A Man with a Mammogram: Pilot Shares Struggle with Breast Cancer
You have cancer.
Per the National Cancer Institute, nearly 40% of men and women will hear those words at some point during their lifetimes.
Mac Holmes first heard it in 2012. It was what came next that shocked him the most.
“My doctor told me I had to go get a mammogram,” said Mac, a FedEx pilot. “I remember my wife Robin and I looked at each other in disbelief. A man with a mammogram?”
Mac spent 28 years in the Air Force as a Squadron Commander and has been with FedEx since 1993. He’s flown all over the world, from São Paulo to Singapore, cherishing every moment. He’s seen it all, or at least he thought he had.
When Mac found out he had breast cancer, he was stunned. Male breast cancer accounts for less than one percent of all breast cancer cases, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
It started rather harmlessly with a small lump on his chest.
“I wasn’t too worried because I have lumps all over my body and had been monitored by flight surgeons for years,” Mac said.
This time was different. When Mac’s nipple started to invert, his wife Robin urged him to have it checked out by a doctor. His primary care physician suspected it could be cancer and sent Mac to a local hospital for a mammogram.
“I went over there, and everything was set up for women,” Mac said.
According to breastcancer.org, about 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetime versus 1 in 1,000 men.
Mac had a mastectomy to remove his left breast. Doctors discovered that the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes, and Mac underwent additional surgery to remove it. At that time, pathology reports indicated that Mac had Stage 2B breast cancer, which is characterized by a large cancer mass that has spread to nearby tissues.
He was only 56 years old at the time, and his family feared the worst.
“They all put it together as I’m going to die,” Mac said. “I told them, ‘I will tell you when to worry. Don’t worry until I tell you.’”
Chemotherapy followed the surgery, along with more tests and a variety of different medications.
While all of this was happening, Mac’s career as an MD-11 pilot was put on hold as he focused on his health and family.
“I was still at FedEx teaching ground school for pilots,” Mac said. “I taught systems and simulators. It was a really good thing for me and kept my mind off of things. I would tell (my colleagues) I had breast cancer to make sure everyone knows about it and to raise awareness. Every time I did, they’d talk to me and hug me and give me that love people need.”
After months of treatment, he received the news he had been waiting to hear ever since the original diagnosis: he was cancer free.
He had won the battle and was ready to fly again, something he had done for half his life. In addition to the love and support of his family, it was this desire to fly again that helped keep Mac going during the tough days.
“I can still remember the first day Mac put on his FedEx uniform,” Robin said. “He could have flown for anyone, but FedEx was his goal. I could tell by his face and excitement he had reached his career goal. He loves FedEx.”
The relief was short lived. Just 18 months after beating breast cancer for the first time, Mac learned that he had prostate cancer. This time the cancer was minimal, and Mac received proton therapy before again being declared cancer free.
“This was much easier than my breast cancer treatment,” Mac said. “We called my treatment ‘radiation vacation’ because we got to spend six weeks in Houston next to a golf course, visited the Houston Zoo and took day trips to the ocean.”
Even though he had beaten cancer twice already, Mac continued to visit his doctor for regular checkups to ensure the cancer hadn’t returned. The Metastatic Breast Cancer Network estimates that between 20-30 percent of patients diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer later develop metastatic cancer. Metastasis occurs when local cancer cells spread to other parts of the body, most commonly the bones, lungs, liver and brain.
Mac’s doctor noticed that his tumor markers were increasing, indicating the cancer had returned.
“Cancer is mean to everyone,” Mac said. “Breast cancer is a tough disease to handle, and women have been dealing with it for a long time. But it does hit men, too. You need to check yourself. If you ever have a bump or something wrong with your chest, you go get yourself looked at.”
Now diagnosed as Stage 4, Mac’s condition has reached metastasis. He receives hormone therapy and takes daily medications as he continues his fight.
Through the course of his journey, he has become an advocate for breast cancer awareness and metastatic research. He’s worked with Living Beyond Breast Cancer and the Male Breast Cancer Coalition, among other organizations.
Mac continues to research and learn about breast cancer and metastasis in hopes of making a difference for others that are experiencing his fight or will experience it in the future.
“I look at research and the lack of research in the metastatic area,” Mac said. “All other areas are researched and given money except for the research of people that are dying with it. That’s an area that needs to be improved.”
He still hopes to one day fly again.
“I love living,” Mac said. “I love being around people. I love helping people. Every day is a good day.”
In honor of Mac, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam declared Oct. 16 – Oct. 22, 2016 as Male Breast Cancer Awareness Week in the state of Tennessee.
For more information, visit the Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance website.