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Smitty's family impacted by breast cancer

by Alyssa Girardi / Detroit Red Wings
DETROIT — When Brendan Smith’s phone rang on Christmas night a few years back, he and his family knew in their hearts it wasn’t good news.

His grandmother — Joyce — had been battling breast cancer, and the odds weren’t in her favor. That night, she succumbed to the same form of cancer the American Cancer Society estimates will take the lives of approximately 40,000 women this year.

“Being around the Christmastime, you’re hoping for some miracles to happen,” Smith said. “In that sense, maybe in a different way, it was a miracle to get her out of her pain.”

Years later, the Red Wings defenseman has translated the pain of his grandmother’s loss into positive outreach for the breast cancer community.

As the team’s breast cancer awareness spokesperson, Smith donates a pair of tickets and a postgame meet and greet for the Red Wings game against Tampa Bay on Nov. 9 to be auctioned on Saturday. At last year’s Breast Cancer Awareness Night, he helped present a check of more than $51,000 to Liggett Breast Center and the Karmanos Center Weisberg Treatment Center in Farmington Hills to help uninsured and underinsured women with the costs of diagnostic screenings and nonmedical expenses associated with treatment.

Additionally, a meet and greet with Smith was auctioned off that night for $1,000 and the proceeds were donated to charity.

“You have your mourning period, and instead of selfishly being upset about what happened, do something proactive and give back,” Smith said. “That’s what I’m doing.”

On Oct. 11, the Red Wings will host their eighth annual Breast Cancer Awareness Night, presented by Team Rehab, as part of the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer month. Detroit will take on the Anaheim Ducks that evening, but Smith is hosting a handful of people with a very different battle on their minds.

Ten two-time breast cancer survivors and patients will enjoy the game luxury-style in a suite paid for by Smith. After the game, he will meet his guests and swap stories about the cancer that bonds them together.

Though being a professional athlete gives Smith the platform to positively impact others on a large scale, his charitable contributions extend far beyond the hockey rink. This summer, he participated in a 10K race in Madison, Wis., with his girlfriend and her family, laughing that he ran quick seven-minute miles in memory of his grandma.

“There’s so many people that’ve been touched by breast cancer, whether it’s a good story where their family member or friend has survived, or the opposite where it’s not what you look forward to, like my grandmother,” he said. “But it’s cool to talk to people about it. If we can unite as a group and try to figure out some way to overcome it, I think that’s the best thing.”

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Unfortunately for the Smith family, they were no strangers to breast cancer when Joyce was taken. Lester Smith, Brendan’s grandfather, also was diagnosed with breast cancer just a year apart from Joyce.

But while Brendan’s grandmother was taken by the disease, Lester overcame it.

When Smith found out his grandfather had breast cancer, his first reaction was to assume it was a joke. Because of the rarity of male breast cancer, many people still are unaware the cancer doesn’t discriminate based on gender. Breast cancer can strike men, but it is 100 times less likely to affect males than women, according to the American Cancer Society.

Charlie Barlow

When Charlie Barlow of Ottawa, Ill., told his friends and family about his breast cancer diagnosis, their reactions were similar to Smith’s.

“A lot of them, I could tell by looking at them, didn’t believe me,” Barlow said. “A lot of men are in denial that we could end up getting a ‘women’s disease.’”

Barlow was diagnosed 12 years ago at age 53 when his wife discovered a strange lump underneath his right nipple. While he brushed it off, thinking it was a harmless deposit, she immediately scheduled him a doctor’s appointment.

“Before I was diagnosed, I didn’t know it was possible for males to get breast cancer,” Barlow said. “When the doctor called me on the phone with my lab results, it was just like somebody punched me in the stomach. I just couldn’t believe it. You’re mistaken, you’re wrong, something’s not right.”

After a biopsy confirmed his lump was cancerous, tests showed he had ductal carcinoma in situ, the earliest stage of breast cancer. The cancer cells hadn’t spread to his lymph nodes, so chemotherapy treatment wasn’t necessary.

Barlow had a mastectomy to remove the muscle, tissue and nipple from his right side, and then he underwent 28 radiation treatments. For the next five years, he took hormone treatments before he was declared cancer-free.

On Saturday, Barlow will be one of 40 people attending the Red Wings’ Breast Cancer Awareness Night as a guest in the Survivor Suites. He will be the first male survivor hosted at the event, and said he’s excited for the opportunity to raise awareness about a generally unknown segment of the cancer.

“If one person comes away from that event saying, ‘Wow. I better check myself to make sure,’ then it’ll be well worth it,” Barlow said.

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