By Doug Harper
Unlike Jack Flash, I was not born in a cross fire hurricane; I was actually born in Barkingside
just outside London on 15 January 1962.
The first few decades of my life, I was like anyone else; I had regrets. I still regret that around 1974, I was chosen to play football against my school’s first team after impressing during ‘games’. Mr. Robertson put me on the left wing and I scored two goals in a 2-1 win. The second goal was a lob (I had no idea what a lob was, I closed my eyes and shot) with my George Best boots on. Mr. Robertson picked me up and ran me around the pitch. He thought that he had found London’s answer to the man whose boots I was wearing!
Two days later, I was informed that I was to play for the school team on Saturday. In those days (for whatever reason) I was shy. I told Mr. R that I was not well and could not make the game. The next week I was told that I would never be picked for the school again.
Fast forward to 2011… Forty nine years old and the father to four girls from a previous marriage and a
one-year-old son with my muse, Sarah (SJ). Unemployed since early 2009 after 31 years in the printing industry (which was dead), I was desperately trying to reinvent myself in a different industry.
A life-long ambition was realised when I had a song that I had written and performed released on a compilation CD in the United States of America. The band that I am in, Steve White & The Protest Family, http://stevewhiteandtheprotestfamily.bandcamp.com/ goes from strength to strength. Ok, we ain’t going to storm up the charts or appear on The X-Factor, but what we do I am immensely proud of.
I was just an average good guy and then I found out that I was different. I became one of only 300 men a year in the UK to have breast cancer! I had no idea before being diagnosed that men could get breast cancer. My partner had no idea that men could get breast cancer. My friends, my family, seemingly no one seemed to be aware that men could get breast cancer. And yet there I stood, well sat actually, with a cancerous lump in my chest, and on the verge of soon losing my man nipple.
A few days before Christmas 2011, I went to see my Doctor. To be honest, I was getting worried about the lump on my nipple which seemed to have escalated in the last couple of months. In true Peter Griffin style, I thought I would ignore it and it would go away.
My Doctor looked concerned when he saw the lump and sent me for a scan. I was worried, but in the back of my mind I was thinking that it would all be fine. This kind of thing happens to other people. Two weeks later I went for tests and had to wait until January 12th, three days before my 50th birthday.
This was my D Day (or C Day). I could not sit still. I had to keep on the move. I wanted to hear the consultant say ‘ Mr. Harper, you have a cyst. Now clear off and let me deal with people that are ill.’
My name was called ‘Douglas Harper.’ “Call me Doug please.” I went in the room, the door was closed, the consultant was next to me. A nurse called Sarah was sitting behind us on a couch. The consultant said ‘ Hello Mr. Harper, we have the results of your tests and I am afraid that you have cancer-CANCER. The word went around my head. CANCER-CANCER-CANCER-CANCER. The last word you want to hear. I was in the room for five minutes and the consultant said a lot, but I heard nothing except CANCER-CANCER-CANCER-CANCER. It is possibly the most taboo word in the English dictionary.
I walked out of the hospital and wondered how I was going to tell SJ and my kids and my Mum. I rang SJ and told her. I found out later that she cried her eyes out. I then rang my ex wife so she could tell my four daughters and they cried their eyes out as well. WOW!!!!
My mastectomy was to be in 11 days, but the day before I was due to have surgery, I was diagnosed with diabetes, so my surgery was delayed about a month. I would have to have my blood sugar tested again a week before the operation, and it was imperative that I eat sensibly and stay stress free.
While awaiting my surgery, my mum was suddenly taken ill. She was in hospital under observation, but the Doctors said she was fine and could come home. A few days before she was due home, I received a phone call from the hospital saying she only had hours to live. This was out of the blue and I was in shock. I had been told by my Oncologist that I could not risk visiting her as there had been a virus on the ward, and if I caught it my surgery would be put back even further, risking the cancer to spread.
I was in a state. I was heartbroken, but had to weigh up what was best. I knew that I had to stay alive and the thought of my daughters losing both their Grandmother and Father would be too much. In the end, my four brave and wonderful daughters were with my Mum at the end. It still hurts writing this.
I finally had surgery on 7th of March and for once there were no dramas. I went in at 7am and came out at 7pm.
Tuesday 13th March would be my Mums Funeral. I was dreading the funeral so much, that it was actually a relief to go into hospital to have the mastectomy. To me, it was a piece of cake compared to losing my Mum.
Thursday 15th March, I was to see my Consultant for the assessment of my operation. I was told that
there would only be a small chance of another operation.
I am sure that you are ahead of me here. Yep, in three months I had experienced my Mum’s passing, being diagnosed with cancer and diabetes (type 2) and all the fear and uncertainty. Then the Consultant told me one of three lymph glands was found to have cancer and I would need another operation on 11th April.
The operation to remove my lymph glands was once again a success, although when I returned home the drain they had put in had fallen out. This was to have severe implications just a month later. Without the drain, thanks to my Diabetes, I was at a high risk of infection.
The good news was that out of the 20 lymph glands my Oncologist had taken out, only one had cancer. He also informed me that I was to have Chemo and maybe Radiotherapy after, as a precaution. I am aware of how horrible Chemo is, but to me, it gives me more chance of getting rid of this alien inside of me. So I was pleased.
Fast forward to May 15th, the day of my chemo. I was tired and had hardly eaten for days, but I did not foresee a problem. That is until I saw my chest. It had been swollen a bit for a few days but now had gone from slight to a bubonic plague size tennis ball (without the rats and bringing out of the dead) and the surrounding area was as red as a red thing that is very red indeed. When I got to the Chemo Dept, I (understatement alert) thought I better mention it. I was taken into a side room, a doctor looked at it and said that I would need to be taken to a ward. The area where I had the mastectomy had become infected big time!
Due to the fact that the drain had fallen out after my last op, I had to have the area drained. Thanks to my diabetes, there would be the chance of an infection and that is what came to pass. If I was not so out of it, I may have been concerned. The Chemo nurses sat me in the Chemo room and I waited to be transferred to ward 19.
I of course gutted that my chemo would have to be cancelled, but I felt so groggy now, I just wanted to lie down. When I got to the ward, I was taken for an ultra sound to see how much gunk was in my chest. Once the nurse saw how much was there, she thought she could drain it out, but after a number of needles going into my armpit, this proved futile. Once back on the ward, it was explained that I was to have an operation to drain it all out and get rid of the abscess that had appeared.
They wanted to get me down to the theatre ASAP, but despite the best efforts, from my admittance at 1pm Tuesday until 7am Wednesday, I had still not gone under the knife. There was concern as my blood sugar was going haywire due to the fact that I had been nil by mouth for 18 hours and had hardly eaten for days anyway. So…around the aforementioned 7am, I was awoken by a nurse who said that I was a bit wet near the infection and that I should have a shower. This is where nurses come into their own. If she had said what was really happening it would have caused absolute panic in me. What she really meant was, “Your infection has burst and there is pus and goo running down your body.” There was a massive hole under my arm.
When I left hospital, it was arranged that I would have visits from the District Nurses to change my wound. I had a vacuum fitted under my arm and I was informed that the wound may take up to six weeks to heal. This was bad news, as I would not be able to have chemo until it was healed. In fact there was a strong chance that chemo would be cancelled.
The day of reckoning came on 20th June. This was the day when I would find out if I was still to have chemo. I met with the Chemo Doctor and I told him of my concerns of not having chemo. He had told me before that without chemo I would have a life expectancy of at least 60% over 10 years. With chemo it would go up to at least around 80%. I want that percentage as high as it would go. I told the Doctor that I understood the chemo was precautionary, but I was willing to go with it to knock the percentage up even more. Thankfully, it was decided that the chemo would go ahead on 5th July. It is great that the medical staff takes notice of the opinions of the patient.
I had six rounds of chemo that affected me to varying degrees and 15 hits of radiotherapy that ended
just before Christmas 2012.
The main advantage (if there is such a thing) about being a bloke with BC, is that when you contact anyone in hospital, they usually know who you are as there are very few of us about. There are obvious disadvantages as well. Most of the literature and groups are female friendly . It is no one’s fault as there are no other males in
the same area with BC.
Three years on and I am still getting a load of negative effects from my treatment, mainly thanks to the Tamoxifen. These include fatigue, dizziness, mood swings, memory problems and losing concentration. Never great at multi tasking, I am finding it impossible at the moment. I find it really difficult to walk upstairs especially when carrying anything. I still play with the Protest Family, but If there is a lot of walking to gigs.
I also need someone else to take my bass and I don’t jump around anymore.
A few days after I was diagnosed, Steve White from our band wrote this brilliant song about male breast cancer and how to check yourself. We still play it at most gigs and it is a song I am proud of .Song and lyrics here: http://stevewhiteandtheprotestfamily.bandcamp.com/track/never-mind-your-bollocks
As Louise Stedman from Breathless Breastless says, “People say, ‘oh that’s great, you’ve kicked cancer’s ass’. They think it’s all over but it never goes away.” http://breathlessbreastlessproject.org/
Don’t get me wrong, I am not going to stop raising awareness and contributing where ever I can, but sometimes it just gets to you. I am heavily involved in Paint C Out : https://www.facebook.com/PaintCOut and http://www.kidzunitedagainstcancer.org/
I’m an activist and campaigner. I often campaign about things close to my heart (no pun intended). Out of all of my campaigns, this is the most important one. I write my blog in the hope that more people will be aware of the possibility of getting breast cancer, and to encourage you all to check your bits. I have slowed down writing the
blog, as I find it hard to concentrate for long periods.
I have found a lot of brave people out there on forums, Twitter, Facebook, on blogs and in person. Not to mention those that support us. Not only friends.