Michael Howard: My father's battle

Michael Howard lost a parent to breast cancer - but it wasn't his mother. Here, for the first time, the Tory leader tells Jeremy Laurance why it's a disease no man can ignore
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Indy Lifestyle Online

So why has he granted a newspaper interview, his only one since the May election, about his father? He wants to raise public awareness of an unusual disease. Howard's father, Bernard, died at the young age of 49 from male breast cancer.

The disease was as rare then, 40 years ago, as it is today. In the UK, it affects about 300 men a year, compared with about 41,000 women. And it carries a certain stigma. Breast cancer is seen as a woman's condition. Breast Cancer Care, the charity, which has produced a handbook on breast cancer in men, asked Howard if he would help to raise awareness. He agreed.

It was a generous gesture. Throughout our interview, he seems uncomfortable. Some people enjoy exploring their emotions in public, but Howard is not one of them. His father's death had a huge impact on the young Michael, who at the time was training to be a barrister. Aged 24, he was living in London when the news came from the family home in Llanelli, South Wales.

"The cancer was actually diagnosed just before Christmas 1965. It came absolutely out of the blue. I had just finished my pupillage in London and been called to the Bar. I went home, but by the time I got there all the questions we had had been answered."

The main question was whether anything could be done. The answer from the specialist was no - the cancer was too far advanced. "The specialist said he had six months to live. It was a disaster. We tried everywhere for a second opinion. He came to London and saw other specialists, but nothing could be done."

Apart from a nagging hernia, Bernard Howard had enjoyed good health since arriving in Britain as a teenage immigrant from Romania in the 1930s. He had a fine singing voice, and worked initially as a cantor in a London synagogue.

After meeting his wife, Hilda, he moved to South Wales to help run her family's clothing business. It was the self-reliant values of the small businessman and of the immigrant who was fiercely loyal to his adopted country that Bernard Howard inculcated in his son.

His illness began with leg pains that remained undiagnosed. They did not stop him working, but caused considerable discomfort. "He went to the doctor, but no one was really sure what they were. He had been perfectly fit and well and then this catastrophe befell him."

It was Hilda who noticed the lump in Bernard's chest and sent him back to the doctor. The diagnosis was a terrible shock. "He was obviously devastated. He was a strong man but this was a difficult thing to take. He accepted it - there wasn't much alternative. He lived for seven months."

One difficulty for his son was that the Conservative Party had approached him to put his name forward to stand in Liverpool in the March 1966 general election. "I had not considered standing, but I had to decide whether to do that. I asked my father whether I should. Obviously, I didn't want to stand if there was any possibility of his dying during the election campaign. He wanted me to go ahead."

So the young Tory candidate went on the stump. It was a safe Labour seat and he lost. Three months later he lost his father, too.

"I was close to him. We were all devastated." His sister Pamela was then still at university. In trying to recall her presence at the time, Howard pauses and appears to struggle, perhaps remembering his own grief.

The course of the illness was not easy. Bernard had radiotherapy, but palliative medicine, and pain control in particular, were not as advanced then. There was a misplaced fear that because morphine was addictive, it should be restricted. Nowadays, it is recognised that for someone in the terminal stages of an illness, addiction should not be a worry.

"He suffered a lot of pain. He was only in hospital for brief periods, but the pain got worse and he stopped working. In the end he was looked after by some absolutely wonderful sisters from a Catholic nursing order. This was in the last month. They were incredible. I don't have words for how sensitive, caring and devoted they were."

Bernard Howard died peacefully at home, surrounded by his family. Yet his son is reluctant to acknowledge it as a "good death". Despite the care of his wife, his children and the Catholic nurses, what dominates Howard's memory of his father is his youth. "I am not sure there are many good deaths. He was well looked after and peaceful - but he was 49 years old."

Bernard was a man cheated of the family and the life he had created for himself - and his son was cheated of his father. There is a sense of the injustice of it all - of a future snatched away - but the rationalist in Michael Howard, who has already outlived his father by 15 years, will not allow it to show.

The impression given is of a powerful man who ran his family with a firm but loving hand. When asked what his father was like, Michael Howard responds with one word - "strong" - and then pauses for a long time. Finally, he adds that he was a gregarious, very loving, family man.

Was the family the centre of his life? "Very much," he replies. "He was hugely influential on me and intensely patriotic. He was proud of this country. He was intensely proud of having become British."

Howard says he has no worries now for his own health - "though perhaps I should" - or that of his children. Nick, 29, is studying theology at Durham University, and Larissa works for a London consultancy promoting corporate responsibility. His wife, Sandra, a former model, is the daughter of doctors and takes a no-nonsense approach to state of the family's health.

But losing a parent early in life can leave a wound that never heals. There is an ever-present sense that tragedy may be lurking around the corner.

At the same time, it can prepare one to deal with loss. And that may be no bad thing for a politician.

Breast Cancer Care (0808 800 6000; www.breastcancercare.org.uk)

Need to know

* Male breast cancer accounts for 1 per cent of UK breast cancer cases.

* There are about 290 men newly diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK every year, compared to more than 41,000 women.

* Treatment for men is the same as for women, with surgery to remove the lump or mastectomy to remove all the underlying breast tissue. Men may also have chemotherapy, hormone therapy and radiotherapy.

* Most cases in men occur over the age of 60, with an average age of 64. In women, the incidence increases with age; 80 per cent of cases occur in post-menopausal women over 50.

* There is a stronger genetic link in male breast cancer, accounting for about 15 per cent of cases, compared with 7 per cent in women. The risk is highest in those with one male first-degree relative (father, brother or son) with breast cancer.

* Ignorance of the disease in men leads to long delays in diagnosis, which can stretch to nine months.

* More than 100 men die of breast cancer each year, compared with more than 12,000 women. The survival rate is similar in both sexes if the cancer is diagnosed early, at about 80 per cent after five years.

* The lack of advice aimed at men can add to the stigma of the disease. One man told his grandson that the scar on his chest was an injury he had received in battle.

* Some people have argued that male "breast" cancer should be renamed to make it more masculine. Pectoral cancer has been suggested, but that is strictly inaccurate because the cancer is of the fatty tissue of the breast, not of the muscle that underlies it.