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Breast Cancer in men

What should breast cancer in men be called?

Breast cancer in men is very rare. There are about 390 men diagnosed each year in the UK. This compares to around 54,800 cases in women. (Cancer Research UK November 2016). This means that many people have never heard of breast cancer in men and assume that all people with breast cancer are women (see ‘Men’s Awareness of Breast Cancer before their Diagnosis’, and ‘Other People’s Reactions’). Breasts are often seen as being something that only women have; it is relatively rare for people to think of men as having breast tissue.

Because of this, some men found it difficult to know what was the best way to refer to their cancer and the naming of the illness aroused some strong feelings. In much of the medical literature, breast cancer in men is referred to as ‘male breast cancer’, but some men really disliked this terminology. Bill felt strongly that ‘breast cancer in men’ was a more appropriate term and he asked many cancer organisations in the UK to change the wording on their websites and in their literature.
 

Bill is upset and annoyed about the inconsistency in the way people talk about breast cancer in...

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Age at interview: 54
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 46
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So I started bombarding cancer charities with requests to make the information about breast cancer in men much more suitable to be given to men. In fact, no, to make information available…

 
For men, yeah.
 
…for men when it wasn’t, and not to be… I wasn’t going to be palmed off by saying, well there is a wee sentence in the beginning of this twenty-page book or booklet that says, by the way, you know, at the very end of it, by the way, men sometimes get breast cancer. That was just not useful so I wanted a separate, absolutely discrete information for men with breast cancer and the second thing was that I would never ever want to be described as having male breast cancer because women are not described as having female breast cancer. I would be happy if they were consistent…but they’re not consistent. Men have male breast cancer and women…
 
Have breast cancer?
 
… have breast cancer and it’s not… for me, it’s one of my biggest annoyances.
 
Yes, I remember we talked about…
 
It’s absolutely not… and that was top of my list to get this stopped, and second of course, was to… we have a specific and separate information for men with breast cancer. Thirdly was to update all the hospital information and especially to do with physiotherapy and to make it much more realistic and much more appropriate for the audience that would be reading it, men or women. So Breast Cancer Care of course being a big major charity for breast cancer sufferers… I did persuade them to write a separate resource for men with breast cancer. I did persuade them to stop referring to it as male breast cancer. I did the same with Macmillan, I did the same with Cancer Relief or Cancer Care UK, the one that’s merged with…
 
Cancer Research UK?
 
Cancer Bacup has merged with Macmillan.
 
Yeah. Bacup.
 
All the major charities except one, Cancer Research UK have stopped referring to male breast cancer, or if they mention male breast cancer, it’s in the same sentence as mentioning female breast cancer, so I’m quite happy with that if they’re consistent, but I’m not happy to have my disease, or the disease I had, called male breast cancer. Even if they do find out ultimately, that the biology is quite different from women. I’m not caring, I don’t care, because there are cancers… other cancers that the biology is different between men and women, and they don’t call it for example, female lung cancer or male bone cancer you know, so why should I be tagged with this male thing? And for me, it’s oh… I’m so annoyed about it. Anyway, I’ve almost overcome my annoyance by continuing to fight the fight when I see this statement, it really annoys me and I get oh… riled up and start doing things again.
Most men said they’d used the term ‘male breast cancer’ without really questioning it. Several thought that the term ‘male breast cancer’ gave an emphasis that was needed to make people aware that breast cancer could occur in men, or they thought that other terms would not be helpful.
 

Ben thinks that the term male breast cancer helps to raise awareness.

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Age at interview: 68
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 63
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Quite a lot of the literature, when we’ve been looking at this, talks about male breast cancer, and we’ve come across this… some people we’ve been speaking to really don’t like that term. Do you have any opinions on that?

 
What else are you gonna call it, then?
 
I think the inference is that we don’t talk about “female breast cancer.”
 
We just say “breast cancer.”
 
We say “breast cancer.”
 
But at the moment, if we say “breast cancer” we think of women, so I suppose you’ve got to say something that brings out the male side of it… otherwise it’s still going all to females, and as you say, it’s very pink, but it doesn’t annoy me. All I’m looking at the television and saying “OK, you’re covering it and that’s good for the majority of women, but there are two or three hundred blokes out there every year, how can we get across to… like, my son’s forty, when should he start examining himself?” 
 

Tim thinks that it is difficult to get the balance between raising awareness that men get breast...

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Age at interview: 73
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 60
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 In the literature, when we started doing this study, we talked about “Male breast cancer”, and I was just wondering if you had any opinions on that term?

 
What as just describing it, male breast cancer?
 
Yes.
 
Not really no. As I say the joke for me was that we don’t have breasts we have chests, but I think it should be male breast cancer. It is a difficult thing, I mean every time I’m involved with something with Breast Cancer Care, the discussion is about women, with women, I’m on the committee this year with [name of wife] for the Carol Service, which this year’s going to be in St Paul’s by the way, so it’s going to be a fantastic business. And the committee is about fourteen people, all women except me. And the accent is all the time on women, and quite rightly so because there are forty five thousand women and only two hundred men. So it’s very difficult, you have to once in a while say, and men of course. So I don’t quite know how to handle it. It’s very difficult because there’s such a few, a small number of men get it, that it’s not worth somehow too much effort, to sort of highlight it you see. But I think it’s necessary, somehow you’ve got to have this tag on, you know, and men. And somehow men need to get the message that I have, which is, if something happens, if you get something, go to the doctor. You know, and I don’t know how you get that really, I don’t know, it’s a very- I mean the only way is to keep quietly mentioning it.
 
 
I think some of the- there was a couple of men that didn’t like the term because it made it sound as though it was something different. Because as said we talk about breast cancer and people assume it’s women, and by making it male breast cancer, we’re sounding as though it’s something different to what the woman have. While actually it’s the same, more or less the same disease?
 
Yeah.
 
I think that’s why the (overtalking)...
 
Okay I can understand that but I mean I think it needs to be highlighted you see. So I don’t respond in that way, I think, you know I think it’s important to understand that. If way back at the beginning, we’d had female breast cancer and male chest cancer, maybe those sort of muscular rugby playing men who get it, might have felt a little better about it because it is a disease that men can get and it is different, but it’s the same. The difficulty is that it’s a little carbuncle, hanging on this huge mass of poor women who get it, you know. 
Mike felt the term ‘chest cancer’ was more suitable, but another believed it would be confusing because it is not a term that is commonly used.
 

Mike thinks that other terms such as ‘chest cancer’ would not be helpful.

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Age at interview: 59
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 59
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And I was just wondering if you have an opinion on the term “male breast cancer”?
 
No. I think “male breast cancer” is quite adequate to use. When I’ve mentioned it to people they’ve all, you know, “male breast cancer, no.” What else can you call it? You can’t call it chest cancer. You can’t find another name for it.
 
So do you feel it sort of defines that men can get breast cancer?
 
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. 

 

 

 

Derek doesn’t feel strongly about what breast cancer in men should be called. He has never felt...

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Age at interview: 69
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 68
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Some of the other men that we’ve spoken to had a bit of an issue about, how, what, you know, men’s breast cancer should be called, I don’t know if you’ve got any views on that at all?

 
Well I don’t really see that it can be called anything else… but I mean I must admit from the point of view that, I, I think possibly to change it from breast to chest, as far as a man is concerned. I, I mean, I mean if you’re my size then you have got a bit of a bust, but, you know, the, you know, lots of men and that don’t have that, that, I think possibly that is about the only thing that I would say. But I mean, that, that’s only my personal thoughts on it. I mean it, it’s never embarrassed me to say that I’ve have breast cancer as compared to say I’ve had chest cancer, because probably the majority of people if you said chest cancer, wouldn’t know what you were talking about really. So (laugh).
 
So yeah.
 
Yeah.
 
Because some people have said as well that they, you know, they thought some people refer to male breast cancer, but you know they’ve said well why call it male breast cancer when we don’t call women’s breast cancer, female breast cancer?
 
Yeah that’s right.
 
But you don’t have too strong views on that.
 
No, no, I, you know, its cancer, its cancer, and its breast, its breast. It, it doesn’t you know, I’ve never felt that strongly about it you know. I’ve never felt sort of conscious of saying breast as compared to chest. 
Some of the men who did not think that the term ‘male breast cancer’ was problematic also wanted to stress that breast cancer in men and women was the same disease.
 

David points out that there is no difference between breast cancer in men and women.

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Age at interview: 57
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 52
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 No, I don’t like male breast cancer as I told you. I think breast cancer in men would be better because I always said “oh, I’ve got male breast cancer” and one guy, I don’t know if he was a medical or just somebody I met. I forget, it’s too long ago, and he just said there’s no difference between men breast cancer and women breast cancer, and you don’t call it female breast cancer so why should you call it male breast cancer? You know, which is right, when you look at it. It’s breast cancer in men would be the nice title, or a nicer title, and the guys I’ve met through the journey have all said the same thing, you know? Breast cancer in men better than… I know there is a lot that call it male bre… but what is the difference? There is no difference.

 
Do you think by using the title ‘male breast cancer’ we’re making it sound as though it’s different?
 
Yes, it’s as though it’s something completely different, and you know, a lot of charities do use male breast cancer. What’s the difference? I’m told there’s no difference. I’m treated as though it’s a female cancer, you know?
 
 

Tom stressed that both men and women have breasts, and it was important that men realised they...

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Age at interview: 65
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 60
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When we first started doing this study as I was saying to you earlier, we had some men came back to us because we used the term ‘male breast cancer’ and I just wondered, do you have any opinions of that statement, that term, male breast cancer?

 
No, no problem whatsoever. You shouldn’t be ashamed of it. We’ve all got breasts but women’s are bigger than ours, but they have to look after their selves. They can’t… they have to be told they can get it cos we… you can get it. You don’t have to have boobs out even men, you can get it.
 
Do you think that term ‘male breast cancer’ makes it… people more aware than men can get breast cancer by using that term?
 
Oh yeah, yeah.
 
I think the concerns that they were raising was that we don’t call it female breast cancer and when we call it male breast cancer we’re making it sound different to what women get and they didn’t like that?
 
Yeah. Yeah. Well, they have to realise they can get it. It don’t matter what, breast cancer is breast cancer, simple as that. Male or female, it’s breast cancer. Like I’ve just explained, men have got a… like a woman, a woman’s well built, and men isn’t but they’re still classed as breasts. We’ve both got the same but their’s is bigger and they have to realise that. You … breast cancer, you can’t say “oh, I’m gay”, cos you aren’t. We’ve all got the same things. 
 

Alan thinks that people shouldn’t ‘pussyfoot’ around in talking about breast cancer.

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Age at interview: 73
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 71
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 When we started doing this study we were using the term “male breast cancer”, I was just wondering if you had any opinion on that term?

 
It is what it is, isn’t it? It’s breast cancer. There’s, there’s no point in pussy footing around, I mean it’s cancer of the breast isn’t it, in the man? Oh yeah that’s a-
 
That’s all right.
 
Well I’m an engineer so I believe in facts are facts, so it- yeah it’s- I mean I don’t believe he’s a rodent catcher, he’s a rat catcher isn’t he? [Laughs]
 
I think some men felt that when we were using the term “male breast cancer” we were making it sound as though it was something different, because when we talk about breast cancer people assume it’s women, and we don’t talk about female breast cancer.
 
No but… yeah but I think it is- it’s semantics isn’t it really? If someone says to me you’ve got male breast cancer, that’ll not worry me because it is- you know- I suppose it is subtly different isn’t it, because women get all sorts of problems don’t they? 
A few men had been challenged when they told other people that they had breast cancer (see ‘Other people’s reactions’). These people seemed to find it difficult to accept that men had breasts or breast tissue.
 

BT had been told that he didn’t have a breast, but a chest or ‘pecs’. He had felt that breast...

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Age at interview: 65
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 64
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 When we started the study, we were using the term ‘male breast cancer’ and we came across some people that didn’t like that term. I was just wondering if you have any opinions on it?

 
No, no. Apart, as I say, the only thing you’ve got, is… the feeling of, it shouldn’t really happen to men. That’s the only feeling you’ve got. And the- as I say one of the reactions, probably seen it before is why me? (Dog barking in background) ...people explain, the experts explain it to you then, you know, you start to understand. It is, I mean obviously it’s still a rarity. I mean there’s not that many, so that’s possibly one reason why it’s not aired as much, it could be. I suppose it’s the fear factor really, in a lot of these things.
 
But as a term you don’t mind it so much?
 
No. Well I say I’ve got breast cancer. And I mean I’ve had people say to me, “you don’t have a breast, you’ve got a chest, you’ve got pecs, you don’t have a breast. So what is it?” Basically we’re all the same. 
Some man felt conscious of the embarrassment that they might feel when saying they had breast cancer, or they thought it may make other people feel uncomfortable, surprised or disbelieving (see ‘Other people’s reactions’).
 

John always made a point of saying he had male breast cancer, otherwise he thought other people...

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Age at interview: 65
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 63
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And earlier on you were saying about your friend who’d felt more comfortable about calling it chest cancer and you had to... men’s breast cancer and use the phrase male breast cancer. Some people have, some of the men that we’ve talked to have not liked the term male breast cancer because they think well, nobody says female breast cancer, so why should you say male breast cancer, but I wondered if you had any views about you know what…?

 
Not really.
 
How it should be referred to?
 
But I always make a point of saying –  when I tell people, I always say - male breast cancer. That’s a good point actually I don’t know why I do, but I always do, whether I think they’re gonna think they’ve misheard me or something you know.
 
Yeah.
 
(whisper)… “He’s got breast cancer?” So I always make a point of saying male breast cancer actually, but don’t ask me why I don’t know.
 
Because we’ve had you know, a little bit, thinking about what best to call the site, as I say – a couple of the men haven’t liked male breast and some of them think, well no, you need to say male breast cancer because otherwise people don’t realise…?
 
I suppose we don’t refer to our, as breasts normally do we, it’s chest, ladies’ boobs, you know breasts, boobs whatever, but men it’s chest isn’t it, so… but no, no, I’d say, I go out of my way to, to mention male breast cancer, whether it helps or not, I don’t know. 
 
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Mike C thought it could be embarrassing to tell people that you had what many people assume to be...

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Age at interview: 70
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 66
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One of the things we’ve been asking people is how they feel about, I mean some of the men that I’ve spoken to have been, you know, have wanted to tell us – probably, that they’ve got breast cancer, I think partly ‘cos they’ve been conscious of the fact that it’s perhaps not a very well known disease and some of them have had issues about what it should be called, you know, should it be called male breast cancer, should it be called just breast cancer or chest cancer or whatever…?

Yeah I can understand, well I just dismissed it, but I can understand. Yeah, I think it would be better from a bloke’s point of view, a male point of view, if it was called chest cancer, I think that, that yeah. It’s a bit embarrassing obviously to say you’ve got what basically, everybody assumes is a female disorder. So yeah I think chest cancer would be a lot better.



Last reviewed June 2017.
Last updated October 2013. Donate to healthtalk.org
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