As we honor the legacy of Richard Roundtree, who died earlier this week, it is important to remember his impact as not only an actor, but also as an activist. Decades before his battle with pancreatic cancer, the actor, much beloved for his performance in “Shaft” and other film and television vehicles, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I was in the shower when I found it. It was the end of September 1993. I was lathering up and felt this lump under my left nipple,” Roundtree told People magazine during an interview in 2000. “It was a minuscule thing, the size of a lima bean. I wasn’t overly concerned at that point. When I was 13, I had experienced gynecomastia, or breast enlargement due to hormonal imbalance, which is quite common among males. I just chalked it up to that.”
At the time, Roundtree likely did not know that gynecomastia, a common condition that causes excess breast tissue, can increase the risk of breast cancer in men. According to an NIH study, men who have experienced gynecomastia are 10 times more at risk of breast cancer.
“I went to see my physician, Dr. Chalmers Armstrong. About four or five days later, he calls me and says, ‘Listen, Richard, will you come in? I need to talk to you.’ And that’s when it hit the fan,” he added. “Doctors don’t want you to come in for a talk unless there’s something very wrong. I vaguely remember this conversation. I was numb sitting there. Cancer.”
After undergoing a double mastectomy, the actor underwent six months of chemotherapy treatment, which he recalls took a toll on his body. From the unforgettable nausea to weight loss, Roundtree described his treatment as “ the most disgusting thing.” However, the actor did not let his breast cancer journey interfere with his career. Soon after he finished chemo, Roundtree co-starred in the Brad Pitt-Morgan Freeman film “Se7en,” where he recalled having to conceal his scars and physical health. Despite being cleared of his cancer and becoming a breast cancer survivor, it took the actor a while to publicly discuss his diagnosis.
“For a long time, I never talked about the cancer. Nobody ever knew I was even in the hospital. But I tell everyone now. I feel that it’s very important that people who are recognizable in the universe, at whatever level, say that they’ve gone through this — and it’s okay,” Roundtree told People.
As previously reported by theGrio, the actor first discussed his diagnosis during a golf tournament for breast cancer awareness, almost five years after being deemed cancer-free.
“I was in the closet, so to speak, until after the fifth year when I was cancer-free,” he said, per ABC News. “I just got up and told everybody that I was a breast cancer survivor. The room was totally silent,” he says, laughing. “I think it dawned on people that men can be affected by this, too.”
In the years that followed, Roundtree became a known advocate for male breast cancer awareness. Understanding the wave of emotions male patients can experience when learning about a breast cancer diagnosis, the “Shaft” star shared his story to “make it easier for others who may be going through the same thing.”
“I’m not embarrassed,” said the actor. “Breast cancer is unusual in men, yes, but you have to be a man to get through this — damn right.”
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