Diagnosing breast cancer in men 

If you have symptoms of breast cancer, such as a hard, painless lump in one of your breasts, your GP will carefully examine you.

During the examination, they'll also look for other possible signs of male breast cancer, such as swollen lymph nodes (glands).

It's likely your GP will refer you for further tests if there's a possibility you may have breast cancer. These tests are described below.

Mammogram

A mammogram is a type of X-ray used to help determine whether there are any changes in breast tissue that could be the result of cancer.

During the mammogram procedure, a radiographer (a specialist in taking X-rays) will compress one of your breasts between two X-ray plates. This shouldn't be painful, but you should tell the radiographer if you find it uncomfortable.

Once your breast has been correctly positioned, an X-ray will be taken that produces a clear image of the inside of your breast. The procedure will then be carried out on your other breast.

Ultrasound

An ultrasound scan uses high-frequency sound waves to produce an image of the inside of your breasts, in the same way an unborn baby can be seen in the womb.

An ultrasound probe or sensor will be placed over your breasts to create an image of the inside of your breasts on a screen. The image will highlight any lumps or abnormalities that may be present in your breasts.

Biopsy

A biopsy may be recommended if a mammogram or ultrasound scan highlight any lumps or abnormalities in your breasts.

A biopsy is a test that can either confirm or rule out a diagnosis of breast cancer in men. It involves taking a sample of suspected cancerous tissue and examining it in a laboratory for the presence of cancerous cells.

A type of biopsy known as a core biopsy is usually recommended for the diagnosis of breast cancer in men. This type of biopsy can usually indicate whether the cancer has started to spread from the breast into the surrounding area.

During a core biopsy, a local anaesthetic will be used to numb your breast. A hollow needle will then be used to remove a number of small tissue samples from the breast lump.

If cancer is found, it's also possible to check whether there are special proteins, known as oestrogen receptors, on the surface of the cancerous cells.

This is important, because if oestrogen receptors are found – and they are in more than half of cases – it's possible to treat the cancer with hormone therapy.

See treating breast cancer in men for more information.

Staging

After breast cancer has been diagnosed, your care team should provide information about the stage of the cancer. Staging is a system used to describe how far a cancer has spread at the point of diagnosis.

A cure may be possible if breast cancer is diagnosed at an early stage. However, treatment can only be used to control symptoms and slow the spread of the cancer if it's diagnosed at a later stage. Unfortunately, more than 40% of breast cancers in men are diagnosed at a late stage.

In some cases, men are diagnosed with a type of breast cancer called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). This means there are cancer cells in the breast, but they're contained within the breast ducts and can't spread.

If left untreated, DCIS can lead to invasive breast cancer over a period of time.

Coping with a diagnosis

Being told you have breast cancer can cause a wide range of emotions, such as shock, fear, confusion and, in some cases, embarrassment.

Most people assume breast cancer only affects women, so it can be difficult to come to terms with the diagnosis.

Feelings of isolation and being alone are common in men with breast cancer. This may be because there's little in the way of advice and support for men with breast cancer, particularly when compared with the support available for women with the condition.

Sometimes men who find themselves in this situation can become depressed. You may be depressed if you've felt very down and no longer interested in doing activities you used to enjoy during the past month.

If you think you may be depressed, visit your GP. There are a range of effective treatments, such as medication and counselling, that can help relieve feelings of depression.

You may also find it useful to talk to other men affected by the condition. Breast Cancer Care is a breast cancer charity that provides an online forum for men diagnosed with breast cancer. Cancer Research UK also provides Cancer Chat, an online forum for anyone affected by cancer.

Screening for breast cancer in men

As breast cancer is rare in men, routine screening for the condition isn't recommended, even for men in high-risk groups, such as those with a family history of breast cancer or those who have had radiotherapy.

Page last reviewed: 24/03/2015

Next review due: 24/03/2017