cells by latching on to markers found specifically on these cells. For example, the targeted therapy Herceptin (trastuzumab) latches on to a marker called HER2 which is found in excess in some breast cancer cells (known as HER2 positive breast cancers). Targeted therapies can have fewer side effects than chemotherapy. However, patients may still experience some side effects.
Secondary breast cancer
If untreated, breast cancers can grow bigger, taking over more surrounding breast tissue. Breast cancer that has not spread beyond the breast or armpit is known as early or primary breast cancer.
However, sometimes breast cancer cells break away from the original tumour and travel through your blood stream or lymph vessels to other areas of the body. If they settle in a new area – such as your lungs – they can form a new tumour there. This is called secondary breast cancer. It can also be called metastatic breast cancer and advanced breast cancer.
There is currently no cure for secondary breast cancer, but new advances are being made and the growth of secondary tumours can often be controlled with treatments. With the latest treatments, some people with secondary breast cancer may live for several years. You can find out more about secondary breast cancer in our secondary breast cancer guide.
Information last reviewed: June 2016
Next review due: June 2019
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