Couple Shares Long Marriage, Breast Cancer
MONROE, Ohio - In their 41 years of marriage, Michael and Barbara Welsh have faced their share of ups and downs.
But nothing like what they have endured in the last year.
Doctors gave Barbara, 63, the news that she had breast cancer early this year, even as her husband recovered from heart surgery.
Six months later, Michael, 62, learned he had breast cancer, too, joining the small number of men who are diagnosed with the disease each year.
Doctors say the odds of them both having breast cancer at the same time, in the same breast, are about as likely as them hitting the lottery.
The couple uses humor to joke about their illness, teasing each other about Michael's "missing boob" - he had breast removal surgery in July - and Barbara's radiation "buzz cut."
"If you don't have a sense of humor about it, the depression will kill you," Michael explained. "We have some good days; we have some better days and we have some not so good days."
"Yeah, and I'm having a bad hair day," Barbara joked, raking her hands over the short salt-and-pepper cut her husband gave her when her hair started falling out months ago.
Michael quickly reminds his bride that the bad hair days started long before breast cancer invaded her body.
And that's what a typical day is like for them. They laugh to keep from crying.
On Friday, they'll appear on the "Today" show to share their story of love and their battles with breast cancer with millions of viewers.
"For too long, cancer has been hush-hush," Michael said.
"You don't want anybody to know about it, especially when we're talking about men and breast cancer. But the disease has no limits. Man. Woman. Black. White. Pink. Green. Orange. It makes no difference.
"If I can save one person, one man, from breast cancer," he said, "then it's worth it."
When it began
Barbara vividly remembers the day she knew something was different.
She felt a lump, but thought maybe she was imagining things. She called for Michael. He felt it too.
Three days later, biopsy results confirmed it. She had cancer.
"I was scared to death. I was devastated. Here I was all alone in my house with the two dogs, and I'd just been given what I thought was a death sentence," Barbara said, describing her emotions and her rush to reach Michael at the Dayton Heart and Vascular Hospital.
They coped, the same way they did decades earlier when a birth mother backed out of adoption plans and kept the child they planned to raise. They'd make it through and found happiness then, they told themselves, when after 10 years of waiting they adopted their son, Michael.
Then her husband Michael felt a sharp pain when he buckled his seat belt this spring. He dismissed it as the aftermath of a long day, working in the yard.
But when the discomfort continued and he thought more about his wife's diagnosis, Michael wondered if men could get breast cancer, too.
They can, and Michael became one of 1,910 men the American Cancer Society estimates will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. Both men and women have breast tissue, but according to the American Cancer Institute, women are 100 times more likely to face a breast cancer diagnosis.
In Michael's case, the fast-growing tumor was the size of his thumb when doctors discovered it. They decided that a radical mastectomy was their only option.
"I told them, 'If you have to, go 'head and cut it off. I'd like to keep it, but if you have to, before you bring me out, I'd like to have that reconstructive surgery. I need somewhere to hang my hat."
With a nudge, Barbara reminded her husband: "I've still got both of mine."
"Brag, why don't you? I'm walking around with a half a rack," he shot back.
"Hey, he doesn't care that I don't have any hair. We deal with the shortcomings," Barbara said.
The old days
That's the way it's always been with them.
They grew up in the same neighborhood, but dated other people.
Barbara was riding her bike one day when Michael pulled up in his white 1966 Ford Fairlane GT, offering her a ride on one condition: she clean her feet.
"I washed my feet, and I took a ride in his hot rod," she said, recalling their first date.
To them, their battle with breast cancer is just another ride.
"We took a vow when we got married for better or for worse, and if this is as bad as it gets," Michael said, " then it's a piece of cake."
"Good," his wife whispered to him, "'cause I ain't ready to lose you."
Together, they've vowed to take better care of themselves and raise awareness about breast cancer.
Barbara can be seen throughout town, sporting her pink "I am a breast cancer survivor" sweat shirts. She started wearing them after whispers, stares and the occasional, "Who does she think she is, Sinead O'Connor?" comments popped up when she ventured out for errands.