1 month ago
That’s how Doug Harper’s world changed, just before Christmas 2011. And how he started on a journey to make sure other men had a safe place to be informed, discuss, and chat about breast cancer in men.
In late summer 2011, Doug noticed a lump on his chest, which gradually got larger. Neither he nor Sarah, his partner, thought it was anything serious, but he decided (with Sarah’s encouragement) to schedule an appointment with the doctor. As Doug comments: “Men tend not to do that kind of thing, we just ignore things like a small lump and hope it all goes away.”
That first appointment at the doctor’s surgery began on a cheerful note. “We talked about Christmas and stuff,” says Doug. “It was all quite light-hearted, and then he told me to take off my top. And that’s when things got serious.”
The doctor was concerned the lump might be cancerous, and Doug was scheduled for an ultrasound scan at the nearby hospital. “They didn’t even mention the word cancer, but I was quite worried,” he says. “I just wanted to have a nice Christmas. But I also kept thinking it would be so good once the scan’s done because I’ll be relieved it’s over. It’ll be alright!”
In January 2012, Doug had the scan and a nipple biopsy. He still thought it would turn out to be negative: “A couple of friends are in nursing, and they said that men don’t often get breast cancer. It can happen, they said, but it’s very rare. So I’m still thinking it’s nothing.”
However, thinking back, he notes that a phone call asking him to go to the MacMillan ward at the hospital should have alerted him to the possibility of cancer. A couple of weeks later, Doug went for the results and was told it was breast cancer. “I couldn’t hear anything else,” he says. “I just kept hearing the words ‘breast cancer’ over and over.”
The diagnosis came just three days before Doug’s 50th birthday. Speaking to the doctor, Doug learned that not only is cancer rare in men, but he was also young for the diagnosis, as most cases happen to men in their 60s or older.
The next step was to tell his partner, friends, and family. “So, I spoke with Sarah and my four adult daughters. And I told their mum. I was so upset, and nobody could believe I had breast cancer.”
Doug went for follow-up tests. Then came another call: “The breast care nurse at the hospital called me and said they’d discovered I had diabetes. So I had to wait about six weeks for my blood sugars to go down before starting the cancer treatment.”
At this point, Doug comments that the delay worried him because the lump was already big and he’d had it for a while.
Eventually, he had a mastectomy, and two weeks later went to see the oncologist, who told him they’d found cancer in his lymph nodes, which needed further tests. So, two weeks later he had another operation. Then, two weeks before starting a chemotherapy course, Doug developed a bad infection underneath his arm and was sent to stay in a hospital ward. It would be another six weeks before he started chemotherapy. As Doug ironically comments: “Because you have to be really fit before starting chemo!”
By this time, it was late October, and the optimum time for Doug to have the chemotherapy had passed. “The oncologist asked if I still wanted it, but I asked about the chances of cancer returning if I didn’t, so I thought I might as well,” he says. Radiotherapy followed in December.
Along with ongoing treatments, the birth of a child with Sarah, and his mother’s death, Doug feels he’d had an interesting few years. Chronic fatigue syndrome, with short-term memory loss and lack of concentration, have also affected his life since 2017.
“The medical consensus is that the chronic fatigue syndrome has been caused by me taking Tamoxifen,” says Doug. “I’m not in a band anymore, and I don’t go out much as I can’t trust myself to stay awake. But cognitive therapy has really helped. I think if you understand something, then at least you have more of an idea of what’s going on.”
With the thought of sharing his new-found knowledge and understanding of breast cancer in men, including checking, diagnosis, and treatment, Doug started a blog. “It’s called ‘One in 300 men’, because when we started that’s how many men were being diagnosed [every year],” he explains.
The blog has opened up many possibilities for raising awareness and prevention. Doug was involved in the first Virtual Meet-Up in Europe of men who have had or have breast cancer, and which attracts up to 20 participants.
“More men are finding out about the chances of getting breast cancer, and the real high risk of dying from it because they’re diagnosed too late,” says Doug. “My doctor was brilliant because he took action straight away. That doesn’t always happen, and lumps don’t get taken seriously. Guys tend to ignore things, so that’s why I want to get the message across that men need to get tested. So many people don’t know men can get breast cancer – it’s frightening really!”
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