I am pleased to announce that I have been invited and I have accepted an invitation to give the Keynote address for Breast Cancer Focus, Inc. The event will take place on May 6th in Anchorage, Alaska. The mission of Breast Cancer Focus, Inc. is to forge a cohesive team as a catalyst for obtaining funds to support advocacy, education, research and compassionate giving in Alaska and to help eradicate breast cancer. My talk will be “Beyond Survival…Living a Life of Thrival.”
The essay below will help explain my dedication to this cause. It was requested by the British medical journal “The Lancet” and was published on February 16, 2006. My guess is that the “Author’s Note” at the end of the posting will resonate with many of you.
The Scar. I look in the mirror and there it is. A diagonal line, about 8 inches, it stretches from my right armpit to my sternum. It’s always there. The scar. It’s always there.
April 8, 1999. It’s tax time in the USA and that means a last minute dash to my accountant’s office where I am both nervous at the prospect of owing the government more money and anxious to get this annual torture behind me. The office looks the same as it did last year, and the year before, and the year before that. The secretary is as friendly as always and the coffee is as bad as I remember it. As I walk down the hall to my accountant’s office, I reflect for a moment on how quickly time passes. Wasn’t I just here?
Same wrinkled white shirt, same tie askew, same papers piled high on his desk. Yes, it’s tax time, all right. Standing up with outstretched hand, Rod smiles his big Irish smile as he greets me. Same old Rod, friendly and inviting. But, he looks tired. Really tired, and, different.
“How are you?” I ask with more than the usual, everyday, courtesy tone. “Are you alright?” “Actually,” he says, “I just finished my second round of chemo and I am a bit out of sorts.” A quick tilt of my head tells him that I didn’t know about the, what? Cancer? “Yes.” He says, reading my face, “I had a modified radical mastectomy in January.”
Too much to process. Not only was Rod sick, he has cancer. And, wait a minute, what did he just say? “Modified radical mastectomy”? Breast cancer? Rod? A man? Breast cancer? Again, my expression speaks for me as I stare across the desk. He’s seen this look before, I can tell. “Surprised me, too!” he says with a small, thin smile and raised eyebrows.
The tax part of the visit goes quickly as we talk more about IT. How did you discover IT? How is the family dealing with IT? How are you handling IT? One thing is clear: neither of us thought that IT could happen to men. After about an hour of this, we stand up, shake hands; I give him a hug and tell him I’ll pray for him. He says, ‘Thank you” and smiles his big Irish smile but, this time, a little less big.
I walk out of Rod’s office, down the hall, out the door, down the stairs, out onto the sidewalk, and walk toward my parked car. As I reach for my keys with one hand, I puzzle about how we allow the small things in life to steal our time when time goes by so quickly. With the other hand, I check out my breasts. First the left one, then the right one. Then, I stop dead in my tracks. Behind the right nipple, hard as a rock, about the size of a small pea, I feel something. No pain, but definitely, something.
I smile at the power of suggestion. I mean, what are the odds, right? I just saw my accountant, he shares with me that he has breast cancer; I check myself over and find a lump. Come on, now. What are the odds? What was the likelihood that I, too, had invasive ductal carcinoma? Breast cancer. In a pathology report issued June 2, 1999, I got my answer: SAMUELSON, MICHAEL,M 51 YRS, DIAGNOSIS: BREAST (RIGHT): INVASIVE DUCTUAL CARCINOMA. On June 14, 1999, like my friend and accountant, Rod Byrne, I had a modified radical mastectomy. What are the odds, indeed.
When it comes to breast cancer, men are more likely to die from embarrassment than they are from the disease. In general, men do not like to talk about their health or go to the doctor. And, trust me on this one, most men don’t like to even think about having breasts. Pecs, maybe, but not breasts! So, they often ignore the early signs of breast cancer until too late. If my accountant hadn’t been comfortable enough to tell me about his cancer, and had I not taken the initiative to seek professional help, it is unlikely that this article would have been written. Given the fact that I had a Grade 3 tumor (very aggressive growth) the odds are I would have died.
Living a Life of Healthy Uncertainty…
Author Note: After my surgery, I became certified in technical climbing at the Alaskan Mountaineering School, trekked to the base camp of Mount Everest, climbed to the summit of Mt Kala Patar in Nepal, and hiked across the Davidson Glacier in Alaska. In addition, I reached the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa in 2006. In July, 2011 I trekked over the Salkantay Mountain Pass in the Peruvian Andes on my way to Machu Pichu. Why? Well, in part because I moved out of the village of Someday. You know the place; it’s where we put off living life because of the Toos. Too old, too poor, too busy, too out of shape. Now, as I look in the mirror and see the eight inch diagonal line that stretches from my right armpit to my sternum, the line that’s always there—the scar—I often smile with the realization that the only Too I know for sure is the fact that life is too short.