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Actor Richard Roundtree

Real Men Can Get Breast Cancer

by Laura Shipp

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

You probably know him as “the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about.” Yes, I’m talking about Shaft, the iconic private detective from the 1970s action films of the same name. The womanizing, leather clad, maverick P.I. was a symbol of hard-edged masculinity for a generation. But spend just a few minutes with veteran actor Richard Roundtree, and you’ll soon discover there’s much more to him than what his tough-guy exterior might suggest.

For starters, Richard is a breast cancer survivor. A member of a community represented by pink ribbons and female faces, where the word “sisterhood” gets thrown around quite a bit, Richard stands out, challenging the misconception that men can’t get breast cancer. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 2,000 men were diagnosed with breast cancer last year. Recently, Richard spoke with Coping magazine about his diagnosis, why he kept it hidden, and what made him finally speak up.

Richard openly admits that when it comes to his health, he’s a bit of a hypochondriac. So in 1993, when he first discovered a lump in his breast, he immediately went to his doctor to get it checked out. Unaware at the time that men could be diagnosed with breast cancer, his initial reaction was disbelief and denial. “When the doctor said ‘breast cancer,’ I thought he was questioning my manhood,” Richard says, chuckling at the erroneous (and ironic) notion.

He underwent a modified radical mastectomy, removing the complete breast from the sternum to the underarm, followed by six months of grueling chemotherapy. During treatment and for several years after, Richard concealed his disease, fearing it would end his acting career if word got out that he had cancer. Before an actor is hired for a film, he must pass a physical exam so the producing studio can get insurance to assure that the picture will be completed on time. To continue working, Richard sometimes had to lie about his condition.

“When the doctor said ‘breast cancer,’ I thought he was questioning my manhood.”

Richard recalls one occasion where he had to do a bit of smooth talking on set to keep his secret safe. He had taken a role as a bare-knuckle fighter on TV’s Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman – a part that called for him to go shirtless. “I thought, How am I going to get around this?” Richard says. He quickly came up with a way to conceal the large scar across his chest: “Since we were shooting early in the morning and it was cold at that time of year, I convinced them to let me wear an undershirt ‘for warmth.’”

Lying about his diagnosis was often difficult for Richard; however, coming out was surprisingly easy. As a participant in an annual celebrity golf benefit to raise money for a free breast cancer screening unit in South Carolina, Richard got caught up in the fervor of the occasion and blurted out, “I’m so happy to hear that [free screenings are being made available] because I’m a breast cancer survivor!” His statement was met with shock, and quickly followed by a tremendous outpouring of support. Richard instantly became a symbol for the underrepresented minority of men who get the disease.

He calls his cancer diagnosis a “backhanded blessing,” sharing one example of how his story has helped someone else: “I was boarding a plane to Vancouver for work, and the flight attendant literally grabbed me and said, ‘Thank you. Thank you so much. You saved my husband’s life.’ As a result of her making him read my story, he went and got an early diagnosis.” Richard says stories like this one are the reason he is so vocal about his battle with the disease.

These days, Richard stays busy working when he can, including stints on hit television shows like Lincoln Heights and Heroes, as well as the film Speed Racer. Even though he has well surpassed the five-year survival mark and been declared cancer-free, he still runs into resistance from producers when it comes to accepting his clean bill of health. But that no longer keeps Richard from telling his story. “Every opportunity I get,” he says, “I am very vocal about the fact that breast cancer is not gender specific.”

As a spokesman for what is largely considered a woman’s disease, Richard Roundtree proves that tough men are not immune to breast cancer. And he says that “if ‘Shaft’ can survive, there’s hope that you can as well.” Can you dig it?

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Richard is currently an Ambassador for Susan G. Komen for the Cure®. To learn more about the foundation’s mission to end breast cancer, visit Komen.org.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2009.