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Video: Husband, wife both battle breast cancer

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    >>> you care.

    >>> this morning on our special series " breast cancer today," an ohio couple's extraordinary story. as mike welsh was seeing his wife barbara through her treatment, he never imagined that months later he would be diagnosed with the disease. we'll talk to the couple in a moment, but first, here's nbc's janet shamlian .

    >> reporter: as barbara welsh battled breast cancer , her husband mike was beside her every step of the way. with her trademark wig, mike has been by her side with appointment check-ins and meetings with doctors, and learned, perhaps, the most important part of the battle -- keeping a sense of humor, knowledge he would soon put to use himself. nine months after barbara found a lump in her breast, mike found one of his own. you were shocked?

    >> oh, absolutely, absolutely. because i didn't know that men could get breast cancer . see all the ads on tv, the women doing the monthly exams. you never see a man doing that, so how are we supposed to know? you want it to run, don't you?

    >> reporter: breast cancer is rare in men, making up fewer than 1% of all cases. and doctors at the medical center in ohio say they have never seen simultaneous cases in a couple.

    >> it's a very remarkable situation, and i guess fortunately, it doesn't happen often, but gives an opportunity for a bond that is immeasurable. comparing the two sides --

    >> reporter: mike's cancer was diagnosed just like barbara 's, through an ultrasound. both have had surgery to remove their breast tumors . she is in her final round of radiation and will be there when his treatment begins soon. what has it been like for the two of you, going through this trauma at the same time?

    >> if nothing else, we've got one another. i'm there for him and he's there for me.

    >> reporter: married 43 years, barbara and mike see going through breast cancer together as only a brief road block . where are you going to be a year from now?

    >> we will be together doing whatever.

    >> oh, yeah?

    >> mike, you're on television.

    >> reporter: a couple determined to make it in sickness and in health. for "today," janet shamlian , nbc news, middletown, ohio . yep, 41 years of marriage and now you know why. mike and barbara welsh are here, she without her trademark wig this morning, which i was looking forward to, also with dr. kathy ann joseph , breast surgeon at new york presbyterian hospital and columbia university medical center . good morning to you all. so nice to have you here.

    >> good morning.

    >> good morning.

    >> barbara , i know you just finished your radiation treatment this week. how are you doing? what's the prognosis?

    >> i'm doing wonderful.

    >> you look wonderful.

    >> oh, yeah. i'm going to get hair.

    >> well, it's coming back in. it looks very nice, very youthful.

    >> uh, yeah, that's good to say, thank you.

    >> mike, seeing your wife go through this first and then you yourself getting that diagnosis, what was that like for you?

    >> it was devastating. with hers and with mine, it was, for lack of a better word, surreal. because like i say, men don't get breast cancer .

    >> yeah, 1%. i mean --

    >> yeah.

    >> what were you feeling? what led you to the diagnosis?

    >> excuse me. i happened to get in a car and put my seatbelt on. it was uncomfortable. i moved it around a little bit and it didn't get much better, so i eventually went to my family doctor and mentioned to barry robertson that, hey, i've got a problem. he said, where? we followed barbara 's diagnosis --

    >> so you suspected right away?

    >> well, no, i didn't have any inkling of it. because i had been out in the yard working and i thought i pulled a muscle. i would have been better off if i pulled a muscle.

    >> and you had a mastectomy back in july, so what's your prognosis?

    >> they talk about the pill form of chemo and maybe some radiation, but a prognosis is good.

    >> what stage did they catch your breast cancer in?

    >> they told me mine was a stage four.

    >> wow.

    >> yeah.

    >> so, that's -- that's far along.

    >> yeah.

    >> and what about you, barbara ?

    >> yours was less than one.

    >> it was less than a one, because --

    >> they caught you very early.

    >> yes, yes.

    >> and dr. joseph , i have to mention, you are not the welshs welshes' doctor. this is a rare case. what puts men at risk, though?

    >> yes, male breast cancer is rare, and because it's so rare, it's hard to sort of define what the risk factors are. mike is a classic example. it affects older men, men in their 60s and 70s. there are hereditary risk factors that are associated with it. so, 20% of all men that get breast cancer have the genetic p predisposition to it. they may have the mutation. so when we have men with breast cancer , we offer genetic testing so they can find out if they have the gene for it.

    >> and women are told to do breast self exams. should men be doing that as well or is it just watch out for discomfort and pain, as we heard?

    >> yeah, men should -- it is rare, but men should be aware of their bodies, just like women do, and we do recommend that men check their breasts, absolutely.

    >> and really quickly, mike and barbara , 41 years of marriage, has this brought you two closer together, going through this?

    >> oh, absolutely.

    >> yes, it has.

    >> well, you're able to laugh about it and keep such a great sense of humor, so, we are praying with you and hope all is well.

    >> i appreciate it.

    >> my son even shaved his head for me.

    >> oh, your son did, right?

    >> yes.

    >> that's very sweet. well, we wish you the best.

    >> thank you.

    >> thank you.

    >> and dr. joseph as well,

updated 10/23/2009 11:03:39 AM ET 2009-10-23T15:03:39

Through 41 years of marriage, Michael and Barbara Welsh expected to share just about everything, for better or worse. But they never thought one of those things would be breast cancer.

The Ohio couple are a medical curiosity: a husband and wife both diagnosed with a disease far more common in women, but not unknown in men. They are using the publicity generated by their story to spread the word that breast cancer isn’t just a women’s disease.

“I didn’t know that men could get breast cancer,” Michael Welsh told TODAY’s Natalie Morales Friday in New York. “You see all the ads on TV, the women doing the monthly exams. You never see a man doing that. So how are we supposed to know?”

Michael was joined by his wife, a petite woman whose salt-and-pepper hair is starting to grow back now that she has completed her chemo and radiation treatments.

“If nothing else, we’ve got one another,” she said of their shared battle. “I’m in it for him, and he’s in it for me.”

Not a pulled muscle
The Welshes’ story began in December 2008, when Barbara discovered a lump in her right breast. After a lumpectomy, she underwent chemo and radiation treatments that ended Thursday.

While Barbara, 63, was undergoing her treatment, Mike, 62, discovered that he, too, had breast cancer. “I happened to get in the car, put my seat belt on,” he told Morales. “It was uncomfortable. I moved around a little bit, and it didn’t get much better, so I eventually went to my family doctor, and mentioned, ‘Hey, I got a problem.’ He said, ‘Where?’ ”

Mike said he thought he might have pulled a muscle doing yard work, but it turned out to be much more serious. His doctor sent him to get a mammogram, which Mike described as a test not designed for male breasts and sheer torture.

When he got the diagnosis, he couldn’t believe it. “It was devastating,” he said. “It was, for lack of a better word, surreal, because men, they don’t get breast cancer.”

After undergoing a mastectomy for his stage 4 cancer, Mike is looking at a regimen of oral chemo treatment and possibly radiation. “My prognosis is good,” the bearded father of one and grandfather of five said.

Rare in men
Just 1 percent of all breast cancers occur in men, but that still amounts to nearly 2,000 cases in the United States each year. An estimated 40,000 women and 440 men die each year from the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“Male breast cancer is rare, and because it is rare, it’s hard to define what the risk factors are,” oncologist Kathie-Ann Joseph of New York-Presbyterian Hospital told Morales. “Mike is a classic example. It affects older men, men in their 60s and 70s. There are hereditary risk factors that are associated with it. Twenty percent of all men who get breast cancer have the genetic predisposition for it.”

Michael and Barbara Welsh, both victims of breast cancer, have been married for 41 years.
As in women, the genetic red flag is a mutation in the BCRA gene. Researchers estimate that about 20 percent of men with the mutation get cancer, a rate much higher than the 5 to 10 percent rate for women with the mutation.

“Men should be aware of their bodies, just like women,” Joseph said. “We do recommend that men check their breasts.”

Laughter, the best medicine

Fortunately, the couple are able to laugh about the unanticipated bond they share. Barbara coped with her hair loss by wearing rainbow-colored wigs around town. She didn’t wear one to the TODAY show Friday, but she did sport a pink sweatshirt with the legend “I’m a breast cancer survivor.” Michael wore a pink breast cancer wristband.

Battling breast cancer with humor, Barbara Welsh wore a rainbow-colored wig to conceal her hair loss due to chemo.
Now that she has completed her treatment, Barbara told Morales, “I’m doing wonderful. I will be glad when I get hair.”

She added that to show solidarity, “My son even shaved his head for me.”

With Mike yet to undergo treatment, the couple still have a fight ahead of them. But they’re grateful for how their unusual fate has brought them even closer together. They also share a certainty about where they’ll be a year from now.

Said Barbara: “We will be together — doing whatever.”


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