SPECIAL REPORT: Man with terminal breast cancer shares story

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- It kills more than 40,000 Americans every year.

And although most people think of breast cancer as a woman's disease, more men die of breast cancer than testicular cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

One Mid-South man with terminal breast cancer is making it his mission to educate others before it's too late.

Carl Holmes knows his days are numbered.

"Incurable. When you hear that term, that scares you," he said. "When it came up on me, it stopped my whole life. When death is on your doorstep, you'll change your whole mode of thinking."

That life-stopping moment came in 2011, when – at the age of 55 – the former Air Force pilot noticed a lump while lifting weights.

"I felt something and it felt different – it was harder like a rock," he said.

But for the next year, Holmes, who was working as a pilot at FedEx, ignored it.

"I did not realize breast cancer was even around for men," he said.

It wasn't until his nipple became inverted that his wife finally talked him into having it checked out.

His primary care physician knew right away.

"He said, 'You've got to have a mammogram tomorrow,'" Holmes said.

It would take a biopsy to be sure, but it was clear to his doctor that Holmes was about to join just one percent of men in the U.S. with breast cancer.

"As soon as they did the biopsy, it came out to where, absolutely, breast cancer," he said.

Grade 3 stage 2b breast cancer – an aggressive but treatable form.

A shocking diagnosis for a man, not to mention one with no family history of the disease.

"You go into a scared state," Holmes said. "'Am I gonna die?' And you think about all that stuff."

For his wife of 28 years, the news hit like a freight train.

"When you first get that diagnosis, you're in shock," said Robin Holmes.

"I cried a lot," she said. "When you hear cancer – breast cancer – I think even as a woman, you go to the dark side."

And like many men, Holmes struggled to come to terms with the diagnosis, refusing at first to even refer to it at 'breast' cancer.

"It is an embarrassing thing," he said. "And then at first I'm saying 'chest cancer, I've got chest cancer.'"

The disease is so rare in men, Holmes was sent to a women's clinic for his first mammogram.

Even the doctor had never treated a man with breast cancer.

"I walk in and they said, 'Where's your wife?' And I said, 'It's me,' he said. "They were asking for Carla Holmes. So, I said, 'No ma'am, Carl Holmes. I'm here.'"

Holmes had a mastectomy to remove his left breast, and underwent chemotherapy and surgery, putting his career as a pilot on hold.

"All I'd ever done was fly, so that career is over and then now I think about dying," he said, "And then you think about how to get things ready for everybody."

A few months later, though, he learned his cancer was in remission.

But just as he was about to go back to work, he got news from his doctor that the disease had spread.

It's known as metastatic cancer.

This time it was in his bones.

"He [my doctor] says, 'Mac, it's incurable, but we can fight it,'" Holmes said. "We can gain more time, we can try other treatments."

Instead of giving up hope, Holmes and his wife decided to take a stand, becoming passionate advocates in the battle against breast cancer.

"I just went into fight mode and I decided to get very involved in organizations and that's when I actually realized that we needed to change," she said, "That the status quo within the breast cancer community had been going along for so many years doing the same thing."

Even with advances in technology and medication, the death rate for breast cancer hasn't changed in the last 20 years.

And even less is known about the disease's affect on men because the research is mostly focused on women.

"They don't have as much research done for us, they don't have as much background data for us," Holmes said.

Every year, 2,500 men are diagnosed with breast cancer, and it kills 500.

Holmes wants men to know, it can happen to you, too.

"If you don't pay attention to your own body and you don't bring this up when you feel that, you are setting up for a major disaster," he said.

Now, almost three years into his metastatic cancer diagnosis, the couple says they will continue to fight for more funding for treatments instead of prevention.

And maybe one day, a cure.

"We have just gotten desensitized to deaths of breast cancer," Robin Holmes said. "Every day, 113 men and women die. And if a plane crashed with 113 men or women, we would be outraged. We would want something done. So, I want something done."

Today, Holmes has stage four metastatic breast cancer.

He and his wife are heavily involved in the breast cancer community, sharing his story and educating others on the importance of metastatic research.

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