By Candice Khumalo

Breast cancer in men? Say what?! It’s a topic that doesn’t get much attention, but it does exist. While breast cancer is more often associated with women, breast cancer in men shares many similarities, although it occurs less frequently. 

According to the Cancer Association of South Africa (Cansa), the Breast Health Foundation of South Africa estimated that South Africa has the highest incidence of male breast cancer in the world, with 1-3% of breast cancer cases diagnosed in South Africa occurring in men. It is also estimated that up to 400 cases of male breast cancer were diagnosed in South Africa in 2018.

Survivor shares his story

After discovering a small lump in his left upper breast, he didn’t think much of it because he thought breast cancer was only common in women. He however experienced great shock when he was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009.

“One day, I discovered a small lump in my left upper breast, but I didn’t think much of it. I did nothing about it for about two years until my doctor suggested I should have it tested. I took her advice, and the results came back positive. I had breast cancer,” said Graeme Comrie

Comrie says that although it was difficult to find out at first, he was lucky to have a lot of support, and the doctors were able to remove the cancer surgically.

“Fourteen years later, I am still cancer-free. I am incredibly grateful that the surgery and treatment worked,” he says.

‘Let’s create safe spaces’

Nersan Govender, a breast cancer survivor from Johannesburg who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, is urging society to create safe spaces for men to openly talk about the disease.

“There’s not enough awareness about male breast cancer; it’s still regarded as a woman’s disease, and there’s a stigma around it. You get insulted, and I was also called things like “half a woman”, and people look at you strangely,” he says.

“Society must accept that male breast cancer is a reality and create spaces for them to talk about it openly.”

In many ways, Govender says he was one of the lucky ones because men with breast cancer are often diagnosed too late and the survival rate in men is less than 7%.

“What made things tough was that male breast cancer is so rare that my oncologist and her colleagues weren’t sure what the best course of treatment would be.”

“However, I’ve been cancer-free now for 10 years. I go for tests once a year to check my markers, but so far, so good.”

What are the chances?

Pretoria-based medical doctor Muelelwa Mmbi explains that breast cancer in men is rarely talked about because it’s a rare condition. 

“Out of all breast cancers, male breast cancer constitutes less than 1%. So it can only be up to health care workers to raise awareness about this condition, even though it’s very less common.”

However, he further explains that there isn’t much difference between male and female breast cancer since the anatomy of these two breasts is almost the same; there is just a difference in functionality and size of the anatomy.

“Symptoms of breast cancer in men are the same as breast cancer in women, e.g., things like lumps, nipple-areolar complex changes such as dimpling, nipple retraction, redness or colour changes, and peau de orange, which means the skin around the breast area looks like the peel of an orange. You can also experience pain around the cancerous area. Symptoms are not limited to these.”

“Also, risk factors are more or less the same. Old age, radiation exposure, heavy alcohol intake, treatment with oestrogen hormone, family history of breast cancer, obesity, a breast cancer gene called braca 2, and also diseases associated with high levels of oestrogen like liver cirrhosis or Klinefelter syndrome,” he adds.

Early detection is crucial

Like in any disease, there are modifiable risk factors and non-modifiable risk factors. Mmbi mentions that in the case of male breast cancer, what can lessen the risk is weight control, which means eating healthy and exercising to avoid obesity, drinking alcohol, smoking, and radiation exposure. 

“The non-modifiable risk factors in this disease would be braca genes, Klinefelter syndrome, family history of breast cancer, and older age,” he says.

Moreover, early detection is of uttermost importance, and men should always be aware of the possibility of breast cancer. –

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