Doug Harper didn’t realise men could get breast cancer until he was diagnosed with it himself in 2012 – just three days before his 50th birthday. Now he’s made it his mission to spread the word to help others and save lives.
“I’d like as many people to know as possible that men can get breast cancer. Even though only 400 men a year get it, the death rate is much higher than in women because men often ignore a lump, they leave it too late. There are some men who find it embarrassing even to check, but we’ve all got breasts,” he said. “The partnership with Asda’s Tickled Pink is so important because it’s making people aware of breast cancer and getting the message out there.”
When Doug first found a lump, between his nipple and his armpit, he thought it was a cyst. “I was laughing and joking with the doctor until I took my shirt off and his expression changed. I was the first man in three years to be diagnosed with breast cancer in my local health authority.
“All my life I’ve been scared of having cancer. If there was anything on the telly about it, I’d turn it over, or anything in the paper I wouldn’t read it. I didn’t want to know about it. Now I’m always banging on about it! It’s so important for people to know, to catch it early.”
Doug, who is 61 and father to four grown up daughters and a 12-year-old son, said the hardest part was telling his family. “All I kept saying to everyone was, 'It’s alright it’s not spread'.
That’s what he was told when he went for his first ultrasound scan. Sadly that wasn’t the case as doctors subsequently found cancer cells in his lymph nodes. Doug’s treatment was complicated when he was found to have diabetes just before his mastectomy, which delayed his operation, and then by a life-threatening infection after surgery, that put him in hospital for a week, delaying his chemotherapy. During this time, Doug also lost his mum to cancer.
“It was just a horrible year for me,” he said. “There was nothing in that year I could control. So the only thing I could control was my hair! At first, I cut it short and dyed it purple. Then, just before it fell out, I thought, well I'm going to decide where my hair goes. And so I shaved it off and it made me feel really good. It was the only thing all year that I could control.”
Following chemo and radiotherapy, Doug thought his ordeal was over, but after five years of Tamoxifen, he found out he had chronic fatigue syndrome from the impact of treatment.
Doug, who used to be a print worker, said when he was first diagnosed there was “nowhere for me to go” – no support groups set up for men. “I was the first man that was diagnosed in three years in my local health authority.”
He spoke to Dr Kerry Wood who was doing a PhD on the psychological impact of breast cancer on men. When he told her there was nowhere for men with breast cancer to meet up, they decided to set up a Virtual Meet Up (VMU). It’s a monthly online meeting for two hours that any man who’s been diagnosed with breast cancer can attend.
“Kerry was so instrumental in setting it up she’s been brilliant. She comes as a guest now – she describes it as like men meeting down the pub or meeting in the cafe. We just chat. We don't just talk about breast cancer.”
The group has also impacted an EastEnders storyline. Actor Ricky Champ got in touch with Doug and chatted to the group while he was researching his part in a breast cancer storyline with the soap.
“He was really interested when he heard about the group and he asked if he could come,” said Doug. “It was so brilliant. He stayed for more than two hours. He listened to what we said and he took a lot of it into his part.”
Doug also writes a blog and two years ago he set up a men’s forum online with the help of Breast Cancer Now.
“I love helping people and helping to raise awareness. Meeting all these people has just been brilliant!” said Doug. “I’ve made friends for life.”
Watch Ricky meeting Doug in this video on the EastEnders YouTube channel:
You can read more about the VMU group for men with breast cancer on the Breast Cancer Now website -