Cancer: A couple's story
October 2, 2008 · Updated 2:01 PM
Betty Olson was expecting breast cancer.
Her husband, Dave, wasn't.
For Betty, it was a part of her life. Her mother had it. Her mother's sisters had it. The cancer seemed to coil itself around the family's DNA, waiting to rear its head and strike.
She ate right. She kept in shape, slapping tennis balls across local courts. But even that wasn't enough to completely keep the potential for it to occur at bay.
A mammogram discovered the first signs of breast cancer three years ago.
Betty had been vigilant.
"I was considered high-risk to begin with, and I had mammograms every single year," she said.
For Dave, the news that he had breast cancer didn't arrive completely out of the blue. He'd felt the lump. Betty had felt the lump.
But breast cancer? In a man?
"Neither of us had given it a thought that it was cancer," he said last week, the sun shining down on the back yard of his house just outside North Bend, near the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River. "I didn't believe it until the biopsy came back."
That was last year. A few months later, his right breast would be removed.
"I was in bed - and I felt this tiny, kind of pea-sized lump in my right breast," he said of discovering his cancer last spring. "And I didn't think anything of it."
However, he did tell Betty. That was the right decision to make.
"She reached over and felt that little tumor and said, 'You're going to the doctor."
"I didn't argue."
That was another right decision.
This year alone, more than 182,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Aside from skin cancer, it is the most common form of cancer found in women. It attacks mothers, daughters, friends and neighbors.
By the end of 2001, more than 40,000 women will die from the disease.
Breast cancer can be passed along through genetic lines, which may explain Betty's case. But those instances only account for a small fraction - roughly 5 to 10 percent - of the total number of women diagnosed each year. The vast majority of women do not have a sister or mother with the disease.
On the other side of the scale is male breast cancer. For every 100 women confirmed to have it, only one male is found to have the disease.
Male breast cancer can be every bit as lethal as its female counterpart, but because only 1,500 are expected to be diagnosed with the disease this year, most men are not even aware of its existence.
Dave and Betty are.
And now they want to know whether their children face the same risks.
The merits of mammograms
Betty caught it early.
On the mammogram, she could see it taking up residence in her left breast. The doctors told her she was lucky. The cancer has not spread to the nearby lymph nodes, which often serve as a convenient mass-transit system for cancer cells, transporting them to other areas of the body where they can begin gnawing away at bone, brain and other tissue.
But just to be sure, she underwent a mastectomy, a procedure that removes breast tissue. The surgeon also removed several lymph nodes.
"Betty lost her left [breast], and I lost my right one, so we're still a matching pair," Dave said in what has become a family joke.
Unlike many breast-cancer survivors, the 70-year-old mother of two was not forced to undergo grueling rounds of chemotherapy and radiation therapy and its accompanying nausea and hair loss.
"Breast cancer is the most treatable cancer there is if detected early," Betty said.
Her oncologist placed her on a five-year course of the drug tamoxifen. The drug has been used in the United States for the past 25 years and helps prevent breast cancer from spreading by reducing the amount of estrogen in the body. Estrogen - in men and women - often acts as a catalyst for the disease, spurring it along.
Betty had been on hormone therapy since entering menopause. Because the object of hormone therapy is to increase a woman's supply of estrogen, it was stopped.
"The day they found out they said, 'No more hormones," she said.
With the mastectomy and her daily dose of tamoxifen, Betty, according to the statistics, faces a three percent chance of the cancer coming back. She likes those odds, especially now. Those who were diagnosed with the disease when it was still largely a mystery weren't so fortunate, she said.
"Years ago - I think those people were really in the dark," she said.
"It was a crapshoot back then."
PMA: Positive mental attitude
Before moving to the North Bend area in 1995, Dave and Betty ran a wholesale insurance brokerage in Marin County, Calif.
They relocated to Western Washington to be closer to their children - one in Renton, the other in Redmond. But Dave was familiar with the region, attending high school in Tacoma.
Throughout his life, Dave has scaled several obstacles. Many of them were his own doing. The spry 72-year-old works part time at the Sammamish Club athletic facility, teaching rock climbing to much younger novices. In 2000, before he felt the lump for the first time, he was preparing to climb Mount Rainier.
He was not prepared for cancer.
After a biopsy of the lump, his surgeon, Dr. Steven Bock at Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound in Redmond, called with the results. Only he wouldnOt give them to Betty. He wanted to talk to Dave, who was at work.
"You didn't have to be a rocket scientist [to know] that the news was not good," Dave said.
He knew the lump was cancerous. On his drive home, he accepted his indoctrination into an exceedingly rare group of men.
"I said, 'Why not me? Somebody's got to [get it],'" he said.
Bock removed Dave's right breast and three lymph nodes in the subsequent mastectomy. He also wanted Dave to receive chemotherapy treatments.
With the impending Mount Rainier climb, Dave asked to postpone the chemotherapy until after his attempt to reach the summit. Bock agreed to the request. Despite his enthusiasm, as well as being in excellent shape, Dave did harbor some doubts about the physical exertion required to scale the 14,000-foot behemoth. His doctor put aside those worries.
ODr. Bock said, OYou donOt climb with your breast, do you?OO Dave said.
Days later he hiked up Mount Si. June 22-24, 2000, found him on Mount Rainier. The climb ended on a Saturday. The following Tuesday, he was seated in a chair, ready to receive his first chemotherapy treatment.
"On the chemo, from day one, I said go in there and kill all those buggers," Dave said.
And that they did. His chemotherapy treatments lasted six months, and because he was in such good shape, he failed to feel many of the common side effects.
"I ran into people when I was having mine who were really distraught," he said of other patients receiving chemotherapy. "I got off easy."
To combat the nausea associated with chemotherapy, Dave was given two prescriptions: One was for a powerful drug that cost $80 a pill, the other was for a much less powerful drug. As a measure of how little nausea he felt, the small bottle of $80 pills lasted the entire six months.
He said the key to feeling as well as he did centers around four things: eating right, sleeping well, getting enough exercise - and have a PMA, positive mental attitude."
Dave will also take tamoxifen for five years, like his wife. He said his doctors tell him his chances of the breast cancer reoccurring are 13 percent.
One important thing men need to remember, Dave said, is that breast cancer doesn't strictly follow gender lines. And more awareness of that fact is needed.
"It may not be as common by any means, but it can happen," he said.
In the genes
Betty and Dave Olson - both breast-cancer survivors - are unique in the realm of oncology. It's almost unheard of for a wife and husband to each be diagnosed with the disease.
Betty's side of the family is not the only one to experience cancer. Dave's mother and grandmother had it.