Our hearts break for women battling breast cancer, but men suffer, too. Why aren’t their stories told?
Last year, a breast cancer survivor made that observation when she shared her story with me. She didn’t see herself as a victim, but her husband became emotional during our conversation. “When someone mentions cancer, my skin crawls,” he said.
“I think people forget the spouses,” she reflected. “They suffer, too.”
Their comments never left me. Men suffer, too. Why aren’t their stories told?
To commemorate Breast Cancer Awareness Month this year, I decided to correct the wrong.
You’re going to meet Marc Smitherman, a native Texan, a mortgage broker, and formerly a highly successful national sales manager for a Fortune 500 manufacturing company. His life turned-upside-down when his wife, Bobbie, died of metastatic breast cancer in 2002. Their son, Jake, was only seven at the time.
“Bobbie’s death did change everything. It was one rough year,” he said.
Wild and Crazy Bobbie
My husband and I have known Marc and his wife, Micky, since we moved to Tennessee nine years ago. Bobbie had been gone for more than a decade by the time we met, but I’ve always felt like I knew her personally.
That’s because Marc’s memories of Bobbie leave indelible impressions. Like many people raised in the South, Bobbie had a colorful way of expressing herself—especially when annoyed. One story stands out.
As a successful real-estate agent, Bobbie drove big Cadillacs, Marc said. One evening, he was outside when he heard her coming. “She turned the corner, and I swear, she was on two wheels. She skidded into the driveway and jumped out yelling, ‘Some Alabama swamp-running hillbilly just ran me off the road.’”
Of course, Marc cleaned it up a bit. She could cuss with the best of them.
They met at a car dealership shortly after Marc relocated from Dallas to Maryville, Tennessee, her hometown. He was supposed to meet a salesperson named Bobby. When she walked into the showroom, he was stunned. “I was expecting a guy,” Marc remembered.
He’ll never forget her reaction: “‘If you want a guy, I can damn sure arrange if for you.’”
Marc was enamored.
They got married in 1990. After five devastating miscarriages, Bobbie finally gave birth to Jake four years later. “At 1 AM, her water broke,” Marc remembered. “She was bound and determined to have the baby naturally … We jumped in the Cadillac, and she dog cussed me the whole way.”
As he walked toward the delivery room, he heard a woman yelling, “‘Give me drugs. Hurry.’ And I thought, that’s gotta be her.”
Marc looked down. “We were living the dream.”
Marc’s World Falls Apart
Men suffer, too.
Marc’s grief began Labor Day weekend in 2000. He was in the kitchen when he heard her scream, “‘Dang it.’” Marc thought she dropped her cup of coffee on the new bedroom carpet. “‘Feel this,’” he remembered her saying. A large knot could be felt on her left breast.
A few days later, as Marc was boarding a plane for a business trip, she called. “‘Have you already left? I just found out I have cancer.’” He got off the plane and headed home.
Bobbie chose a radical double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation, followed by reconstructive surgery in January 2002. Six months later, Bobbie discovered the cancer had returned and it had progressed. Her doctors gave her only two to three months. “She made it to November,” Marc said.
Her funeral procession was two-and-a-half miles long.
Watching Bobbie struggle and then succumb was hard enough, but what would the future hold now? Within three months of her passing, he quit his job because it required frequent out-of-town travel—not ideal for a single parent—and along with it, his six-figure income.
“I lost my dream girl and my professional grounding,” Marc said.
“Why Are You So Sad?”
Jake was young when his mom passed. Of course, he missed her, but he seemed to be more accepting of what had happened.
One night just before Christmas, Marc remembered the two of them doing their nightly ritual—something they did when Bobbie was still alive. As Jake and the family dog, Bingo, laid on the bunkbed they took turns saying a prayer.
‘“Why are you so sad all the time?’ Marc remembered his young son saying. ‘“I think it’s because you miss Mom. But if Mom had a choice to come here or stay in heaven, I’m positive Mom would want to stay in heaven.’”
Marc sat under the Christmas tree and bawled for an hour. Men suffer, too.
Two years later, Marc married Micky, a compassionate woman who—when I first met her—cared for seniors after working all day at a local bank. “One of the first things she did was tell Jake she wanted to decorate his room with some of Bobbie’s things. She’s as perfect as anyone will get. We are very lucky.”
Was it Bobbie’s death or is it maturity? Though Micky has certainly blessed Marc’s life, he sees where he may have erred in his thinking before Bobbie’s passing. “I thought my life was pretty perfect and that it would never end. I tell young people all the time, be prepared. Make yourself right with God. Things happen to people all the time.
“Don’t take anything for granted.”
Men suffer, too.