Breast Cancer Survival Rates Have Steadily Improved for Women—But Not for Men

  • Breast cancer-specific survival rates for men have not significantly improved over the past three decades, according to new research published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
  • Over a similar period of time, breast cancer survival rates in women have substantially improved.
  • Though breast cancer remains rare in men, the new study highlights the need for more research into male breast cancer to improve survival rates.
female doctor talking to male patient

Getty Images/Tom Werner

Breast cancer survival rates among women have steadily improved over time—but men diagnosed with the disease haven’t seen the same improvements, new research shows.

Over the past three decades, breast cancer-specific survival rates in men have shown no significant improvements, according to a new study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Though breast cancer in men remains rare—about 1% of breast cancer diagnoses in the U.S. are in the male population—the findings have led experts to push for more research into male breast cancer, as well as education among patients, in order to improve survival rates.

“A lot of men don’t know breast cancer can happen to them,” lead study author José Leone, MD, director of the Program for Breast Cancer in Men at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, told Health.

No Significant Improvements in Survival Rates in 3 Decades

For the new study, researchers evaluated the five-year survival rates of nearly 8,500 men, with a median age of 68, diagnosed with breast cancer between 1988 and 2017.

The diagnoses were reported in the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results registry and the researchers specifically looked at whether or not the men died of breast cancer (breast cancer-specific survival) rather than another cause within five years of their cancer diagnosis.

To determine whether survival rates improved over time, patients were separated into three groups based on the year they were diagnosed: 1988 to 1997, 1998 to 2007 and 2008 to 2017.

Breast cancer-specific survival rates remained relatively unchanged for all three time periods, hovering at about 84%. There were also no significant differences in survival based on stage of disease.

“It was surprising to see that not only was there not an improvement in [breast cancer-specific] survival, but also no improvements in any of the stages,” Dr. Leone said.

Overall survival rates, however, did improve slightly over the course of the study, rising from 65% between 1988 and 1997 to 69% between 2008 to 2017. According to researchers, this is consistent with increasing life expectancy over time.

Lack of Awareness, Less Aggressive Treatment Linked to Lower Survival Rates

Because breast cancer is most common in women, many men—and even healthcare providers—may have a lack of awareness on the causes of male breast cancer and how the disease presents in men. This could be driving later diagnoses.

“We need to increase awareness in the public so if a man presents with a sign or symptom of breast cancer, they can bring it to their doctor,” Leone said. “Early detection is what saves the most lives.” 

But the most common signs of breast cancer in men are similar to those seen in women, including a lump or swelling in the breast; redness, flakiness, irritation, or dimpling of the breast skin; nipple discharge or bleeding; or pain or inversion of the nipple.

For men, a lump—specifically under the nipple—is the most common symptom, according to Sharon Giordano, MD, a professor of medicine in the Department of Breast Medical Oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

And because men don’t get routine mammograms, they also tend to be diagnosed with more advanced stages of the disease, compared to women.

“If you aren’t being screened automatically, the only way you can catch something is if it’s big enough to cause a lump,” Dr. Giordano said. “For women, you can catch it before it gets to that stage.”

Men with breast cancer may also hit roadblocks when it comes to treatment.

“It’s a rare disease so people have less confidence in treating them and they may not receive treatment that’s as aggressive as women do,” Dr. Giordano said.

Certain drugs that treat breast cancer in women may also not work as well in men. While chemotherapy likely works in the same way, regardless of biological sex, this may not be true for hormone therapies used to treat the disease in women. It’s currently unclear which hormone treatment is the best option for men.

“We treat women by blocking estrogen, [but] men have a different hormonal environment than women,” Dr. Giordano said. “It would make sense that treatment would be different.”

Much more research is needed to determine the causes, prevention of, and treatments for breast cancer in men. Because the disease is so rare, breast cancer clinical trials have largely focused on women, and data on whether male bodies may respond better to different treatments doesn’t yet exist.

Resources for Male Breast Cancer

Nearly all of the community resources for breast cancer are female-focused, leaving men with the disease lacking for resources and support systems.

In addition to your cancer care team, Dr. Leone recommends male breast cancer patients seek o ut the Male Breast Cancer Global Alliance and Male Breast Cancer Happens, two groups that not only connect survivors and those currently battling breast cancer with other men who have experienced the disease, but advocate for more male-specific breast cancer research. 

“One of the things we see in our clinic is that men who are diagnosed with breast cancer feel a bit lonely,” Leone said. “Having the opportunity to connect with those groups is invaluable.”

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  1. Leone JP, Freedman RA, Leone J, et al. Survival in male breast cancer over the past three decadesJ Natl Cancer Inst. Published online December 30, 2022. doi:10.1093/jnci/djac241

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breast cancer in men.

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