Story by Tod Leonard, San Diego Union-Tribune
Denny Harper was like millions of other guys in America, sitting watching a college football bowl game in December of 2010.
The longtime UC San Diego men’s water polo coach absent-mindedly scratched his chest, and that’s when he felt the small lump behind his left nipple.
He called out for his wife, Jefi, and had her feel it. Yes, there was something there, she agreed, so maybe he should have it checked out by a doctor. Neither one of them was alarmed.
To Harper’s credit, he didn’t put off an examination like many other men would have. It might have saved his life.
He saw his doctor immediately, and after two very uncomfortable procedures — a mammogram and needle biopsy — he got the diagnosis: breast cancer.
"OK," Harper remembered thinking, "let’s get it out of there."
That would eventually happen through surgery, and nearly seven years later, Harper is cancer-free and said he rarely ponders the disease. Yet he is reminded each October when the color pink is inescapable during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Though Harper, 62, has never hidden the fact he had breast cancer, he hasn’t promoted it either. He recently found out that a former Tritons player of his, who is in his late 40s, is battling Stage 4 colon cancer, and Harper was moved to talk about prevention.
"I feel like if I could get one guy to be somewhat conscious of it, and that it would help them, help save them, that would be awesome," said Harper, sitting in his poolside office at UCSD, where he is, remarkably, coaching his 38th season.
Breast cancer is extremely rare among men, who comprise only 1 percent of the total diagnoses, according to the American Cancer Society. The organization said about 2,470 men in the U.S. were expected to be diagnosed this year.
The lifetime risk for men is 1 in 1,000. The risk for women is 1 in 8.
There are a few risk factors associated with male breast cancer – age, estrogen levels because of medication, being overweight, family history – and Harper didn’t meet any of them. He said he was more concerned with skin cancer, which he’s had numerous times as a product of a lifetime spent at the side of a pool.
Harper was fortunate in many respects. When diagnosed, his cancer was still at Stage 1. He didn’t need radiation or chemotherapy. The surgery was performed fairly quickly, and it left him with a long scar across the left side of his chest and the absence of a nipple.
Intense as a coach, but owning a caustic sense of humor, Harper tried to get as many laughs out of the situation as possible, especially when he had his shirt off at the beach.
"I wanted people to feel at ease," Harper said. "I would just look at them and go, ‘That’s right, I’m probably your first uni-nip.’ And it was, like, ‘What did he just say?’
"I had a little fun with it. I said it was the result of being attacked by a shark in Maui or I had a knife fight in Mexico defending the honor of a woman."
At Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, where he was treated by Dr. Joan Kroener, Harper joked that he was a "rock star" as one of the few male patients. He kidded with Kroener that she needed to add to her magazine collection in the oncology waiting room.
"It was all 'Good Housekeeping'," he said. “Where was the ‘Road and Track’?”
For all of the light-heartedness, Harper saw the wrenching side of cancer. In the waiting room, he sat with women who were facing far worse odds for recovery. He said he didn’t feel comfortable starting conversations with them. He figured most people thought he was the husband of a patient.
"It was one thing for me as a guy, but I would think, emotionally, it’s so much tougher for women," said Harper, the father of three sons and two daughters.
"I thought about the women – their story and their situation. What stage was it? Were they having a mastectomy? It’s heavy just thinking about it now. It gets to me."
Harper said he has always been appreciative of the support he received from those at UCSD, which has been his coaching home for nearly four decades.
A 1978 SDSU graduate who played water polo for the Aztecs and started the women’s club program there, Harper began coaching at UCSD in 1980, making a paltry $800 per season. He eventually moved up to a fulltime position and became the school’s aquatics director.
He coached both the Tritons men’s and women’s programs simultaneously for 16 seasons through 1999. In his tenure, Harper has won 639 games and been named the men’s National Coach of the Year on 14 occasions.
His teams have been contentious with some of the strongest water polo programs in the country, regularly playing the likes of national powers such as USC and Cal. In the 2003 season that included an upset win over UCLA, the Tritons finished ranked No. 3 in the nation — their highest placing ever.
"A lot of these programs are just machines," Harper said. "They’re cranking out the best. They have unbelievable budgets. We’re just sort of the overachievers, and that makes it fun."
After playing a demanding early schedule, this year’s team is 8-11 overall and 5-0 in the Western Water Polo Association. Ranked 13th in the country, the Tritons have four more home games left before they host the WWPA Tournament Nov. 17-19.