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Reaching Out: Sharing a journey with male breast cancer

Posted November 18, 2015 by Liza Frenette

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.” -- C.S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed.”

KovarikOn a sunlit autumn afternoon, retired teacher Michael Kovarik stands beneath one of the many Victorian-style lamp posts lining the sidewalks of Saratoga Springs’ thriving main street. Each has a bushy pink ribbon tugging at its column, with an attached paper tells the story of a woman with breast cancer.

Kovarik is his own story —- and it’s blue, not pink.

He is a man with breast cancer.

He is a man who just found out this fall that his cancer is now Stage Four metastatic. It’s headlining for the third time.

And for the first seven years he's been dealing with cancer — through multiple surgeries, radiation and treatment — he never met another man with breast cancer, which made the physically and emotionally painful illness and treatment even more lonely.

Encouraged about the attention and funding for female breast cancer — his own mother was diagnosed with breast cancer after he was — Kovarik is living a life with heightened awareness of the need to educate people about male breast cancer and to find better treatment. He’s stepping up, and stepping inward. With his voice gentle, he shares how he now writes regular blog posts for the Anti Cancer Club

(http://anticancercl ub.com/topic/inspiring-stories-from-cancer-survivors/), and writes articles for the Male Breast Cancer Coalition (http://malebreastcancercoalition.org). He’s breathing vulnerability.

“It’s been a lifeline to me. An absolute lifeline,” he says.

He and his partner, Tim, whom he describes as partner, rock and friend, were interviewed for an upcoming documentary, “Men Have Breasts, Too.”

Much needs to be said.

“Some men are embarrassed to have a ‘women’s disease,’” Kovark says. “They question their manhood.”

His cancer was first discovered with a small lump that looked like a cyst. Then the nipple inverted.

“I knew something was wrong,” says the retired member of the South Colonie Teachers Association.

Initially diagnosed in 2007, his cancer relaunched in 2010. Kovarik recalls his doctor saying that not much is known about treating a recurrence of male breast cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates about 2,350 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed for men in the United States this year.

Doctors had already given him their best shot: removal of the breast and a common breast cancer treatment drug. This time they prescribed him a drug for prostate cancer, which mangled his moods and instigated draining physical side effects.

That’s when Kovarik started building his own inner strength and toning his voice to say “No.” He unearthed a willingness to try other treatments. He became a student again, reading books about healing.

“I started connecting with my responsibility to healing,” he says. “I realized I needed to go deeper. Not that cancer was my fault; but that I was hanging onto anger and resentment.”

Kovarik began using massage, Reiki, acupuncture, yoga, energy work and meditation to clear his mind and body of anything not useful to him.

And he began writing a book, pulling energy away from fear and toward wholeness. “Healing Within: My Journey with Breast Cancer,” which came out in 2010, explores how he punctures his grief and moves to both healing and action.

“I am now cognizant of fear’s presence and its absolute power in obstructing one’s healing,” he writes in his book.

He found a new oncologist and a doctor of integrative medicine, and had radiation. He had a second mastectomy as a precaution, since he found out he has the BRCA 2 gene. He joined a group studying spirituality.

Kovarik spends time with Tim and with the couple’s two dogs, Polar and Macy, at their 31-acre farm in rural Saratoga County. He grabbed and hugged the yellow lab and golden retriever when he got a phone call that his cancer was back the second time. “I collapsed into my favorite chair. I held onto them,” he remembers.

He retired early from teaching following treatment for this second recurrence of his cancer. Prior to one his surgeries — a nipple removal — his teaching colleagues surprised him at work with a party in the elementary library. Hanging from the ceiling were 1,012 origami paper cranes, inspired by the emotional children’s book “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” about a child from Hiroshima who has cancer from the bombing and the healing power of cranes. His friends at work, guided by teaching colleague Veronica Delancey-Smith, creased and folded colored paper into love and care.

Some of the early signs of finding strength in voice developed when Kovarik was teaching and became active in his union. Before devoting 24 years to teaching in New York state, Kovarik taught in Virginia, a right-to-work state. Workers had no power, he says. When he became a member of the South Colonie TA, he found that “.. having a voice, being able to say...’ I deserve this, I’m worth this,’ was very empowering.” He learned patience and communication on the local's negotiating team. Later, he became a vice president.

“He was well-respected and steady. He was an influence on me,” says TA president John Ryan.

Kovarik misses putting on student plays and having discussions with his students. “I loved when that light would go on and you knew you connected. What made the work even more important was when you know a kid comes from really crappy home life ... and this is where they feel safe, where they feel valued.”

“I miss reading to them, all of us gathered on the rug,” he says.

This third time with cancer, Kovarik is more reflective. His body is changing again, along with the fall leaves. He’s now on new medicines and being treated in Boston. He continues to deepen his spiritual connection. He mows. He gardens. He rests. He reads. He has a community of friends. He explores within.

“I”m being open to people and things that are crossing my path,” he says.

Anyone wanting to contact Kovarik can reach him at mwk.healing@gmail.com.

--Liza Frenette

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