Stories of Hope
Lesson From the Edge: Take Responsibility for Your Own Health
Article date: June 7, 2002
"Since my diagnosis and treatment, I look for opportunities to wrap every fiber of my being around life. I pay attention to the quiet voices that nudge me out of the safe zone; I celebrate time with those who understand the power of the possible..."
Increasing Self-Health Awareness Is Everyone's Concern
A series of coincidences in 1999 made Michael Hayes Samuelson, a 30-year veteran educator in the health promotion field, practice for himself what he teaches others: take personal responsibility for your health.
It all began when Samuelson visited his accountant of 25 years in his annual ritual of tax preparation. The accountant looked fatigued, so Samuelson inquired how he was feeling. Then came the shock: his old friend said he had cancer and was taking chemotherapy.
And an even greater shock — he'd had a radical mastectomy. He had breast cancer, a rare occurrence in men.
As he walked back to his car parked on Main Street in Ann Arbor, Mich., Samuelson did a self-breast exam for the first time in his life. All of a sudden behind the right nipple, as hard as a rock, he felt a lump. He half smiled at the power of suggestion surely given from his friend's cancer. But he had his wife feel it when he got home. She felt the lump, too.
"Don't Worry, It's Just a Cyst"
Although his doctor felt it was just a cyst, he squeezed Samuelson into an appointment with his partner. Upon examination, she told him not to be concerned, "It's so rare in men; I'm sure it's just a cyst."
But she gave him a referral to a breast surgeon anyway. Samuelson could have elected to just "dodge the bullet" and let it end there, but with his years of teaching personal responsibility, he couldn't drop it.
The surgeon told him the same thing: "I have not seen a man with breast cancer in my 25 years of practice. I'm sure it's just a cyst," but added, "What would you like to do? We could do a mammogram or a biopsy." Instead of walking away, Samuelson opted for the biopsy, to take it out.
It was Memorial Day weekend, the last appointment of the day. "Everyone was laughing and talking in the surgical room about tomorrow's picnic," said Samuelson. Talk was punctuated with reassurances to not worry, "It's going to be a cyst."
Then the laughter and chatter stopped as they cut in to him, and for the next hour all he could hear was the clicking of surgical instruments. Then the surgeon peered two inches from his face and said, "Michael, I don't know what this is; I don't think it's cancer."
And at that moment, said Samuelson, "Every fiber in my body had a pretty good idea of what was going on. I think he knew it was cancer, but he wanted to verify it first." Waiting four days for the lab report seemed an eternity.
On June 2nd at 2:10 p.m. he got the call — it was cancer. "Worse than that, you are at Stage III. You have a very aggressive cancer. You have to have a radical mastectomy immediately," said the surgeon.
The surgery revealed the cancer had spread into the outlining muscle tissue, so they had to go fairly deep to remove it. As a result of getting clean margins, Samuelson’s doctors felt he didn't need chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He has been on tamoxifen for three years with another two to go.
Samuelson laughed. "My wife thought it was hysterical — we're sharing menopause. I experience the night sweats and hot flashes. How many couples do that together? She thinks every man should go on tamoxifen for a least six months," just to get a dose of empathy.
Mammogram checkups are routine for him now. But the first time he sat in a waiting room full of women was surreal. The nurse looked perplexed, then called for a "Michelle." When no one responded, the 6-foot-two, 200-pound "Michelle" stood up and said, "I think you mean 'Michael.' "
"You have to appreciate the humor in this," said Samuelson, "otherwise you go crazy."
Samuelson doesn't equate his breast cancer with that of a woman's. "The breast for me has no social, psychological value," he said.
"Guys don't even like to think they have breasts. They have 'pecs,' not breasts," said Samuelson. "But there's a real danger for men with breast cancer in that embarrassment kills.
"Men are so macho and stubborn that there's a higher incidence of mortality among men with breast cancer, even though it's rarer than with women. All of a sudden there's a golf ball growing in their chest, and they're at a pretty elevated stage, and their mortality figures advance with it as well," he said.
Seize the Someday
As a result of his initiative and treatment, Samuelson is healthy and strong. Within a year he was crossing the Davidson glacier and climbing some peaks in Alaska with one of his sons.
Last year Samuelson went to Nepal and Mt. Everest. The trip was very much a part of his wanting to make sure that all the "somedays" he had filed were going to happen today.
An educator at heart and by trade, Samuelson addresses nearly 15,000 health professionals per year, is co-founder of the National Center for Health Promotion, and discusses health issues on radio, television, and in print.
Now more than ever, he feels a "reverent responsibility" to increase health awareness for everybody.
This led him to write Voices From the Edge: Life Lessons From the Cancer Community. His interviews of 10 ordinary, courageous people with cancer give extraordinary, powerful insights of wisdom. Samuelson is in the process of interviewing world leaders for the second book in the Voices From the Edge series. The third book will focus on children.
"It's a privilege to give back," said Samuelson, which he does in large doses. He has hosted for the American Cancer Society's Cancer Survivors Network. Samuelson also serves as a senior consultant to the Wellness Councils of America and is a collaborating partner with the National Dialogue on Cancer.
His experience with cancer has taught him about being present in the moment, the opening of one's heart and soul, which he featured in his book, Moments…Not Years.
Standing atop the roof of the world in the Himalayas, Samuelson felt the Divine Thread connection. He was part of something far greater than himself, connected to mankind in the same "compassionate bowl" of helping one another.
"Since my diagnosis and treatment," said Samuelson, "I look for opportunities to wrap every fiber of my being around life. I pay attention to the quiet voices that nudge me out of the safe zone. I celebrate time with those who understand the power of the possible…"