Cancer Has Plagued My Family

Both my sister and I have been diagnosed with breast cancer twice, but the real surprise is my husband also was diagnosed with the cancer.

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My father, who was a physician, taught me at an early age to pay attention to any changes in my body. His advice has stood me in good stead for more than 83 years and probably saved my life more than once.

In 1984, just before I turned 50, something was bothering me about my right breast. I could feel a small mass during breast self-exams, but my mammogram appeared clear of any signs of malignancy. However, my suspicion that something was not quite right persisted, and after talking with my physician about my concern, he agreed to biopsy the mass. The pathology report showed I did, in fact, have breast cancer: ductal carcinoma in situ.

Ever since my husband’s death, I’ve been on a crusade advocating for breast screenings for men, so cancers can be found at earlier, more curable stages.
— Harriet P. Gross

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Thirty-three years ago, breast-conserving surgery was uncommon, so I was fortunate to find a surgeon who said that because my tumor was small I would be a good candidate for a then-new procedure called lumpectomy, sparing my breast. I had the surgery followed by several weeks of radiation and didn’t think about cancer again until 13 years later, when a new cancer developed in my left breast, which also was removed with a lumpectomy.

Rarity of Male Breast Cancer

Although I’ve been cancer-free for more than 2 decades, the disease continues to plague my family. My sister has also had breast cancer twice, and two of my cousins have been diagnosed with prostate cancer. After my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, we were both tested for the BRCA mutation and found to be negative for the mutation, which didn’t surprise me because until our diagnoses, there was no incidence of cancer in our family history. Of course, 40 years ago, people were so scared of cancer, the disease was only discussed in whispered tones (if at all), so it is difficult to say definitely that no history of cancer exists within my family.

What was surprising to me is that, in 2008, my husband, Fred, was also diagnosed with breast cancer. Because breast cancer is so rare in men—less than 1% of all breast cancers occur in men1—Fred’s surgeon insisted he be screened for the BRCA mutation, and he tested positive. Fred had a mastectomy followed by a series of chemotherapy treatments, but his cancer later metastasized, and he died in 2014.

Benefit of Early Cancer Screenings

Ever since my husband’s death, I’ve been on a crusade advocating for breast screenings for men, so cancers can be found at earlier, more curable stages. Certainly, if we had known that Fred had the BRCA mutation, we would have been diligent about scheduling regular breast and prostate cancer exams. Instead, we relied on my father’s admonition to pay attention to any changes in our body to detect Fred’s cancer. I was actually the one who found the mass in Fred’s left breast after I noticed that his nipple had grown darker and discolored compared with the nipple in his right breast. Instead of relying on instinct alone, I wish we had had the benefit of scientific evidence to guide our decisions on cancer screenings, so perhaps Fred could have been cured of his cancer and enjoyed a longer, healthier life.

My hope now is that the male members of Fred’s immediate family will not only pay closer attention to the signals their bodies are sending them about any changes afoot, but that they will also be tested for BRCA1/2 mutations and have regular screenings for breast cancer as well as prostate and other cancers to catch the disease early, when there is greater potential for cure.

That is also my hope for all men—and women. ■

Ms. Gross is a freelance writer and lives in Dallas.

Editor’s Note: Columns that appear in the Patient’s Corner are based entirely on information The ASCO Post receives from patients and should be considered solely anecdotal.


1. Male Breast Cancer. Available at Accessed September 20, 2017.