January 2016 Issue
December 22, 2015

'I was a tiny, blue island in a sea of PINK'

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Michael Kovarik
Caption: Michael Kovarik, a South Colonie TA retiree, raises awareness about male breast cancer. Photo by Liza Frenette.

Michael Kovarik knew where the grass was greener, and that's where he went: from an Albany suburb to an ample farm in Saratoga County, with a deep lawn to mow. He commuted to South Colonie, where he taught elementary school. He found a partner, Tim. Everything was fresh and new.

It was a time of transformation, especially after finding out a few years earlier, in 2007, that he had cancer — breast cancer to be exact — something he had never heard of in men.

He had surgeries — lumpectomy, mastectomy and nipple reconstruction — and was taking cancer medication. In 2010, the cancer returned, and with it, came the despair of hearing his doctor say there is not a lot of knowledge about how to treat a recurrence of male breast cancer.

"I collapsed into my favorite chair with Polar and Macy (their two beloved dogs). I just held onto them," he said.

When he was put on a prostate cancer drug that racked his body like an overloaded washing machine, he stopped taking it. He began to realize he had given in to fear and had relinquished any power he had over the illness to his doctors.

Kovarik found his voice, along with yoga, acupuncture, meditation and Reiki. He found a new oncologist and a doctor of integrative medicine, and had radiation. He had a second mastectomy as a precaution, since he has a mutation of the BRCA2 gene, which has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. And he wrote a book, Healing Within: My Journey with Breast Cancer, which explores how he punctures his grief and moves to both healing and action to educate others about male breast cancer.

Before devoting 24 years to teaching in New York, Kovarik taught in Virginia, a right-to-work state. Workers had no power, he said. When he became a member of the South Colonie Teachers Association, he found that having a voice was very empowering. He learned patience and communication while on the negotiating team. Later, he became a vice president. Kovarik retired early due to his illness.

Colleagues threw him a surprise party at school with 1,012 origami paper cranes they had made that were hanging from the library ceiling. They were inspired by the children's book, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. "He was well-respected and steady. He was an influence on me," said 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 a 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 said.

This autumn, five years after his second recurrence, Kovarik learned he has stage four metastatic breast cancer. His body was changing again; he's now on new medicines. "I"m being open to people and things that are crossing my path," he said.

The first seven years of dealing with his illness, Kovarik "had yet to hear about or meet another man with breast cancer. I was a tiny, blue island in a sea of pink."

Now, his advocacy efforts are helping that island expand. He writes for the Male Breast Cancer Coalition (http://malebreastcancercoalition.org), a collection of foundations and male survivors sharing their journeys. He and Tim are going to be part of a documentary, Men Have Breasts, Too. Kovarik also contributes personal articles to a resource site (http://anticancerclub.com/topic/inspiring-stories-from-cancer-survivors/).

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