16 June, 2021

It was a mixture of chance and curiosity that found Valerie Speirs, now Professor of Molecular Oncology at the University of Aberdeen, began her research into male breast cancer back in the 90s.

“Back in the day, you used to go and stand outside the operating theatre if you wanted some breast tissue samples. One day the theatre nurse appeared and said, ‘oh, we’ve got a sample from a male breast tumour. Would you like it?’ I said yes, why not? And we found some interesting things. I suppose that was the first hint really that the tumours (between male and female) were different. And that really sparked my interest,” Val said.

Since that first chance sample donation, Val and her colleagues now have over 500 male breast cancer tissue samples available for further studies.

Val, who received funding from Breast Cancer UK for a research project on the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on breast density, was part of a consortium that recognised that scientists required access to human breast tissue to help accelerate research. Through this, she helped establish the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank. She now leads the Aberdeen centre, where she has been based for about three years.

Breast cancer in men

Breast cancer is rare in men compared with female breast cancer. But rates are rising and have almost doubled, according to the American Cancer Society, over the last 20 years. There are about 400 men diagnosed each year in the UK, compared to around 55,000 cases in women. “If you look at data, from both the UK and the US, from the 1970s through to the current day, the numbers seem to be rising steadily,” Val commented.

More research is needed to understand whether the rise can be attributed to unhealthier lifestyles, rising obesity levels or other environmental factors.  Another factor could be more men coming forward with symptoms. However, despite the increase, it is still believed that due to the stigma attached to having a predominantly female-orientated illness, many men fail to come forward when they discover something suspicious or delay seeking help.

“Breast cancer is very much associated with women,” said Val. “If you see a man in a breast cancer clinic, the obvious assumption is that he’s there to support his partner – which may create a bit of a stigma for men. There also aren’t many centres with male dedicated clinics, which could put people off,” she added.

Symptoms of breast cancer in men

The symptoms of male breast cancer are very similar to female breast cancer.

  • Any suspicious lump in the chest area
  • Or lump under the arm
  • Nipple discharge
  • Nipple bleeding

This should all be checked out by a GP. At the moment, the treatment for male breast cancer is the same as for women, but things could be about to change.

Explaining the underlying gender difference in breast cancer, Val said: “The interesting thing is that if you take a dyed section of male breast cancer and female breast cancer they look exactly the same under a microscope. However, if you probe a bit deeper, the gene expression profile shows there are differences.”

Further research carried out by Val and her colleagues has found biological differences between male and female breast cancers. In comparison, the breast cancer susceptibility gene BRCA1 is more predominant in female breast cancer. The BRCA2 gene seems more associated with male breast cancer.

To build on this research, the International Male Breast Cancer programme hopes to run a trial exclusively for men with breast cancer. The challenge will be recruiting enough men for the study to make it worthwhile.

Val said: “For a long-time male breast cancer has been very understudied. There was a belief it behaved the same as breast cancer in women. So studies were very sporadic and only looked at a very small number of cases. From which you couldn’t really get any very good information. But in the last 10 years, there’s been much more interest in looking at male breast cancer as a distinct disease.”

Breast cancer prevention

Val, who has been researching breast cancer for almost 25 years, implores men not to delay in seeking help, as the earlier they receive treatment, the better the outcome. She said: “Be aware if you do find something that’s not quite right, visit your GP. Because often, men leave it until it’s too late. And actually, if breast cancer is diagnosed early enough, it’s much more treatable. Whereas if it’s left for too long, that’s when the problems really start.”

By funding leading research carried out by experts like Professor Speirs and her colleagues, Breast Cancer UK is having an impact on breast cancer. Regardless of gender, and helping to prevent the preventable.

Whether you’re a man or a woman, following breast cancer prevention advice with a healthy lifestyle, balanced diet, regular exercise and avoiding exposure to harmful chemicals can reduce your risk. And, if you can, support the work of Breast Cancer UK to mark our 20th anniversary. This can help further increase understanding of the disease to help more people in future.

Breast Cancer UK is proud to collaborate with Men Get Breast Cancer Too. Who provides their expertise, education, support and counselling for men with breast cancer and their families.

Help us prevent breast cancer by supporting our work.

By donating £20 today you can help fund vital research into the causes of breast cancer. So we can reduce the number of people who have to go through the heartache of a diagnosis and treatment. 

Together we can prevent breast cancer.

Donate today

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