Delaware male breast cancer survivor on a pink mission

A man’s lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is about 1 in 1,000. This was the unthinkable reality for Mike Smith, a 68 year old Dover resident.

 Smith and his wife Sarah went on a fishing trip in 2003 when Sarah made a big catch. In a celebratory gesture, Smith grabbed his wife and hoisted her in the air. That’s when Smith felt a sudden pain in his chest. He later felt that sting again that night during his shower when his bracelet hit his nipple.

Coincidentally, Smith had a doctor’s appointment a few days later. At first, the doctor assumed that it was a cyst and recommended that it be removed. It was then that a biopsy revealed something that would change the rest of Smith’s life. He had stage 2 breast cancer.

Smith became overwhelmed with emotion when he learned that he had been diagnosed with breast cancer. “I felt numbness and shock. You lose your breath and hearing, and you’re just trying to plan your funeral,” said Smith.

He describes the shock of the diagnosis as the most challenging part of dealing with the disease. Smith had to come to grips that he was a man with breast cancer. “Males associate breast cancer with femininity. My masculinity was tested. I didn’t realize that men have breasts. After I accepted it, it didn’t matter where it was. It’s still cancer.”

Smith underwent a radical mastectomy removing 19 lymph nodes from his right breast, and was placed on a 5 year regiment of Tamoxifen. He was not only confronted with the psychological impact of dealing with breast cancer, but also the physical pain that accompanied the surgery. He still complains about an underarm burning sensation, chest ache, and numbness in his arm. However, Smith is adamant about living life to the fullest. “I’m living proof that men do have breast cancer. After my diagnosis, my main course in life is living.”

Not only is Smith a breast cancer survivor, but he is an avid member of the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition (DBCC) where he mentors male breast cancer patients, and gives motivational speeches about breast cancer to schools, churches, and other organizations. Smith also participates in various breast cancer fundraisers such as the DBCC’s Southern Lights of Life gala where he often struts the catwalk with other breast cancer survivors. “The diagnosis is not a death sentence. There is survivability, there is hope.”

A bigger family shock

In March 2012, his wife, Sarah relived the shock of breast cancer in her right breast also. Sarah went in for a mammogram when the doctor discovered a shadow on her right breast as well. Further testing revealed that she too had breast cancer. Sarah also underwent radical mastectomy followed by reconstruction surgery. “Tears rolled down my face. You can never be prepared for that news. In my case, self examination didn’t work. I couldn’t feel anything because it was underneath my arm.” said Sarah.

Smith was able to be the perfect mentor for his wife as a husband and a survivor. He nursed, encouraged, and forewarned her of the effects that she would eventually experience.  ”When she says things I can relate because I went through it,” said Smith. Today, the Smiths are living cancer free and attribute their health to the support they’ve provided each other. “We’ve been married until breasts do us part,” jokes Mike.

The DBCC promotes early detection, provides access to mammograms, and offers support to those affected by breast cancer. “It is very important for people to know their risks and know what is normal for them. It is important to speak to a trained health-care professional to determine your risk and learn more about breast cancer,” said Beth Berger, Communications Director of the DBCC.

Mike and Sarah are worried not only for their two daughters and four granddaughters possibly contracting the disease, but also their grandson. Mike constantly urges them to get checked. “Men who have an abnormal BRCA2 gene have a higher risk for breast cancer than men who don’t.  About six percent of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary, caused by abnormal genes passed from parent to child,” said Zohra Ali-Khan Catts genetic counselor at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center at Christiana Care Hospital. However, Mike maintains that neither he nor his wife had any genetic connections to breast cancer.

Despite the scars of suffering breast cancer, the Smiths are steadfast in their mission to bring awareness to the disease.   “We try to get the word out on how to cope with breast cancer. All I want to do is make people aware, especially men,” said Mike.

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