Breast Cancer - Male: Treatment Options

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 04/2010

ON THIS PAGE: You will learn about the different ways doctors use to treat people with this type of cancer. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

The treatment of male breast cancer depends on the size and location of the tumor, whether the cancer has spread, and the man's overall health. In many cases, a team of doctors will work with the patient to determine the best treatment plan. Male breast cancer may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and hormone therapy. Each option is described below.

This section outlines treatments that are the standard of care (the best treatments available) for this specific type of cancer. Patients are also encouraged to consider clinical trials when making treatment plan decisions. A clinical trial is a research study to test a new treatment to prove it is safe, effective, and possibly better than standard treatment. Your doctor can help you review all treatment options. For more information, read the Clinical Trials section.

Overview of breast cancer treatment

The biology and behavior of a breast cancer affects the treatment. Some tumors are small but grow fast, while others are large and grow slower. When planning the treatment for breast cancer, the doctor will consider many factors, including:

  • The stage and grade of the tumor
  • The tumor's hormone receptor status (ER, PR) and HER2 status (see Diagnosis)
  • The patient's age and general health
  • The presence of known mutations in inherited breast cancer genes (BRCA1 or BRCA2)

Even though the doctor will specifically tailor the treatment for each patient and the breast cancer, there are some general steps for treating breast cancer.

For both DCIS and early-stage invasive breast cancer, doctors generally recommend surgery to remove the tumor. To ensure that the entire tumor is removed, the surgeon will also remove a small area of tissue around the tumor. Although surgery aims to remove all of the visible cancer, it is known that many times microscopic cells can be left behind, either in the breast or elsewhere.

The next step in the management of early-stage breast cancer is to lower the risk of recurrence (return of the cancer) and to get rid of any hidden remaining cancer cells. This is called adjuvant therapy. Adjuvant therapies include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and/or targeted therapy (see below for more information on these types of treatment). The need for adjuvant therapy is determined based on an estimate of the chance of residual cancer in the breast or the body. Although adjuvant therapy lowers the risk of recurrence, it does not necessarily eliminate it.

Along with staging, other sophisticated tools can help determine prognosis and help you and your doctor make decisions about adjuvant therapy. The website Adjuvant! Online (www.adjuvantonline.com) is one such tool that your doctor can access to interpret a variety of prognostic factors. This website should only be used with the interpretation of your doctor. In addition, other tests that can predict the risk of recurrence (such as Oncotype Dx, and Mammaprint; see Diagnosis) may be used to find out whether your doctor recommends adjuvant chemotherapy.

When surgery to remove the cancer is not possible, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormone therapy, and/or targeted therapy may be used as the primary treatment.

The treatment of recurrent cancer and metastatic cancer depends on how the cancer was first treated and the characteristics of the cancer mentioned above (such as ER, PR, and HER2 status).

Additional descriptions of the most common treatment options for breast cancer are listed below.

Surgery

Surgery is performed to remove the tumor in the breast and to evaluate the surrounding axillary (underarm) lymph nodes. A surgical oncologist is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer using surgery. The types of surgery include the following:

  • A lumpectomy is the removal of the tumor and a small, clear (cancer-free) margin of tissue around the tumor. Most of the breast remains. For both DCIS and invasive cancer, follow-up radiation therapy to the remaining breast tissue is generally recommended. A lumpectomy may also be called breast-conserving surgery, a partial mastectomy, or a segmental mastectomy.
  • A mastectomy is the surgical removal of the entire breast.

Because men do not have much breast tissue, a lumpectomy, which remove only the tumor, is generally not an option.

Lymph node removal and analysis

Lymph nodes can trap cancer cells traveling away from the original tumor site. It is important to find out whether any of the lymph nodes near the breast contain evidence of cancer.

In an axillary lymph node dissection, the surgeon removes many of the lymph nodes from under the arm, which are then examined by a pathologist for cancer cells. The actual number of nodes removed varies.

Sentinel lymph node biopsy

The sentinel lymph node biopsy procedure allows for the removal of one to a few lymph nodes, reserving a bigger axillary lymph node dissection procedure for patients whose sentinel lymph nodes show evidence of cancer. The smaller lymph node procedure helps patients lower the risk of lymphedema (swelling of the arm) and decreases arm mobility and range-of-motion problems. Learn more about preventing lymphedema after breast cancer treatment.

In this procedure, the surgeon finds and removes the sentinel (first) lymph node (as a practical matter, one to three nodes) that receives drainage from the breast. The pathologist then examines it for cancer cells. To identify the sentinel lymph node, the surgeon injects a dye and/or a radioactive tracer into the area of the cancer and/or around the nipple. The dye or tracer travels to the lymph nodes, arriving at the sentinel node first. The surgeon can find the node when it turns color (if the dye is used) or emits radiation (if the tracer is used).

If the sentinel node is cancer-free, research has shown that there is a good possibility that the subsequent nodes will also be free of cancer and no further surgery of the lymph nodes is performed. If the sentinel lymph node shows cancer is present, then the surgeon will perform an axillary lymph node dissection, removing additional lymph nodes to look for the presence of more cancer. Find out more about ASCO's recommendations for sentinel lymph node biopsy.

Most patients with invasive cancer will undergo either sentinel lymph node biopsy or an axillary lymph node dissection. For those with sentinel nodes that indicate cancer, an axillary lymph node dissection is still considered the standard procedure. If there is obvious evidence of cancer in the lymph nodes before any surgery, then the preferred approach is a full axillary lymph node dissection without a sentinel lymph node biopsy.

Summary

To summarize, surgical treatment options include the following:

  • Removal of cancer in the breast: Lumpectomy (partial mastectomy) almost always followed by radiation therapy, or mastectomy (sometimes, but not always, followed by radiation)
  • Lymph node evaluation: Sentinel lymph node biopsy and/or axillary lymph node dissection

The most significant side effect of surgery is lymphedema (arm swelling), which can occur when lymph nodes are removed or damaged during surgery. Because the lymph nodes are part of the channels that drain the lymphatic fluid from the arm, damage to the area may hold back the flow of lymphatic fluid and cause it to back up in the arm. The use of sentinel node biopsy has been shown to reduce the incidence of lymphedema. Read more about preventing lymphedema.

Learn more about cancer surgery.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy x-rays or other particles to kill cancer cells. A doctor who specializes in giving radiation therapy to treat cancer is called a radiation oncologist. The most common type of radiation treatment is called external-beam radiation therapy, which is radiation given from a machine outside the body. When radiation treatment is given using implants, it is called internal radiation therapy or brachytherapy. A radiation therapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of treatments given over a specific time.

The lowest risks of cancer recurrence in the breast after lumpectomy are associated with the use of radiation therapy. Early randomized clinical trials showed, in general, recurrence rates of 30% or more without radiation therapy, compared with 10% recurrence rates with radiation therapy.

After surgery, adjuvant radiation therapy is given regularly for a number of weeks after a lumpectomy to eliminate any remaining cancer cells near the tumor site or elsewhere within the breast. Adjuvant radiation therapy is also recommended for some patients after a mastectomy depending upon the size of their tumor, number of cancerous lymph nodes under the arm, and width of the tissue margin around the tumor removed by the surgeon.

Adjuvant radiation therapy is effective in reducing the chance of breast cancer returning in both the breast and the chest wall. Neoadjuvant radiation therapy is radiation therapy given before surgery to shrink a large tumor, which makes it easier to remove, although this approach is rare.

Radiation therapy can cause side effects, including fatigue, swelling of the breast, and skin changes. A small amount of the lung can be affected by the radiation, although the risk of pneumonitis, or a radiation-related inflammation of the lung tissue is rare. In the past, with older equipment and techniques of radiation therapy, patients treated for left-sided breast cancers had a small increase in the long-term risk of heart disease. Modern techniques are now able to spare most of the heart from radiation damage.

Although exposure to radiation is thought to be a risk factor for cancer after many years, less than one in 500 survivors will develop a different kind of cancer other than a breast cancer (usually a type of cancer called sarcoma) within the area that was treated. Clinical trials comparing lumpectomy and adjuvant radiation therapy with mastectomy have not shown a difference in the number of patients developing or dying of other cancers within a 20-year time span.

The most common type of radiation treatment is called external beam radiation therapy, which is radiation therapy given from a machine outside the body. Many types of radiation therapy may be available to you; talk with your doctor about the options, advantages, and disadvantages of these options.

Radiation therapy schedule

Standard radiation therapy after a lumpectomy is external-beam radiation therapy given daily for five days per week (Monday through Friday) for six to seven weeks. This usually includes radiation therapy to the whole breast first for four-and-a-half to five weeks, followed by a more focused treatment to the site of the tumor bed in the breast for the remaining treatments.

This focused part of the treatment, called a boost, is standard for patients with invasive breast cancer to reduce the risk of a recurrence in the breast. If there is evidence of cancer in the underarm lymph nodes, radiation therapy may also be given to the lymph node areas in the neck or underarm near the breast or chest wall. Usually, patients who undergo mastectomy do not require radiation therapy. However, for patients with large cancers, many involved lymph nodes, or extension of cancer into the skin or chest wall, radiation may still be recommended after a mastectomy. Standard radiation therapy after a mastectomy is given to the chest wall for five days a week (Monday through Friday) for five to six weeks.

Newer approaches to breast radiation therapy

Several newer radiation treatment approaches are being studied in women, but have not been studied in very many men with breast cancer. Talk with your doctor for more information.

  • Hypofractionated radiation is giving a higher daily dose of radiation over a shorter time (usually 3 to 4 weeks instead of 6 to 7 weeks).
  • Partial breast irradiation is radiation therapy given directly to the tumor area, usually after a lumpectomy, instead of to the entire breast. This approach also results in a shorter overall time patients need to undergo radiation therapy.
  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is a more advanced way to deliver external-beam radiation therapy to the breast. The intensity of the radiation directed at the breast is varied to target the tumor more precisely, give a uniform distribution of radiation throughout the breast tissue, and avoid damaging healthy tissue more than is possible with traditional radiation treatment. IMRT may reduce the dose to nearby important organs, such as the heart and lung, and reduce the risks of some immediate side effects, such as peeling of the skin during treatment. IMRT also may help to reduce long-term effects on the breast tissue that were common with older radiation techniques such as hardness, swelling, or discoloration.

Learn more about radiation therapy.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Systemic chemotherapy is delivered through the bloodstream, targeting cancer cells throughout the body. Chemotherapy is given by a medical oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating cancer with medication. Most people with breast cancer receive chemotherapy in their doctor's office or outpatient clinic. An adjuvant chemotherapy regimen consists of a specific treatment schedule of drugs given at repeating intervals for a specific number of times.

Chemotherapy may be given intravenously (injected into a vein) or occasionally orally (by mouth), and is usually given in cycles. Chemotherapy may be given before surgery to both shrink a large tumor and reduce the risk of recurrence or adjuvant therapy given after surgery to reduce the risk of recurrence. Chemotherapy is also commonly given at the time of a metastatic breast cancer recurrence. Patients in clinical trials may be offered new drugs or new combinations of existing drugs.

The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the individual and the drug and the dose used, but can include fatigue, hair loss, risk of infection, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, and diarrhea. These side effects usually go away once treatment is finished. Rarely, long-term side effects may occur, such as heart damage, nerve damage, or secondary cancers, but studies have shown that these side effects do not shorten a patient's survival time.

Different drugs are useful for different cancers, and research has shown that combinations of certain drugs are more effective than individual ones. The most common combinations for male breast cancer include:

  • CMF: cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) methotrexate (multiple brand names), and fluorouracil (5-FU, Adrucil)
  • CAF: cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin (Adriamycin), and 5-FU
  • AC: doxorubicin (Adriamycin) and cyclophosphamide
  • Cyclophosphamide and doxorubicin in combination with paclitaxel (Taxol) or docetaxel (Taxotere)

Other chemotherapy that may be prescribed includes paclitaxel, docetaxel, vinorelbine (Navelbine), gemcitabine (Gemzar) and capecitabine (Xeloda). Trastuzumab (see Targeted therapy below) is used to treat HER2-positive breast cancer (see Diagnosis).

Trastuzumab and lapatinib (Tykerb) are HER2-targeted therapies that may be given with chemotherapy in HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer. Bevacizumab (Avastin), a blood vessel blocking drug (called anti-angiogenic), is another targeted therapy approved in combination with chemotherapy in the treatment of metastatic breast cancer. (See the Targeted Therapy section below.)

Learn more about chemotherapy and preparing for treatment. The medications used to treat cancer are continually being evaluated. Talking with your doctor is often the best way to learn about the medications prescribed for you, their purpose, and their potential side effects or interactions with other medications. Learn more about your prescriptions by using searchable drug databases.

Hormone therapy

Hormone therapy helps manage a tumor that tests positive for either estrogen receptors (ER) or progesterone receptors (PR) for both early-stage and metastatic cancer. Because more than 75% of breast cancers in men have estrogen receptors, hormone therapy is often part of the treatment plan. This type of tumor uses hormones to fuel its growth. Blocking the hormones usually limits the growth of the tumor.

If it is determined that the tumor is hormone receptor-positive (uses estrogen or progesterone to grow [see Diagnosis]), then adjuvant hormone treatment may be used alone or after chemotherapy. Hormone therapies for men include:

  • Tamoxifen is the primary hormone therapy used in male breast cancer. It blocks the estrogen receptor's activity inside the cancer cell. It is a pill taken daily, usually for many years.
  • Aromatase inhibitors block the production of estrogen. These agents are effective in treating breast cancer in women, but there is not much information on their use in male breast cancer. Caution is urged in using these agents in men with intact testes, as androgen levels may increase.
  • Megesterol (Megace) is a progesterone-like drug used to treat a hormone receptor-positive tumor. It is rarely used in male breast cancer.

Side effects of hormone therapy can include hot flashes, decreased sexual desire or ability, and mood swings.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy is a treatment that targets specific genes, proteins, or the tissue environment that contributes to cancer growth and survival. Currently the two main classes of biologically targeted therapy approved in breast cancer treatment are targeted to the HER2 molecule (HER2 targeted therapy) and the blood vessels in the area of the tumor (anti-angiogenic therapy). Learn more about targeted treatments.

HER2 targeted therapy

  • Trastuzumab is approved for both the treatment of advanced breast cancer and as an adjuvant therapy for early-stage breast cancer for HER2-positive tumors. At this time, one year of trastuzumab is recommended for early-stage breast cancer. In the metastatic setting, the length of treatment is not limited (it is given as long as it is still working). Patients receiving trastuzumab have a small (2% to 5%) risk of heart problems, and this risk is increased if a patient has other risk factors for heart disease. These heart problems do not always go away, but they are usually treatable with medication.
  • Lapatinib is commonly used in patients with HER2-positive breast cancer that no longer responds to trastuzumab. The combination of lapatinib and capecitabine is approved for the treatment of patients with advanced or metastatic HER2-positive breast cancer who have previously been treated with chemotherapy and trastuzumab.

Anti-angiogenic targeted therapy (blood vessel blocking therapy)

  • Bevacizumab has been used to treat metastatic or recurrent breast cancer (see below) for many years. This drug blocks angiogenesis (the formation of new blood vessels), which is needed for tumor growth and metastasis. Because bevacizumab may not work well for all tumors, it is no longer approved by the FDA as a treatment for breast cancer. However, it is still used as a treatment in Europe. Research on bevacizumab for breast cancer is ongoing. When combined with paclitaxel, bevacizumab appears to shrink the tumor and keep it smaller for a longer time in patients whose breast cancer has spread compared with paclitaxel alone. Recent studies have shown benefit of adding bevacizumab to other chemotherapy as well.

Anti-osteoclast targeted therapy (drugs that block bone destruction)

  • Bisphosphonates are a class of drugs that block the cells that cause bone destruction (osteoclasts). Bisphosphonates are commonly used in relatively low doses to prevent and treat osteoporosis. In patients with breast cancer that has spread to bone, higher doses of bisphosphonates have been shown to reduce the complications of cancer in the bone, including bone fractures and pain. Pamidronate (Aredia) and zoledronic acid (Zometa) are two intravenous bisphosphonates used to treat breast cancer bone metastasis. Recent studies have suggested that these drugs may also be able to reduce breast cancer recurrences when given in the adjuvant setting, although more data are needed.
  • Denosumab (Prolia) is in another new class of osteoclast-targeted therapies called RANK ligand inhibitors. Although not yet approved for patients with breast cancer, recent studies have shown great promise of these drugs in treating breast cancer bone metastases and osteoporosis.

Learn more about bisphosphonates for breast cancer.

Recurrent and metastatic breast cancer

Breast cancer is called recurrent if the cancer has come back after it was first diagnosed and treated. It may come back in the breast (a local recurrence); in the chest wall (a regional recurrence); or in another part of the body, including distant organs such as the lungs, liver, and bones. A local recurrence is frequently considered curable with further treatment. A metastatic (distant) recurrence is generally considered incurable, but is frequently treatable. Some patients live years after a metastatic recurrence of breast cancer. The goal of treatment for advanced disease is to prolong survival and/or improve quality of life.

Generally, a recurrence is detected when a person has symptoms. These symptoms depend on the site of the recurrence and may include:

  • A lump under the arm or along the chest wall
  • Bone pain or fractures, which may signal bone metastases
  • Headaches or seizures, which may signal brain metastases
  • Chronic coughing or trouble breathing, which may signal lung metastases
  • Abdominal pain or jaundice (yellow skin and eyes), which may be associated with liver metastases

Other symptoms may be related to the location of metastasis and may include changes in vision, changes in energy levels, feeling ill, or extreme fatigue. A biopsy of the recurrent site is often recommended to be certain of the diagnosis and to check for ER, PR, and HER2 status, because this may have changed from the time of the original diagnosis.

The treatment of metastatic or recurrent breast cancer depends on the previous treatment(s), the time since the original diagnosis, and the characteristics of the tumor (such as ER, PR, and HER2 status).

  • For men with a local recurrence within the breast after initial treatment with lumpectomy and adjuvant radiation therapy, the treatment is mastectomy. This usually results in cure.
  • For men with a local or regional recurrence of the chest wall after an initial mastectomy, resection (surgical removal of the recurrence) followed by radiation therapy to the chest wall and lymph nodes is the treatment, unless radiation therapy has already been given (radiation therapy cannot usually be given at full dose to the same area more than once).
  • Total-body therapies such as chemotherapy, hormone therapy and targeted therapies are generally the primary treatment in recurrent metastatic cancer. Radiation therapy and surgery may be used in certain situations for men with a distant metastatic recurrence. Often radiation is used to treat painful bone metastases.

Find out more about common terms used during cancer treatment.

The next section helps explain clinical trials, which are research studies. Use the menu on the side of your screen to select About Clinical Trials, or you can select another section, to continue reading this guide.