Male breast cancer survivor is on a mission

NEIGHBORS

October 23, 2008|By JANENE HOLZBERG

Even if Bob Smith hadn't made a last-minute decision to don a gray T-shirt, he would have been conspicuous in the "Parade of Pink."

The Ellicott City resident walked in the chilly predawn darkness Sunday with hundreds of women wearing all manner of pink apparel to kick off the 16th Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, sponsored by the Maryland affiliate.

But he wasn't there to support his wife, mother, sister or aunt. He joined the parade in Hunt Valley because he is a breast cancer survivor.

"Most people think this is solely a women's disease," said Smith, who underwent a mastectomy of his left breast in May, five days after being diagnosed.

If it weren't for a male survivor from New Jersey, who added the Baltimore run to his list of nearly 200 races in which he has taken part throughout the region, Smith would have been the only man in Sunday's parade.

"That's why it was so important for me to be there - to draw attention to breast cancer in men," Smith said.

While the 43-year-old father of three doesn't shy away from discussing his illness, he acknowledges that most men probably would prefer to avoid the fuchsia spotlight that shines on breast cancer. Who has not heard "Think Pink" or seen the ubiquitous pink ribbon logo?

"My guy friends have been there for me throughout all this, but as I recover I expect more than a little teasing," he said. "They just won't be able to resist."

Pink didn't become the color representing breast cancer by accident. According to the National Cancer Institute, of the 185,000 new cases of breast cancer projected in the United States this year, 1,990 are expected to occur in men.

Dr. Gerald Hayward, Smith's surgeon at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore, said this is the first case of male breast cancer he has seen in his 13 years of private practice. He estimated that he has done 100 biopsies on men over the years that all proved negative. None of the experienced surgeons he asked has ever dealt with a case, either, he said.

"Boys' and girls' breast tissue is exactly the same until hormones stimulate female breasts to grow around age 8 or 9," Hayward said. "Many people don't realize that this disease is equally devastating to a man."

As Smith's sudden medical drama unfolded this past spring, the commercial banker with BB&T turned to humor as a coping mechanism.

When he and his wife, Jen, talked to their three young daughters about his illness, they used "male boob" as a kid-friendly term for a man's breast, and that nickname morphed into "moob."

The whole family began using the nickname to refer to his illness, avoiding the harshness of the word cancer and lightening the mood, Jen Smith said.

So when the couple decided to form a fundraising team to benefit Komen Maryland, "Save the Moobs!" became the natural choice for their name.

They designed a logo for their team that reads, "It can happen to her, it can happen to him," and had it printed on light blue T-shirts to drive home that there is a male contingent. Their group collected $2,660 in pledges.

More than 32,000 people took part in race day activities Sunday, collectively raising more than $2.6 million for research, according to organizers.

While some of the team members chose to enter the 5K race Sunday, Smith said he was grateful to complete one mile of the 5K walk, which is about one-third of the course.

"I'm still pretty beat from chemo," he said. Smith completed four cycles of chemotherapy over a 12-week period ending Sept. 20 and said he opted for the additional treatment even though his doctor recommended only radiation.

"I just had to feel that I'd done everything I could so I'd have no regrets later," he said.

Smith first noticed a lump below his left nipple more than four years ago, and said he consulted a physician in Westminster, where he lived at the time.

"He told me it was nothing to worry about - and I listened," he said.

Smith said his wife remains angry at that doctor's decision to eschew diagnostic testing and instead recommend future evaluation. He said he was never asked about his family history, though two of his aunts had breast cancer.

Last fall, the lump became tender and Smith convinced himself that it was caused by horseplay with his daughters. But his wife pushed him to see a doctor, he said, and that physician also said it was probably nothing but ordered a mammogram to be certain.

It was difficult to go through with, Smith recalled.

"When I went back to the changing area, the attendant placed a towel over my head and called out, 'Man alert! Man alert!" he said. "It was embarrassing. More sensitivity would have been nice."

The procedure was painful, as men have considerably less breast tissue than women to compress, he said. To top it off, the radiologist requested a second view after she saw something suspicious.

"Thank God she did, though, because I'm convinced she saved my life," Smith said.

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