ACTOR RICHARD ROUNDTREE, the iconic private detective from the 1970s action film “Shaft,” is dead at 81. As a doctor who treats individuals with cancer, I want to explore what you should know about the man and his cancer.
Roundtree recently died from pancreatic cancer. While he had many leading roles, I am most impressed with his role in shining a spotlight on male breast cancer.
The actor received a breast cancer diagnosis in 1993. Before we talk about that, let’s step back in time to visit his film career.
Action Hero Roundtree
Roundtree is considered by many to be the first Black American action hero.
With his role as the street-smart John Shaft character in the Gordon Parks-directed film in 1971, Roundtree became a leading actor in the blaxploitation genre.
Remarkably, the role was his first feature film appearance after beginning his career as a model.
If you want a modern take on Shaft, I recommend Roundtree’s reprisal of the role in the 2000 Shaft film. Samuel L. Jackson takes the lead role, and Roundtree appears as his uncle.
One more thing: Both appeared again in the same roles in the 2019 film starring Jessie T. Usher.
Roundtree’s “Shaft” changed how those in Hollywood thought about Black movies.
The film industry had historically failed to consider Black actors — especially for leading roles — in projects at the time. The industry aimed the blaxploitation films primarily at African-American audiences.
Blaxploitation was an independent film movement in the ’70s of exploitation films primarily made by black filmmakers.
Predominantly black producers created the films on typically extremely small budgets.
I grew up watching such movies. If you are interested, here are 10 of the best films in the blaxploitation genre:
Roundtree On His Breast Cancer Diagnosis
Speaking with People Magazine, Roundtree admitted that he had some hypochondriac tendencies.
In 1993, after palpating a breast lump, he immediately saw his doctor. Here is Richard’s initial reaction:
“When the doctor said breast cancer, I thought he was questioning my manhood.”
Roundtree had a modified radical mastectomy. Surgeons removed his breast and underarm (axillary) lymph nodes. He then had six months of challenging chemotherapy.
He Initially Hid His Diagnosis
For years, Roundtree hid his breast cancer diagnosis. He feared disclosure would end his acting career.
Before a production hires an actor for a film, the individual must pass a physical exam so the producing studio can get insurance to ensure the studio will complete the film on time.
To continue working, Roundtree had to sometimes lie about his health.
Listen to him speaking about the topic after he took a tole as a bare-knuckle fighter on TV’s Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman — a part calling him to go shirtless.
“I thought, How am I going to get around this? He quickly devised a way to conceal the large scar across his chest. “Since we were shooting early in the morning and it was cold at that time of year, I convinced them to let me wear an undershirt for warmth.”
But Roundtree Later Became More Open
For a long while, he kept his breast cancer diagnosis secret. But later, he told everyone about it.
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.”
Men Get Breast Cancer, Too
Men have breast tissue, just like women. The difference is in the volume of tissue they have.
While breast cancer is relatively rare in men, it is important to know if you have a higher risk.
Awareness is especially important, given that men do not get regular breast cancer screening (such as mammograms).
Male Breast Cancer Risk Factors
Male breast cancer risk factors include the following:
Age. Whether you’re a man or a woman, breast cancer risk rises with age. The average age for a man to get diagnosed is 68. However, breast cancer can occur at any age.
Genes. If your father, brother, or other close relatives had breast cancer, you may also be at risk. Certain genes increase your likelihood of getting this cancer — including the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
These genes code for proteins that prevent breast cells from growing out of control. Both men and women who inherit the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations are at increased risk for breast cancer.
Weight gain: Fat tissue releases the hormone estrogen. Estrogen stimulates breast cancer growth. The more overweight you are, the more estrogen you produce.
Hormone exposure: You’re at higher risk for breast cancer if you take hormone-based drugs (for instance, for prostate cancer treatment) or if you had exposure to estrogen through pesticides or other products.
Klinefelter syndrome: This condition causes men to be born with an extra copy of the X chromosome. Normally, men have one X and one Y chromosome (XY). In Klinefelter syndrome, they have two copies of the X chromosome in addition to the Y chromosome (XXY).
Men with Klinefelter syndrome have smaller than normal testicles. They create less testosterone and more estrogen than usual. Men with Klinefelter syndrome are at higher risk of getting breast cancer.
Heavy alcohol use: Drinking a lot of alcohol can cause your blood estrogen levels to rise.
Liver disease: Cirrhosis and other liver diseases can lower the amount of male hormones and increase estrogen in your body.
Surgery to your testicles: Testicle damage can increase breast cancer risk.
Radiation exposure: Radiation (for example, to the chest as a part of treatment for childhood cancer) increases breast cancer risk.
Roundtree Dies of Pancreas Cancer
But Roundtree’s story has another important cancer chapter.
He recently died at 81.
Roundtree’s longtime manager, Patrick McMinn, explains that the actor had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died at his home in Los Angeles (USA) on October 24, 2023.
I suspect Mr. Roundtree had a BRCA mutation. Those with these genetic changes have an increased risk of several cancers, including breast and pancreas.
Columbia University (USA) researchers at The Pancreas Center reported this in 2014:
Ten percent of pancreatic cancers in our center are related to BRCA 1 and 2 mutations. Other researchers have found the link between pancreatic cancer and BRCA2 mutations to be as high as 19 percent.
About one in 400 individuals in the general population may test positive for a BRCA1 or 2 gene mutation.
Such genetic changes are associated with five to 10 percent of all breast cancers. BRCA mutations are linked to half of all hereditary breast cancers.
Some Takeaway Messages
The Executive Director of the Pancreas Center at Columbia University, Dr. John Chabot, has this to say:
“We recommend that patients who have pancreatic cancer and are identified as BRCA-positive should also be screened for ovarian and breast cancer and vice versa.”
There are some ways to reduce your chances of getting breast cancer.
Some risks for male breast cancer — like family history and age — are out of your control. But there are some risk factors you can control. Healthline has these suggestions:
- Keep your weight within a healthy range. Obesity can shift the hormone balance in your body, making you more likely to get breast cancer. If you’re overweight, talk to your doctor and a dietitian about changing your eating and exercise plans.
- Exercise on most days of the week. A lack of physical activity can alter your hormone levels, making you more susceptible to cancer.
- Avoid or limit alcohol. Having excessive alcohol is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer in women. Even though the link isn’t as clear in men, it’s still worth cutting back.
If male breast cancer runs in your family, you may not be able to prevent it. However, you can catch it early by knowing your risk. Consider talking to a genetic counselor about getting tested for BRCA1, BRCA2, and other genes.
Roundtree’s death from pancreatic cancer is a reminder that cancer is a complex disease that can affect anyone. It is important to get regular checkups and screenings and to be aware of the signs and symptoms of cancer.
Rest in peace, Richard Roundtree.