Fighting cancer is never easy. But as Dr. Oliver Bogler undergoes his second month of chemotherapy for breast cancer, he says he is grateful that his wife can relate. Five years ago, she was also going through her second month of chemotherapy, also for breast cancer.
Oliver and his wife Irene are both cancer researchers at MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas. They met 20 years ago while doing cancer research at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in San Diego. The two connected over their passion for research.
Irene, now 52, was the first in their family to face cancer. It was 2007, she was 46, and they had two children under the age of seven at the time.
"I think you feel numb, a little bit shocked, but within a few days I was in at Anderson having tests and making determinations on treatments," says Irene. She went through chemotherapy, a mastectomy and radiation, in that order. During that time, Irene says she remembers Oliver giving her unconditional support.
"Oliver was great," says Irene, "he obviously didn't understand the personal experience but he understood the process."
The two have also drawn from their extensive background in cancer research: They know what to expect when facing cancer head-on.
"Even though you're a laboratory researcher, you do over time, meet cancer patients," says Irene, "so you are sort of immersed in that." Never before, however, have the two researchers met a couple who have developed the same kind of breast cancer at the same age.
Oliver, 46 years old, is now undergoing chemotherapy and is looking ahead to his own radical mastectomy in March.
"First of all, we don't have a history of cancer" in the family, says Oliver's brother Daniel. "Second of all," he says, "breast cancer is an extremely unusual thing for a man."
Breast cancer is very rare in men. "Of all the cases of breast cancer, 99 percent are women and one percent are men," according to Oliver's doctor and men's breast cancer specialist at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, Dr. Sharon Giordano. The Boglers are the first couple Giordano has ever seen who have both had breast cancer -- and she has seen over 100 male breast cancer patients.
"These two people who do nothing but work against cancer all their lives -- what have they done to deserve this? Why does lightning have to strike twice on their little family?" asks Daniel. He does, however, say, "If it has to happen to anyone, he's someone who's intimately familiar with cancer and he's at the best place to get the best care."
"I am probably not going to die of this in the next five or 10 years," says Oliver, "I have to tell you, it would have been better to go to the doctor sooner but I couldn't imagine this happening twice in our family. Having a wife who had [breast cancer], I thought it would be weird saying I had it too."
Giordano says a lot of the time men have a delayed diagnosis because they don't think they could be at risk for breast cancer. "Men on average have an advanced disease because you have to have a lump to identify it. They don't examine their nipples and think breast cancer."
Members of Oliver's family say they wondered if the cancer research could have been a reason Irene and Oliver both had the same cancer.
"It's not Irene's genes or Oliver's genes, so you do wonder why," says Daniel. "We asked Oliver about that when he was diagnosed; we thought maybe while feeding his cells and growing his cultures."
Oliver assured his family that the radiation he and Irene received in their labs while researching is no worse than one gets from an X-ray machine at the airport. Daniel says he believes the entire situation is nothing more than very bad luck.
Oliver's cancer is Stage 2, just as Irene's was. The family remains overwhelmingly optimistic that Oliver will reach the same cancer-free stage that Irene has. Until then, the two are benefiting from a mutual understanding of what Oliver is going through.
"I think all cancer patients have an internal dialogue," says Irene. "They are having an internal conversation with themselves about the hope, fears and their future and I think only a cancer patient would know more about that and what that means to have that going on in your head all the time."
Oliver agrees, "One of the things that's nice is that she understands where I'm at -- that support has been great. You begin to think about the fact that you won't make it 'til 80 years old and it changes how you tackle life. It's hard to convey that unless you've gone through that yourself."