‘Nobody is bulletproof’ — Whitefish developer survives male breast cancer

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Longtime Whitefish developer Tim Grattan, 76, was diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago and is now cancer-free after undergoing treatment. He uses his own experience to bring awareness to breast cancer among men. About 2,360 men in the U.S. are diagnosed annually with invasive breast cancer, and about 430 men die of the disease every year in the U.S. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

Father. Husband. Friend. Vietnam War veteran. University of Montana defensive back. Land developer. Golfer.

Tim Grattan, of Whitefish, has had a lot of titles in his 76 years. But now he has one he never expected: Breast cancer survivor.

Grattan was putting on a seatbelt in his car when he felt a strange lump in his right breast more than a year ago.

“I thought it felt funny, it didn’t hurt,” he said. “I checked in with my primary care doctor, who did some testing, mammograms, biopsies and confirmed it was cancer.”

Grattan became one of roughly 2,360 men in the United States who are diagnosed every year with invasive breast cancer. About 430 men die of the disease every year in the U.S.

“Men think they are made out of stainless steel,” Grattan said. “But 1 percent of breast cancers occur in males and it usually catches them totally off guard.”

He was not the first member of his family to suffer from the disease. His sister battled for nearly two decades before succumbing to breast cancer, and his father — a hard-nosed FBI agent — had a tumor removed in his late 50s.

Darlene, Grattan’s wife of 54 years, has her own family history with breast cancer.

“My mom had breast cancer and fought for 15 years with it,” she said. “Tim’s sister was diagnosed when she was 38, and became one of the study cases for a new drug.”

She went to Seattle every Friday for a year to test the drug, and her sacrifice made a successful drug trial, Grattan added.

With Grattan’s background as a former military adviser in Vietnam, University of Montana Griz football player and land developer, one might think he’d be private about surviving a disease that typically affects women, but instead he uses his unusual position as a platform.

“I’m proud of it,” Grattan said. “I’m a survivor and I feel strongly about informing the male population they are at risk of breast cancer, too. Nobody is bulletproof.”

While the mortality rates for men with the disease are roughly equal with women, men are usually diagnosed far later, because they largely are not taught they can have breast cancer.

About 120 women died of breast cancer in Montana in 2013. About 40,000 women nationwide are expected to die of the disease in 2014. A woman’s risk for getting an invasive breast cancer is 1 in 8 in her lifetime. A man’s is only 1 in 1,000.

Grattan grew up in Missoula, with his father as the resident FBI agent in town. Darlene grew up in Butte. The two met at the University of Montana, where Grattan played as a defensive back for three seasons in the late 1950s before a series of concussions kept him on the sideline during his senior year.

He contends he’s always had people looking out for his health, such as the trainer at UM who told him in no uncertain terms he would never play another down in football.

After college Grattan married Darlene and joined the U.S. Army.

“We graduated Monday and married on Saturday,” she said. “Then we went to Germany as he was in the regular Army.”

Grattan was shipped to Vietnam to serve as a military adviser for a battalion of 600 South Vietnamese soldiers in the early 1960s for the better part of six months.

He moved back to Montana after his stint in the Army, and came to the Flathead Valley in 1972. He bought and developed Grouse and Lion mountains, and built the south half the Whitefish Golf Course.

He still lives in Grouse Mountain, and it was there he felt the lump in his breast.

He went to the Bass Breast Center in Kalispell to get the tumor’s DNA screened. He found it was a relatively easy-to-treat strain.

“I had a week of recovery after the surgery to remove it, then a year-long regimen of Herceptin,” Grattan said. “Every three weeks for a year I’d go to the oncology doctor and get an hour-long infusion of the stuff. It didn’t make me sick, it didn’t make me dizzy.”

So while his treatment was quite easy and painless compared to some, he will have to indefinitely continue taking a drug called tamoxifen, which modulates how estrogen is received in the body.

The Grattans have two children, Lisa, 53, and Brad, 49. Both of them are at risk for the disease.

“I was able to give DNA information to both of my kids, which should make it easier if they get diagnosed,” Grattan said. “They are aware of the risks.”

He said his treatment was superb and he never wanted for anything.

“The nurses in the oncology center were angels,” Grattan said. “They’d hook you up and bring you coffee and sandwiches. They were always friendly and cheerful, even though 30 people were getting hard-core medicine all around them. They were a gift from God.”

For a small area, the Flathead Valley is blessed with a wealth of good health-care options, he said.

According to American Cancer Society statistics for 2013, Flathead County had a breast cancer mortality rate of 0.0-18.8 per 100,000 women, one of the lowest rates in the state and well below the national average of 21.5 per 100,000. Missoula, Deer Lodge, Jefferson, Ravalli, Silver Bow, Yellowstone and Lake counties all had higher mortality rates. Only Granite, Cascade, Choteau and Garfield counties had rates as low as Flathead of the counties that reported data.

Part of this is due to the massive movement toward breast cancer awareness, Grattan said, and the medical resources in the valley.

“The medical community in the Flathead is as good as anywhere in the world,” he said. “Dr. [Melissa] Hulvat has got to be the best surgeon anywhere. I was on the founding board of ALERT, and they wanted to make this area have a world-class medical infrastructure and I think they’ve accomplished that.”

Dr. Hulvat, a breast surgical oncologist, performed the surgery on Grattan, leaving a scar Darlene said “is very attractive, as far as scars go.”

“Men can be embarrassed about going to their doctor with a problem in their breast, and this can lead to a delay in diagnosis,” Hulvat said. “Breast cancer in men is more likely than breast cancer in women to be related to an inherited gene mutation.”

The mutation, BRCA2, causes up to 40 percent of breast cancers in men but only up to 10 percent in women. A man with the mutation has a 7 to 8 percent chance of developing the disease by age 70.

“A genetic mutation can be inherited from either parent,” Hulvat said. “Men with a BRCA2 mutation are also at an increased risk for other types of cancer, such as prostate cancer.”

Through his long, eventful life and finally his ordeal with cancer, Grattan has remained humble. His battle with cancer was difficult, but hard for Darlene as well.

“It brought back bad memories of my mom and sister-in-law,” she said. “You just don’t expect a man to get breast cancer. If something is out of the ordinary, go to the doctor.”

Reporter Ryan Murray may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at rmurray@dailyinterlake.com.

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