Updated: Jun 16
by Sonya Sar
Many people assume that breast cancer is like cervical cancer in the way that it only affects women; this confusion comes from the fact that breasts are secondary sex characteristics, which are certain features that allow us to differentiate between males and females. Since men don’t have this secondary sex characterstic, then people believe that it’s impossible for men to ever get breast cancer.
However, that’s simply not true. That brings us to the question: how does breast cancer develop? Breast cells will abnormally grow and divide because of a DNA mutation, and this will cause them to accumulate, forming a mass or a tumor. But, this abnormal growth is also influenced by estrogen, which is a hormone involved in sexual development and reproductive health, and a carcinogen, meaning it has the potential to cause cancer. Estrogen in women stimulates the growth of breasts as well as regulates periods; but it’s found in men as well and helps with brain development and sexual function. In healthy cells, estrogen will aid normal cell function and growth, but with certain factors, such as mutations in DNA, estrogen can act as a spark and “turn” the cell cancerous.
Excess estrogen exposure, for example from hormone therapy; having naturally high estrogen levels; or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) can also increase the risk of breast cancer. Another risk factor for breast cancer is inheriting the specific mutations that can cause breast cancer, known as BRCA1 and BRCA2, as well as a personal history with breast conditions. Being female also increases your risk of having breast cancer, since even though males also get breast cancer, statistics show that only about 1% of all breast cancer patients are male. Breast cancer is found in ducts and lobules in breast tissue, but male breast tissue has fewer ducts and lobules compared to female breasts; this leads to males having a lower chance of getting breast cancer. Other risk factors are starting your period before 12, beginning menopause at an older age, and getting pregnant above the age of 30 or not getting pregnant at all; if your period starts earlier or ends later, then your breast tissue is exposed to estrogen for an extended period of time, which increases your risk fo breast cancer. Most females who are diagnosed with breast cancer are above the age of 50, so increasing in age is also a risk factor.
Breast cancer is determined and diagnosed based on the specific cells that are cancerous. This cancer can either be in the ductal cells, which refers to the cells in the milk ducts, or lobular cells, which refers to the cells in the glands of the breast that make the milk. Breast cancer is also categorized based on whether it’s in situ breast cancer, which is the pre-cancer that starts in the milk ducts but hasn’t spread, or invasive breast cancer, which has spread to the surrounding tissue. ⅕ of breast cancers are ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which is a pre-invasive breast cancer where the cells in the milk ducts have become cancerous but haven’t spread. There’s also invasive ductal carcinoma, which is what 70-80% patients have; it starts in the milk ducts and spreads to the nearby tissue. Invasive lobular carcinoma is what about 10% of breast cancer patients have, and it starts in the glands that make milk and might affect both breasts.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 80% of breast cancers are hormone receptor-positive, which refers to the process of estrogen attaching to receptors on the surface of cells. If a cancer is described as hormone receptor-positive, that means that it needs estrogen, progesterone (another sex hormone), or maybe both to grow. If a patient has been diagnosed with breast cancer that’s hormone receptor-positive, then one of the treatments recommended is hormonal therapy, which blocks the cancerous cells from receiving the hormones that they need to grow. Doctors may also recommend surgery to cut out the cancerous tissue from the breast, called lumpectomy, or removing the breasts completely, which is referred to as a mastectomy. Another type of treatment is chemotherapy, where they would try to shrink and kill the cancer cells through drugs, and this treatment is especially used when the cancer has spread past the breasts and armpits. Radiation therapy, where high-energy rays are used to kill the cancer, is also an option for treatment.
There are also multiple options for prevention of breast cancer as well. If you have no increased risk for breast cancer, then it’s recommended to stay active since staying active regulates your hormone levels. Also, avoid or limit your alcohol intake since alcohol increases your estrogen levels. However, if you do have an increased risk for breast cancer, then doctors can recommend multiple paths. Genetic counseling is provided for those who have inherited the mutation, and there are also medicines to reduce the cancer risk. Tamoxifen and raloxifene are both drugs that block estrogen’s actions in the breast tissue, but tamoxifen is recommended for those who haven’t gone through menopause while raloxifen are for those who have gone through menopause. Another option is preventative surgery to remove the breasts through mastectomy or to remove the ovaries, which is the main source for estrogen. However, this option is usually for females who have inherited the mutated gene that causes breast cancer.
It’s recommended by doctors that once females enter their 40’s, they should start having screening mammograms, which can help detect breast cancer early on. As always, if you have any questions about some signs or symptoms that you feel might be connected to breast cancer, you can take a look at the links below, but remember that your doctor is your best resource!
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Cancer Treatment Centers of America. (2019, July 17). What’s the difference? Male breast cancer and
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, September 20). What Are the Symptoms of Breast
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Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/3986-breast-cancer