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'Men don't think they can get breast cancer, but I'm proof they can'

Seven members of Bangor man James Hall's family have been affected by the disease, including him. He has vowed to warn men about breast cancer after his shock diagnosis.

By Stephanie Bell

Published 15/09/2016

Cancer fight: James Hall and wife Jean have both battled the disease
Cancer fight: James Hall and wife Jean have both battled the disease
Vital surgery: Angelina Jolie acted after she was told she had the BRCA gene
James Hall

A Bangor man who has watched seven members of his family battle cancer has warned men to be on the look-out for signs of male breast cancer, after he was diagnosed with this rare form of the disease.

James Hall, (74), has suffered unthinkable heartache and loss over the years as his late wife; two of his daughters, two of his brothers, his current wife and his niece were all diagnosed with cancer.

He lost his first wife Rae to breast cancer in 1987 when she was just 42 and then had to support two of his three daughters as they too battled the disease, - one of them twice.

His second wife Jean, (73), also had breast cancer more than 30 years ago but thankfully made a full recovery.

One of his brothers died from stomach cancer four years ago and another brother has just been diagnosed with lung cancer.

James was stunned to discover a few years ago that the boys in his family (he had six brothers) carried the BRCA 1 gene, which puts them and their children at a higher risk of developing breast cancer.

Around 12% of women will develop breast cancer, but for those carrying the harmful BRCA 1 gene, the risk jumps to 65%.

Every family member has since been tested for the gene and some of those who carry it, including his 22-year-old granddaughter, have taken the drastic preventative step of undergoing a double mastectomy to protect themselves.

Last year, James too was diagnosed with breast cancer but, thankfully after surgery and treatment, has been given the all clear.

After everything he has been through, James is determined to warn men that breast cancer is not just a disease which affects women.

He says: "If it wasn't for the fact that I had the same symptoms as my first wife who died from breast cancer, I would never have thought it was something that affected men.

"Men really don't think of it as something that they could get.

"My daughter runs a guest house in Bangor and had a crowd of shipyard workers staying with her recently and when she told them that her dad had breast cancer they thought she was winding them up - they just didn't believe that men get breast cancer. I would have thought the same as most men, until it happened to me," he says.

"And that's why I am talking about my experience, to warn men and to get them to check for symptoms, and if it saves even one life it will be worthwhile.

"My worry is that young men in their 30s and 40s with young families need to be aware of it, as catching the disease early makes all the difference."

James has also thrown his weight behind the launch of this year's Cancer Research UK's Stand Up To Cancer campaign, which runs throughout October.

This year the campaign highlights the fact that one of two people will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives.

This stark statistic has motivated James and his wife Jean to get behind the fundraiser, which is run jointly with Cancer Research UK and Channel 4.

Having experienced so much of it in his own family, he knows the importance of early detection and incredibly his message is a positive one.

James says: "Four people on my wife's side of the family died with cancer, including her parents, and I lost my wife as well to breast cancer so I always thought it was in her side of the family. When it was discovered that my family was carrying the BRCA 1 gene, I was gobsmacked.

"It was only when my daughter volunteered to take part in a study at the City Hospital that we found out - and it was a big shock. One of my daughters is clear of the gene, but the other two have both had breast cancer; and my oldest daughter came through it and was given the all clear, only for it to come back three years later. Thankfully both of them are fine now.

"I had retired at the time and was able to take them back and forth to hospital for their treatment."

It was in April of last year that James was told the shocking news that he too had breast cancer.

He noticed that he had an inverted nipple, which was also the symptom which alerted his first wife and led to her diagnosis.

James went immediately to his GP who, because of the family history, got him a speedy referral to a consultant. Within just a couple of weeks, his worst fears were confirmed.

He says: "I would never have thought anything of it, only my wife had an inverted nipple as well. Only for that I would have been ignorant too and left it until it was too late.

"I had a tumour and within two weeks of my diagnosis it was successfully removed."

There was more treatment to follow, with James undergoing six chemo sessions last October. Since then, he says he hasn't looked back.

"I never had a day of sickness throughout it all. If I felt tired I would have a lie down, otherwise my routine continued as normal and I got up as usual at 6am every morning to walk my dog.

"You can survive cancer, you have to be positive. My younger brother, who is 60, has just been diagnosed with lung cancer and I've told him to keep doing what he always does; keep walking and exercising.

"People tend to mollycoddle you when you are ill but you want your life to be as normal as possible.

"The treatment now is tailored to the individual and I couldn't believe when I was getting chemo how easy it was, I was in and out again in 45 minutes with no adverse affects."

James is grateful, though, to be alive.

"I was lucky because I got it early and that's why I feel people need to be aware of the symptoms and go and see their doctor if anything changes.

"If you can make people aware and even save one life, then that is what we need to do."

James is joining a host of celebrities, including Davina McCall and Alan Carr, in supporting Stand Up To Cancer.

Launched in the UK in 2012, the annual campaign has already raised more than £25m to fund translational research, which takes developments in the lab and transforms them into brand new tests and treatments for cancer patients.

Every hour, someone in Northern Ireland is diagnosed with cancer.

By joining Stand Up To Cancer, supporters here will be uniting with doctors, nurses, scientists and celebrities to generate funds, raise awareness and help accelerate progress in life-saving cancer research.

This year, there are many ways to Stand Up To Cancer and show support. Cancer Research UK is calling on everyone to take a stand and do something to help raise money at work, school or at home - from fancy dress days and sponsored silences to bake sales and open mic nights.

Free fundraising packs, which include everything supporters need to spark creative ideas, are available from the charity.

Jean Walsh, Cancer Research UK's spokesperson for Northern Ireland, says: "We'd like to thank James and Jean for standing up to cancer with us.

"Their experience brings home the fact that one in two of us will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in our lives. Cancer doesn't discriminate. Whether it's you or someone you know, it leaves its mark on us all.

"So the time to act is now. We're on the brink of a revolution in cancer research - thanks to new treatments, screening and earlier diagnosis, more people are surviving the disease than ever before.

"But we can't afford to stand still. It's time to rebel against cancer, raise money and save lives.

"Research is our weapon against this terrible disease and we're calling on an army of supporters in Northern Ireland to stand up to cancer and show their support."

This year's campaign culminates on Friday, October 21, with a night of live TV on Channel 4 led by some of the brightest stars in film, TV and music.

People can also show their support for the campaign in style, as a fun range of clothing and accessories for men, women and children is available online at standuptocancer.org.uk

This includes special edition Henry Holland designed T-shirts, £9.99, hoodies, £25, pin badges, £1, wristbands, 99p, digital watches, £2.49, and umbrellas at £2.99.

For more information and to get involved visit standuptocancer.org.uk

Belfast Telegraph

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