In this series of blogs, we explore some of the biggest topics in breast cancer research. We look at how our researchers are working to better understand the disease and improve the lives of those affected by breast cancer.

Men can also get breast cancer. It’s rare, but around 370 are diagnosed with the disease every year in the UK. It’s important that we the similarities and differences between breast cancer in men and women. So we can find better ways to prevent and treat the disease.

Dr Nick Orr in his lab

Tackling male breast cancer

Because male breast cancer is rare, there hasn’t been as much research into it compared to breast cancer in women. And although we know lots of things from researching breast cancer in women, there are differences.

While breast cancer in men is similar to the disease in women, scientists have identified genetic features specific to male breast cancer. So it’s important we understand the differences between the disease in men and women. This can help us better understand how the disease develops and progresses.

Men are often diagnosed later than women, so research might help us diagnose the disease earlier. And by better understanding the biology of breast cancer in men, we can find new ways to treat it.

Finding answers in DNA

Dr Nick Orr is looking at different genetic changes found in breast cancer in men and women. He’s building on his previous research, where he found a location on DNA linked to a higher risk of breast cancer. And it seems to have a larger effect in men than in women.

The interesting part about this location of DNA is it contains no genes. And so, believes that this region of DNA may be switching other genes on or off. Nick and his team think it may be linked to a gene called ZFP36L1. Because they’ve noticed that when this gene is turned off, breast cancer grows quicker.

It's important we understand how changes to this region of DNA affect the activity of the ZFP36L1 gene. They're doing this by making changes to the DNA and seeing how it affects XFP36L1. They also want to identify other molecules that are involved in this process as well. This all could lead to new and better ways to prevent and treat breast cancer in men and women.

Who could this help?

Keith showing mastectomy scar

This research could help people like Keith. Keith was diagnosed with breast cancer just before Christmas in 2020. A few months earlier, he’d noticed an itchy dot on his chest that looked like an insect bite. The itchiness didn’t go away and eventually developed into pain. The pain got worse, so Keith went to A&E and later was diagnosed with breast cancer.

‘When I was diagnosed, the hospital gave me an information book aimed at women which didn’t cover the questions that I had. And there’s been lots of things that I wasn’t prepared for. When my wife had breast cancer, they removed the affected breast tissue but with me they took away more - including all around my ribcage and pectoral muscle. I don’t feel that I was warned about this or how different my experience could be.’

Keith had a mastectomy and chemotherapy. And chemo came with unpleasant side effects.

‘Within a week of chemotherapy all my hair had fallen out, I had mouth and nose ulcers and a horrible taste in my mouth which left me struggling to eat – I lost about three stone in six months. As a result of treatment my fingernails and toenails also dropped off, I have severe nerve damage and I’ve lost my teeth. I feel that cancer has taken so much from me.’

However, the thought of going through treatment again if Keith’s cancer returns is almost overwhelming for him. This is why research focused on better understanding male breast cancer is so important. So we can find better and kinder ways to treat the disease. And, better understand how the disease can return.

Research projects like this are important steps towards the best possible treatments and support for people affected by the disease.

Whatever you’re going through. Whoever you are. We’re here.