My husband, Mike, had nine lives, or so it seemed. When we met, he told me of the numerous near-death experiences he had survived over the years — too many details to list — with the most noteworthy a result of a viral infection that led to a heart transplant at 35. He was a walking miracle.
I deeply admired him and his triumphant spirit. He was unfazed by most things in life, always easygoing and level-headed. In contrast, my Type A personality made control second nature to me. I lived in a world of logic and needed answers for everything. Life was a balance of cause and effect. I believed karma existed and you got back what you gave. When I met Mike, I was exposed to a very different way of thinking, and he gifted me with a new appreciation for living in the present.
We met one Friday night at a bar in Los Angeles, and two days later, we went on our first date. We spent every day of the next seven years together without fail. He was my person. Five weeks into dating Mike, he suffered a cardiac arrest at my house. As I desperately called 911 to get him help, he stopped breathing. For 11 minutes, I performed CPR until the swarm of paramedics arrived. It was almost certain that he had been without oxygen to his brain for too long. In the ER, the doctors warned me that he would likely suffer severe brain damage, if he were to survive at all. In true Mike form, he surprised the entire medical community and walked away from the cardiac intensive care unit two weeks later ― all faculties intact.
It was through that near-death experience that I realized the depths of my love for Mike. I decided there in the CICU, as he lay in a coma with an uncertain future, that I was going to remain by his side and help him no matter the outcome. Terrified as I was, I knew that I could love Mike through this. We married a year later and vowed to make the most of every day together. His heart was damaged and he was in need of a second heart transplant, but we had faith that it would come. Just like every other obstacle he had overcome, he would surely win again.
In 2015, Mike had just turned 46 and we were completely focused on his cardiac health and getting him through a second transplant. One day in the shower, he felt a dime-sized lump just behind his nipple and casually pointed it out to me. Convinced it was a cyst, he put off getting it checked out ― for months. I finally demanded that he see a doctor when it was clear the lump was growing and his nipple appeared to invert. Cancer never crossed either of our minds.
His doctor was not concerned but decided to run some tests as a precaution. After a mammogram, needle biopsy and PET scan, he was shockingly diagnosed with Stage 3 metastatic breast cancer. The “C word” had reared its ugly head. Not just cancer, but male breast cancer. We didn’t even know that was a thing. Women get breast cancer, sure, but men? Alarmingly, it turns out the lifetime risk of a man being diagnosed with breast cancer is 1 in 833.
One day in the shower, he felt a dime-sized lump just behind his nipple and casually pointed it out to me. Cancer never crossed either of our minds.
I had accepted Mike’s heart transplant journey as our normal, but the thought of adding cancer to the medical mix was daunting. I was emotionally wrecked and worried about what it might mean for us. We had a routine down where we monitored his heart health and frequented the transplant clinic to gauge his progress, all while we waited for the call for a new heart. Now that heart would never come, as his cancer diagnosis unfortunately made him ineligible for a transplant. I could not process any of it. We had done everything we could and Mike was so strong. How could this new diagnosis derail us so swiftly?
We soon learned that organ transplant recipients are two to four times more likely to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. I felt such guilt in allowing the delay in getting the lump checked. Should I have known that cancer was more likely for him? Should I have been more informed about breast cancer? I could not believe that my precious husband was going through yet another health crisis. I felt so helpless and desperate for a positive outcome. For the first time, I began to fear for our future.
I put all emotion aside and went into extreme survival mode. I was the dutiful wife, turned de facto nurse, who made sure he never missed an appointment nor had any medical misstep. We were going to beat this, and just like every other challenge, Mike faced this one head-on with absolute optimism. In January 2016, he had a radical mastectomy of his left breast and had all of the lymph nodes removed under his left arm, learning that the cancer had spread to most of them. Regrettably, we also learned that he had multiple nodes in his chest that were already affected and that could not be surgically removed. And so the relentless battle with the cancer began.
Mike’s severely weakened immune system and transplanted heart meant that he would not be a candidate for aggressive chemotherapy. He had an uphill battle that was complicated and confusing. I was overwhelmed and stressed with so many roadblocks in our path but took my cues from Mike, who was consistently determined and positive.
During these early months, I became painfully aware of the narrow focus of the medical community and breast cancer. Every appointment with the oncologist was conducted in a pink-laced exam room. Mammograms were done behind doors with signs boldly exclaiming “WOMEN ONLY.” Getting approvals for necessary tests and medications took inordinate amounts of time and effort, followed by repeated appeals, as the insurance companies simply didn’t approve them for men, despite the breast cancer diagnosis. Mike was truly disheartened by all of this, but I was absolutely furious. Coming to terms with the cancer was difficult enough, but the ostracizing sea of pink ribbons and pink hospital gowns and hard to acquire treatments only added to the emasculating nature of being a man with breast cancer. My heart hurt for him. I wanted to shield him from it all and to scream at the top of my lungs at the medical community and at God.
We had a new appreciation for our time together. Now more than ever, we knew that tomorrow was not promised, so we traveled frequently and lived in the moment as much as possible. Despite my fear, I learned to embrace the beauty of now. I had always been drawn to philosophies of Buddhism, but life with Mike unwittingly taught me the practical application in real time. I had a true awareness of the fragility of life and a heightened understanding of the blessings of our relationship. I was frightened about the future, but the power of our love brought me immense peace and contentment daily. I had waited 34 years to meet this man and I wanted to continue to experience every day with him.
Insurance companies simply didn’t approve necessary medications and tests for men, despite the breast cancer diagnosis.
When we were married in 2012, Mike had promised to take me on my dream trip to Europe for our fifth wedding anniversary. He knew that I had always fantasized about going to Paris, and as the date approached, between cancer treatments, Mike began planning our vacation. I was terrified; Mike refused to be dissuaded. He argued that we must live our lives to the fullest, despite his diagnosis or any other obstacle ― we would go to Europe.
Regardless of how scared I was, I didn’t feel it was fair to deny him this opportunity. What if this was his dying wish? I knew this trip would be different than any of our previous ventures. Mike was now far too weak to carry our luggage or navigate stairs or rush through mass transportation. I was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to manage, but truthfully, I also doubted my own ability to carry the load (both literally and figuratively) for both of us.
We adjusted our schedules to accommodate his need to rest, we eliminated tours and other attractions that we had originally planned, and we took things at Mike’s new slow pace. He was declining and the reality of our situation became glaringly obvious during this trip. While it was challenging and he struggled each day, we fulfilled our mutual dream and celebrated our anniversary in Paris. We returned to the United States fulfilled, but there had been a shift in Mike’s outlook and awareness of his physical limitations.
As the cancer progressed to his spine, other bones, liver and brain over the following months, things changed quite significantly for Mike. Though his heart miraculously remained stable, his mobility was severely limited and he tired easily. He was dependent on an oxygen machine and generally confined to a wheelchair, yet his spirit never wavered. We were relegated to months of daily radiation treatments, various invasive procedures, frequent hospital stays and endless doctor appointments. I had become his caretaker and our married life was more difficult than I’d ever imagined it could be. Our wedding vows of “in sickness and in health” were in full swing.
I had become his caretaker and our married life was more difficult than I’d ever imagined it could be. Our wedding vows of 'in sickness and in health' were in full swing.
I was challenged mentally, emotionally and physically, but witnessing Mike’s tenacity taught me so much about how to truly live during those months. When it was determined that he was in end-stage renal failure and that no more could be done, he reluctantly went home to be on hospice care. My heart was broken, and I was destroyed with the thought of losing my best friend and the love of my life, but I knew that I didn’t want him to suffer any more. I was resolute in my commitment to make his last days as pain-free and enjoyable as possible.
He was terribly weak and we were sure the end was near. However, as his history of miracles would predict, Mike perked up, regained some strength and became “well” enough to spend another six weeks with us ― going out to eat, getting out and socializing with family and friends, and making the most of the time he had. He was even determined to take me out to our favorite restaurant for our sixth wedding anniversary. At 6 feet, 9 inches, it was difficult to get him dressed and out the door, as he was quite weak, but we loaded up the wheelchair in the car and went to that familiar spot to celebrate our union. I was amazed that we had made it another year to this huge milestone and felt beyond blessed to be sitting across the table from my handsome husband that night, and never more in love.
That celebration would be the last time Mike would leave the house. He passed away peacefully at home just over two weeks later on May 14, 2018, at 48 years old (two days shy of his 49th birthday). He fought long and hard and most importantly to him, fulfilled every promise to me. His greatest promise was that he would make sure that I was OK after he was gone. He rallied my friends and family and made sure that they each committed to taking care of me in his absence. I will admit it has been beyond challenging to be “OK” over this last year, but his great example of embracing life and living for each day has given me more strength than I could have fathomed. The gift of his love has fueled my soul for a lifetime. Mike was a walking miracle, indeed, and the way he lived each of his nine lives is what is truly remarkable. He was the catalyst for so much good in my life and he inspired so many others that were witness to his journey.
I have learned firsthand that male breast cancer is real, and it is deadly. Though it is rarer for men, it’s more likely to occur at a more advanced stage of diagnosis for men than women. Survival rates are also lower for men than women. I am certain that if I had known more about breast cancer in men, I would have been more determined to push Mike to see the doctor. I can only speculate as to how that might have changed his prognosis. Now, a year later on Mike’s death anniversary, I can only hope other men and women are aware of how cruel breast cancer can be and that it doesn’t discriminate at all.
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