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Michelle Beck survived ER-PR+/HER2- Breast Cancer | Bilateral Mastectomy | Latissimus Backflap



In this episode of the Cancer Interviews, podcast Michelle Beck tells how she twice survived breast cancer.  In 2012, she was diagnosed with ER-PR+/HER2- breast cancer, which she addressed with a lumpectomy.  In 2017, breast cancer returned, and in this instance, she opted for a bilateral mastectomy with latissimus backflap breast reconstruction, aromatase inhibitor treatment, tamoxifen and myofascial therapy.

 

Michelle Beck of Tigard, Oregon was thrilled to be a mom for the first time at age 39.  She was in good health and enjoying life.  Because of a family history with breast cancer, Michelle had been going in for mammograms every December since she turned 37.  However, after her visit in 2012, she was asked to make a return visit to the doctor’s office because there was a mass they would like to look at.  She had an ultrasound and a biopsy.  Two days, she received a call confirming that at age 41, she had cancer.  The diagnosis was for ER-PR+/HER2- breast cancer, which Michelle was told was very treatable.  She elected to undergo a lumpectomy with radiation.  The procedure involved what is known as a wire location of the tumor, which helps the surgeon pinpoint the tumor’s location.  For the radiation phase, Michelle was prescribed tamoxifin, which blocked the cancer from attaching to good cells.  She achieved survivorship.

 

However, in January 2017, when going in for a mammogram, Michelle Beck learned breast cancer had returned.  She had the same diagnosis in the breast that was not affected by the first diagnosis.  This time she chose to have bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction.  She also had a full hysterectomy because her ovaries were still producing estrogen and her cancer fed on estrogen. 

 

As part of her reconstruction surgery, Michelle Beck had to have a procedure called a latissimus backflap on her left side.  Once doctors remove the breast tissue, they go around the patient’s back.  Michelle had an incision four inches wide.  They took skin and muscle, and they wrap it around and pull it underneath and fill out the exterior part of that breast. 

 

For a time, after the mastectomy there were times in which she could not lift her arms, or in other ways move her body the way she did before the procedure.  She underwent myofascial therapy, which allowed her body movement to return to normal in full.

 

The one challenge Michelle Beck faces these days is that she is on an aromatase inhibitor.  She had her ovaries removed to stop estrogen production, but her body still takes testosterone and turns it into estrogen, which is called aromatase.  The inhibitor gives Michelle a great deal of joint pain, muscle pain, and her hands and feet hurt a lot, so she cannot be as physically active as she would like. 

 

Michelle says her body has changed, but she is still alive and well.  She says she is whole, but with different parts.  Of her breasts, she used to joke, “You can see them because they are not mine,” but over time she has learned to embrace them again because they are hers, they are part of her body, and really what was taken out was the cancer.

 

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Transcription:




Bruce Morton: Greetings and welcome to the Cancer Interviews podcast.  Thanks for joining us.  I’m your host, Bruce Morton.  It is tough enough to go through one cancer journey, but for some, they have to fight off cancer more than once.  Our guest on this episode is Michelle Beck of Tigard, Oregon.  Not only is she a two-time breast cancer survivor, but she continues to carry the fight by doing what she can to help others diagnosed with breast cancer.  So, without further adieu, here she is, Michelle Beck.  Michelle, welcome to Cancer Interviews.

 

Michelle Beck: Bruce, thank you so much for having me.  I am honored to be here to share my story on your platform, so thank you.

 

BM: And we look forward to hearing it, but before we get into the cancer-related part of your story, we would like to hear about life, exclusive of cancer.  So, if you would, tell us about where you are from, what you do for work, and when time allows for fun, what you like to do for fun.

 

MB: Sure thing.  I am actually from Southern California, but I now live in Tigard, Oregon, just south of Portland.  I have been here since 2008, and I love it.  I needed the change, left Southern California and found a whole new life.  I have been happily married since 2010, have a ten-year-old son and four other bonus kids, aged 16 to 23.  I work in an organization called Breast Friends of Oregon, which helps women goes through breast cancer or other types of cancer, letting them know that they have the support and they are not alone.  I also host a podcast of my own, called Breast Friends Cancer Support Network, which is the joy of my life, and I love that I am having such a wonderful time with it.  I don’t have a lot of free time, but when some comes my way, my husband and I have a travel trailer and we love to take it out, especially to the Oregon Coast.  We have two daughters who go with us, a Golden Retriever and a Black Lab, so, my life is pretty full.

 

BM: What are some of the things you like about Oregon that you left behind when you left Southern California?

 

MB: I love the weather.  I love that there are actually seasons here.  Fall is my favorite.  It is the most gorgeous time of year.  Every fall I take out my camera and take pictures of all the beautiful leaves, and I love rain.  I think rain is refreshing and it is cleansing, and I love the cooler temperatures.  I am not super outdoorsy, but I love having that option.  We try to get outside when we can and enjoy the beauty that Oregon holds.

 

BM: If you go back to your life pre-diagnosis, what was you health like at that point?

 

MB: I was pretty healthy.  I was a later-in-life mom, I had my son at 39.  He was a toddler, and I was staying at home with him.  I had waited so long to become a mom, and I was enjoying life.  Everything was good, and it, my diagnosis, just hit me out of the blue.

BM: I did read up on you and learned that family did a bit of a history with breast cancer.  To any degree did that prepare you or somehow reduce the shock level when you got this horrific news?

 

MB: It’s a funny question because I had this funny feeling in my head that I always knew I was going to get breast cancer.  Maybe I am a little bit of a fatalist in that way.  I try to be positive, but there are some little things that creep into your head.  I had watched my father’s mother.  She died from breast cancer after being diagnosed three times in 25 years.  At the end, I was between jobs and life situations, so I got to spend a great deal of time with her, which I so value to this day; but in the back of my head, there was always this little thing, that this could really happen to me.  When it did, though, it was so incredibly shocking to hear those words, “You have cancer.”  Even though it happened to my grandmother, and it happened to my mother-in-law the year my husband and I married, it was definitely a part of my life, but when it happens with you, it just sends you into survival mode.

 

BM: Could you describe the chain of events that led to your first diagnosis?

 

MB: Sure.  I was first diagnosed in 2012.  I had my regular mammograms scheduled in December.  I had started at age 37 because I had the family history and I wanted to make sure I was being proactive.  I got the call saying I needed to come back, and they said I have a mass they would like to take a look at.  I was fortunate to have my husband go with me to have the ultrasound and the biopsy.  It is like nothing I had ever experienced.  If you have had that biopsy, you know it is no fun.  The biopsy is like a stapler going off in your body and there is no way to prepare for that.  Once I had the procedures done, I already knew I had cancer.  I wasn’t positive until they called two days later to confirm.  I got my diagnosis confirmation on December seventh, which I always joke that it is a date that will ‘forever live in infamy’, not that my body is like Pearl Harbor, but it is a date I will never forget because it led to huge changes in my life.  I remember that day, driving home from the appointment, talking to my mother.  I lied to my mom, which was unusual, because even as an adult, I never lie to my mom, because I didn’t want her to worry unless there was something to worry about.  I think about that later, and it was so traumatic, having to go back and tell my parents, even though I was 41 years old, that I had breast cancer, especially my father because his mother had passed from it.  That was incredibly hard.

 

BM: It sounds like, Michelle, for a number of reasons you were sort of prepared for this news, a singular moment and not in a good way.  Obviously, this wasn’t pleasant, but what was your reaction as you thought about the present and the future?

 

MB: Complete shock.  Since I had lived with it with my grandmother, I had always said to my husband, if this ever happens to me, I am getting a mastectomy, I am getting rid of my breasts, I don’t need them.  However, when it actually happened to me, I couldn’t make that decision.  I am very lucky that my diagnosis was caught early.  I was Stage One.  I was ERPR+/HER2-, which in the cancer community, that is the best cancer to have because it is the most treatable.  My oncologist told me I have choices.  I didn’t want choices.  I wanted them to tell me what to do, but I opted for a lumpectomy with radiation because my chances of survival were the same versus a mastectomy.  At the time, my son was 18 months old, and I was not ready to give up the cuddle time, all of the things that went with that if I could just have a lumpectomy with radiation, and so, that’s what I chose.  Silly me.  Four years later in January 2017, I got smart, and I moved my mammograms from December until January because I hit my deductibles two years in a row when I had my cancer the first time, and I was not going to do that again, so moved them to January.  Then I had another occurrence in my other breast, in 2017.  My husband, bless his heart, in 2012 he had wanted me to get a mastectomy, and I chose not to.  In 2017, he was kind enough not say, ‘I told you so.’  At the right time in 2012, that was the right thing for me to do.  With my second battle in 2017, it was different.  I had a primary occurrence in my other breast, same diagnosis, almost identical to my first one, but at that point, I was like, okay, shame on me, not twice, so I opted to have a bilateral mastectomy with full reconstruction and a full hysterectomy because my ovaries were still producing estrogen and my cancer fed on estrogen.  As such, 2017 was an insanely difficult year for me.  I can laugh about some parts of it now and cry about some things still, but I am here and that is what’s so important. 

 

BM: Michelle, let’s go backwards just a bit.  For somebody who is watching and thinks they might be a candidate for breast cancer, they might want to know more about the lumpectomy.  If you would, just relive some of the key points of that treatment.

 

MB: When you compare a lumpectomy versus a mastectomy, a lumpectomy for me was very easy, but when you are going into surgery the first you are going through something like this, you have no idea what’s going on.  I was a nervous wreck.  Thankfully I had a wonderful surgical team, wonderful oncologist, but for a lumpectomy, what they do for my procedure, you go in early that morning and they do something called a wire location of your tumor, your mass, so they go in with an ultrasound on the outside and on the inside they put a wire in your breast and essentially pin the tumor, so the surgeon in the operating room knows how to find it.  My incision was about an inch.  They are amazing what they can do.  I knocked out of course, they go in, they take out your mass, they sew you back up and you go home.  I went home the same day, actually.  Even having cancer twice, I spent a total of two nights in the hospital, so the surgical techniques now are amazing.  I was up and moving around, honestly, a few days later.  It was fairly easy recovery, and a few months later I started radiation.  For seven weeks I had radiation every day.  I would drive to the hospital back and forth, and I learned at that time that books on tape were my best friend, so I wasn’t bored being in the car, I looked forward to being in the car, and essentially my treatment was over the first time around after the lumpectomy, the radiation and then I took tamoxifin, which blocks the cancer from attaching to your cells.

 

BM: We’ve talked about the lumpectomy, but as for the mastectomy, what was the toughest part of that?

 

MB: A mastectomy is challenging, that is for sure.  The changes that it makes in your body, there is the emotional aspect of it because I had my breasts removed, which are part of something I identify with as a woman, but really the physicality of it is very challenging.  I had both done at the same time.  My left breast was a little more because I had been radiated on that breast four years prior, and you cannot expand skin and muscle that has been radiated.  It won’t hold together and since I wanted to have reconstructive surgery, I had to have a latissimus backflap on my left side.  The doctors are amazing.  Once they remove your breast tissue, they go around to your back, underneath the skin and I have an incision on my back about four inches wide and they take skin and muscle, and they wrap it around and pull it underneath and fill out the exterior part of that breast.  I am still amazed that they can do this.  That is how they were able to reconstruct my breast with expanders and allow the fresh, new skin from my back to expand.  I am still in awe of all the things they can do with the human body.

 

BM: Michelle, you bring up something interesting, because we have a guest from a previous interview who is cancer free since 1993, which is a wonderful statistic, but I am guessing you are already processing what she must have gone up against with the technology that existed at that time.

 

MB: Oh, I cannot even imagine.  I know I am very fortunate with the medical advances that we have, and honestly women in ten years are going to be better and maybe in 20 years we won’t have to deal with this anymore.  I am just so fortunate.  I have a wonderful team that really gave me of options and support when I needed it.  As you had asked, Bruce, during the healing portion of the mastectomy, there are times when you cannot lift your arms.  I had to have my family wash and blowdry my hair, to get shirts on and off, and there were times when I couldn’t lift my arms higher than my head.  I have done a lot of physical therapy.  I have myofascial therapy, which is amazing, as it has helped me to move my body again.  Not too long ago, I leaned up to the kitchen counter, reached up to grab something, and said to my husband, “Look!  I can move my arms again!”  It is something you think is never going to happen while it’s happening because there was a lot of depression during that time period because my body had changed so much.  Now I can look back at this and say it does get better.  It takes time, just give your body time to heal and be your own advocate and do you own therapies, do your exercise.  It does get better.  My body has changed, but I am here and that is what’s most important.

 

BM: You make it sound like you are whole again, or pretty close?

 

MB: Yes, I am whole, with some different parts.  In the breast cancer community, we are fond, if we have reconstruction, to show them off.  They were something created by our surgical teams, and we really like to help other women who haven’t gone through it yet to know what they look like.  I used to joke, “You can see them because they are not mine,” but over time I have learned to embrace them again as they are mine, they are part of my body, and really what was taken out was the cancer.  I am still whole because it is a mental thing.  On the outside, no one would know; it’s just me in my head, you know, I am grateful for what I have.

 

BM: Okay, so you can raise your arms like before, but is there anything you could do pre-diagnosis that you can’t do now?

 

MB: One thing that is challenging for is that I am on an aromatase inhibitor.  My cancer fed on estrogen, so they took out my ovaries to stop the estrogen production, but our bodies are smart enough that they take testosterone and turn it into estrogen.  You can’t get rid of everything, so the medication I take now it stops the testosterone from turning into the estrogen and that called aromatase.  I struggle with this medication.  It gives me a lot of joint pain, muscle pain, my hands and my feet hurt a lot, so I cannot be as physically active as I would like.  I don’t go on long hikes, I cannot walk for long periods of time because my feet just ache.  I have found THC products lessen the pain.  I use different oils and rubs and magnesium, I take all my supplements and while those things do help, the physical part of really exercising is tough.  One thing that I love, we purchased a Peloton bike last year and now I can do that because I am not putting pressure on my feet.  I have not been to say I want to exercise and ride my bike, but every day I am anxious to get on my Peloton all the time because I enjoy it and I am moving my body and I am sweating and it is good for me and it doesn’t hurt..  That’s probably the biggest thing that has really changed is that I have had to figure out different ways to move my body that don’t hurt.

 

BM: Let’s go back to the lumpectomy and the mastectomy again.  Knowing what you know now, is there anything that you would have done differently in how you approached those procedures?

 

MB: There is always that part of me that says if I would have gotten that mastectomy that first time, but if I look back on it in a big picture sort of way, it would not have brought me where I am today because I found Breast Friends of Oregon, for whom I work for and have found my best friends through that organization, so I can’t say I wish I would have done it differently; but one thing to remember for anybody before surgeries, trust your surgical team, but if you have any questions, ask them; if you feel like you need a second opinion, go get it.  No one is ever going to be offended by you going to get a second opinion, and if they are, that means you definitely need a second opinion because your surgical team and care team, they are really there to support you and answer all of your questions.  I am very fortunate that I found a great team right off.  I have a nurse navigator who is amazing.  She helped me through my first diagnosis.  She is the one who actually gave me my second diagnosis, so just finding the support you need, that is critical because while you may have wonderful friends and family, and I do have an amazing support system, they haven’t had cancer other than my mother-in-law, but it is really helpful to find people who have been through it because they can be your supporters.  That’s the most important thing to have a really good care team, that you are secure in that, and that you have a good support system in place, because surgeries are no joke.  It is great to have friends who will bring meals to you or even if somebody will do your laundry every now and then.  My sister gave me the best gift.  She paid for house cleaners during my treatment because there were kids and dogs running in and out, so having that, having friends and family who will just be there and surrounding yourself with those people is the best thing you can do for yourself.

 

BM: Let’s talk a little bit more about your support system.  We’ve heard about some of the things that were done to help you along during your cancer journey, before, during and maybe even after.  What are some of the things that you haven’t mentioned by way of support from friends and family.

 

MB: Randomly, just dropping by with coffee or Jamba Juice or flowers, which tell me that, anytime you make an effort you are taking the time to think about me and to do something that will make me happier, I appreciate.  I have another girlfriend who gave me this amazing gift package before my first surgery, which included a cashmere sweater that I wear to this day, lotions, candles, stuff, things that were comforting, that gave me a nice sense of security, and I knew every time I put on that sweater that she was there for me, the house cleaning, the meals, and then there is my husband.  He is 100 percent my rock.  He was always very busy with work, but anytime I was being seen, he was there, bringing me food, helping me with my drains, a whole other side of the mastectomy that is an interesting side of the conversation.  He couldn’t fix me because the medical professionals had to get rid of the cancer and get me to the point in which I had no evidence of disease, but he listened.  Sometimes I had the crazy ravings of a crying woman because I have all this going on and here he is reassuring me that now he is going to love me even though my body is different and my brain is different because cancer, it changes you in a lot of ways, but you need to find those ways to move forward and take those changes and become a better person from it, and I really feel like my support system helped me with that.

 

BM: You mentioned the term ‘cancer brain.’  We have heard the term ‘chemo brain’ from certain guests who encounter this, they have their ways of dealing with it.  They use their cellphone, their Ipad to make mental notes for them about upcoming events.  Have you done that, Michelle?

 

MB: One hundred percent.  If I don’t have a post-it iu front of me or my phone to write something down, don’t talk to me because I cannot remember a lot.  I can remember things I did in high school, but I literally cannot remember anything from two days ago.  It drives my husband crazy, but it one of the gifts that menopause has given because after surgery I was put in a surgical menopause.  Estrogen is really important to our brain functioning and I did not have any of that in my body, and I cannot supplement that, so I was having some memory issues.  It is no fun, but as much as I can, I try to joke about it because there is not a whole lot I can do about it.  I make lists, I take notes, I have found other ways to combat that because I need to know what’s going on, so if I have to write it down, I do.

 

BM: As for Breast Friends, when did you find out about it?

 

MB: I am fortunate enough that I live about a mile from Breast Friends, and I drove by it all the time.  When I went through my first cancer bout in 2012, I really felt like I had an easy journey compared to many and I kind of moved on with my life.  I had my lumpectomy, my radiation, my medication, four years later, in 2017, I had my second round and I went through all of my treatment and I needed to do something.  I was a stay-at-home mom and I took a job at my son’s school as a lunch lady, but literally during lunch time I would talk to the kids, give them bathroom passes, make sure everything was okay, it was two hours a day and I got to be around my son and all of his friends.  The problem was, I couldn’t be on my feet for more than two hours a day.  So, after three days I went to the principal’s office and tell her I can’t do it and it kind sent me into a mental spiral, and I just had this lightbulb go on in my head that said, “go to Breast Friends because you can volunteer there,” because nonprofits always need volunteers.  I left school that day and drive directly to Breast Friends, and I met with Allison Hancock, who is now our Executive Director.  At the time, she was the volunteer coordinator, among many other things, and I gave my application to be a volunteer.  She looked at me and she sensed I had been crying and she took me over to see the director of programs, Yvonne.  I sat down with her in her office, and I cried for an hour, going on about my journey, the challenges I was facing, that I felt useless because I couldn’t even work a short time at my son’s school, and now, she is my best friend.  Yvonne is the silver lining to my cancer journey.  So, I started volunteering there at Breast Friends, basically doing data entry because that is what I am good at.  I am a former chief level executive assistant in my past life, and computers were my strong point.  I was very good at that, scheduling and data entry, all kinds of things like that.  So, that’s what I started to do, data entry for a hat project.  Breast Friends mails out hats free of charge to women around the country who have been through chemo, and they have funny sayings on them.  Anyone out there, if you need them, go to our website, breastfriends.org, and you go to the Programs link and sign up for a funny baseball cap to be delivered to you.  I loved doing that, and I volunteered there for a year and a half, helping with programs, with events I love, with event coordination, setting up gift baskets, silent auctions and they could see I was very passionate about it.  I started volunteering about six hours a week.  Then eventually they called me into the office, and at first, I thought I might be in trouble, and they hired me as an employee.  I was incredibly honored.  That was in early 2019.  I was the programs assistant, so I would help the director, Yvonne, set up workshops, support groups, events, outings, things like that, and she and I were a great team, we worked together really well.  She retired in early 2021, and staffers were moved to different positions.  As a result, I was given the chance to host our weekly podcast, Breast Friends Cancer Support Network.  Now every week I am fortunate enough to be able to interview cancer survivors, practitioners, health care workers, just a variety of people who really are helpful in the cancer community, and I love it.  It really speaks to my heart because I get to talk to people all the time about what they can do to help cancer patients or how cancer has changed their life and made it better.  I could not be happier with what I am doing.

 

BM: Do you see Breast Friends widening its scope even more.  No doubt Breast Friends is doing more now than when it started in 2000, but it could be doing more, say a year from now.

 

MB: Yes!  Actually, here is a rundown of what we do at present.  Breast Friends was founded in the year 2000 by two women, Sharon Henifin and Becky Olson, both cancer survivors.  Becky, sadly, has passed away, so everything we do right now is to honor her memory.  She left us quite a legacy, but the organization was founded so that women do not go through cancer alone.  We have support groups set up around various areas of Portland.  There are walk and talk groups, so people can join in.  There is a young survivors group for women that were diagnosed at a young age that have different challenges than those who were diagnosed late in life.  We have a Rainbow Warrior support group for those in the LGTBQA community because it doesn’t matter who you love, you still get cancer, so we are really there trying to support everyone.  We have a wonderful thing I adore called the Bald Is Beautiful program, where women who have gone through chemo, they get to go get professionally made up, full makeup, they bring in their fun clothes and we take photo shoots of them with a professional photographer and they get all these prints for free, and they get to see that it is not their hair that makes them beautiful, but it is their smile and their inner light.  In the past few years, we have enhanced the program by inviting people’s families to come in.  So, they have their children, their spouses, their animals in the pictures with them, and it is really a good reminder to show them that cancer does not take the light or the beauty from them.  There are so many things that we do, but one thing we would like to expand on is doing some sort of a camp, a sleep away camp for women.  There are a few other organizations already doing this.  In the past, we have done weekend retreats at the Oregon Coast.  We work on thriving beyond cancer or specific issues that support young warriors, but one thing we really hope to do in the future is to go out to a camp that is already established as a summer camp and rent that out for three or four days to have 50 or 100 women there together who can really come together and listen to facilitators talk about issues that are important to them.  That is something on our bucket list.  It is something that is not inexpensive, so we have applied for some grants.

 

BM: One other thing that we want to ask before we wrap things up.  All these things are of course available in the Portland metro area, but in this internet-driven society, are there services from Breast Friends that can be accessed in Indiana, Alabama and beyond?

 

MB: Yes, definitely.  Before we were mainly virtual, we were open to those mainly in the Portland area because that is where we were based, but now we have expanded into many Zoom programs, and now many of our support groups are now over Zoom because we can reach a bigger audience.

 

BM: Before we get our final question, let’s let people know how they can get hold of Breast Friends, with web address and any other pertinent information.

 

MB: We can be reached online at breastfriends.org.  You can click on the patient programs for the different services that we have, there is a calendar where you can look at the different upcoming events, which are either in person or virtual and you can sign up there.  You can hear me on a weekly basis at Breast Friends Cancer Support Network on Voice America or all of the regular podcast platforms, so please subscribe because I would love to expand my reach, as I feel that what we are doing is really valuable for connection and inspiration, and I hope listeners out there do as well.  You can follow us on Instagram at BreastFriendsPDX, we do have a Breast Friends of Oregon Facebook page.

 

BM: All right, Michelle.  We are going to wrap up and we are going to wrap up the way we always do.  If you found yourself in a one-on-one situation with someone who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer, there might be many things you would want to say to them, but what single message would be top of mind?

 

MB: That they are not alone and no matter what they are going through, it does get better.  They might be having surgery or craziness or they might be living with the disease, but they should surround themselves with support.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  There’s no place for pride in cancer treatment because we all need help and inspiration at one time or another.  And be your best advocate.

 

BM: Wonderful, Michelle, and wise and inspirational words those are, not only for what you have gone through, but what for what you are still doing.  Thanks so much for taking the time to be with us.

 

MB: Thanks, Bruce, and I would love to come back at any time.

 

BM: We’ll keep that in mind.  That concludes this episode of Cancer Interviews, and until next time, we’ll see you on down the road.


Michelle Beck…

 

Bruce Morton: Greetings and welcome to the Cancer Interviews podcast.  Thanks for joining us.  I’m your host, Bruce Morton.  It is tough enough to go through one cancer journey, but for some, they have to fight off cancer more than once.  Our guest on this episode is Michelle Beck of Tigard, Oregon.  Not only is she a two-time breast cancer survivor, but she continues to carry the fight by doing what she can to help others diagnosed with breast cancer.  So, without further adieu, here she is, Michelle Beck.  Michelle, welcome to Cancer Interviews.

 

Michelle Beck: Bruce, thank you so much for having me.  I am honored to be here to share my story on your platform, so thank you.

 

BM: And we look forward to hearing it, but before we get into the cancer-related part of your story, we would like to hear about life, exclusive of cancer.  So, if you would, tell us about where you are from, what you do for work, and when time allows for fun, what you like to do for fun.

 

MB: Sure thing.  I am actually from Southern California, but I now live in Tigard, Oregon, just south of Portland.  I have been here since 2008, and I love it.  I needed the change, left Southern California and found a whole new life.  I have been happily married since 2010, have a ten-year-old son and four other bonus kids, aged 16 to 23.  I work in an organization called Breast Friends of Oregon, which helps women goes through breast cancer or other types of cancer, letting them know that they have the support and they are not alone.  I also host a podcast of my own, called Breast Friends Cancer Support Network, which is the joy of my life, and I love that I am having such a wonderful time with it.  I don’t have a lot of free time, but when some comes my way, my husband and I have a travel trailer and we love to take it out, especially to the Oregon Coast.  We have two daughters who go with us, a Golden Retriever and a Black Lab, so, my life is pretty full.

 

BM: What are some of the things you like about Oregon that you left behind when you left Southern California?

 

MB: I love the weather.  I love that there are actually seasons here.  Fall is my favorite.  It is the most gorgeous time of year.  Every fall I take out my camera and take pictures of all the beautiful leaves, and I love rain.  I think rain is refreshing and it is cleansing, and I love the cooler temperatures.  I am not super outdoorsy, but I love having that option.  We try to get outside when we can and enjoy the beauty that Oregon holds.

 

BM: If you go back to your life pre-diagnosis, what was you health like at that point?

 

MB: I was pretty healthy.  I was a later-in-life mom, I had my son at 39.  He was a toddler, and I was staying at home with him.  I had waited so long to become a mom, and I was enjoying life.  Everything was good, and it, my diagnosis, just hit me out of the blue.

BM: I did read up on you and learned that family did a bit of a history with breast cancer.  To any degree did that prepare you or somehow reduce the shock level when you got this horrific news?

 

MB: It’s a funny question because I had this funny feeling in my head that I always knew I was going to get breast cancer.  Maybe I am a little bit of a fatalist in that way.  I try to be positive, but there are some little things that creep into your head.  I had watched my father’s mother.  She died from breast cancer after being diagnosed three times in 25 years.  At the end, I was between jobs and life situations, so I got to spend a great deal of time with her, which I so value to this day; but in the back of my head, there was always this little thing, that this could really happen to me.  When it did, though, it was so incredibly shocking to hear those words, “You have cancer.”  Even though it happened to my grandmother, and it happened to my mother-in-law the year my husband and I married, it was definitely a part of my life, but when it happens with you, it just sends you into survival mode.

 

BM: Could you describe the chain of events that led to your first diagnosis?

 

MB: Sure.  I was first diagnosed in 2012.  I had my regular mammograms scheduled in December.  I had started at age 37 because I had the family history and I wanted to make sure I was being proactive.  I got the call saying I needed to come back, and they said I have a mass they would like to take a look at.  I was fortunate to have my husband go with me to have the ultrasound and the biopsy.  It is like nothing I had ever experienced.  If you have had that biopsy, you know it is no fun.  The biopsy is like a stapler going off in your body and there is no way to prepare for that.  Once I had the procedures done, I already knew I had cancer.  I wasn’t positive until they called two days later to confirm.  I got my diagnosis confirmation on December seventh, which I always joke that it is a date that will ‘forever live in infamy’, not that my body is like Pearl Harbor, but it is a date I will never forget because it led to huge changes in my life.  I remember that day, driving home from the appointment, talking to my mother.  I lied to my mom, which was unusual, because even as an adult, I never lie to my mom, because I didn’t want her to worry unless there was something to worry about.  I think about that later, and it was so traumatic, having to go back and tell my parents, even though I was 41 years old, that I had breast cancer, especially my father because his mother had passed from it.  That was incredibly hard.

 

BM: It sounds like, Michelle, for a number of reasons you were sort of prepared for this news, a singular moment and not in a good way.  Obviously, this wasn’t pleasant, but what was your reaction as you thought about the present and the future?

 

MB: Complete shock.  Since I had lived with it with my grandmother, I had always said to my husband, if this ever happens to me, I am getting a mastectomy, I am getting rid of my breasts, I don’t need them.  However, when it actually happened to me, I couldn’t make that decision.  I am very lucky that my diagnosis was caught early.  I was Stage One.  I was ERPR+/HER2-, which in the cancer community, that is the best cancer to have because it is the most treatable.  My oncologist told me I have choices.  I didn’t want choices.  I wanted them to tell me what to do, but I opted for a lumpectomy with radiation because my chances of survival were the same versus a mastectomy.  At the time, my son was 18 months old, and I was not ready to give up the cuddle time, all of the things that went with that if I could just have a lumpectomy with radiation, and so, that’s what I chose.  Silly me.  Four years later in January 2017, I got smart, and I moved my mammograms from December until January because I hit my deductibles two years in a row when I had my cancer the first time, and I was not going to do that again, so moved them to January.  Then I had another occurrence in my other breast, in 2017.  My husband, bless his heart, in 2012 he had wanted me to get a mastectomy, and I chose not to.  In 2017, he was kind enough not say, ‘I told you so.’  At the right time in 2012, that was the right thing for me to do.  With my second battle in 2017, it was different.  I had a primary occurrence in my other breast, same diagnosis, almost identical to my first one, but at that point, I was like, okay, shame on me, not twice, so I opted to have a bilateral mastectomy with full reconstruction and a full hysterectomy because my ovaries were still producing estrogen and my cancer fed on estrogen.  As such, 2017 was an insanely difficult year for me.  I can laugh about some parts of it now and cry about some things still, but I am here and that is what’s so important. 

 

BM: Michelle, let’s go backwards just a bit.  For somebody who is watching and thinks they might be a candidate for breast cancer, they might want to know more about the lumpectomy.  If you would, just relive some of the key points of that treatment.

 

MB: When you compare a lumpectomy versus a mastectomy, a lumpectomy for me was very easy, but when you are going into surgery the first you are going through something like this, you have no idea what’s going on.  I was a nervous wreck.  Thankfully I had a wonderful surgical team, wonderful oncologist, but for a lumpectomy, what they do for my procedure, you go in early that morning and they do something called a wire location of your tumor, your mass, so they go in with an ultrasound on the outside and on the inside they put a wire in your breast and essentially pin the tumor, so the surgeon in the operating room knows how to find it.  My incision was about an inch.  They are amazing what they can do.  I knocked out of course, they go in, they take out your mass, they sew you back up and you go home.  I went home the same day, actually.  Even having cancer twice, I spent a total of two nights in the hospital, so the surgical techniques now are amazing.  I was up and moving around, honestly, a few days later.  It was fairly easy recovery, and a few months later I started radiation.  For seven weeks I had radiation every day.  I would drive to the hospital back and forth, and I learned at that time that books on tape were my best friend, so I wasn’t bored being in the car, I looked forward to being in the car, and essentially my treatment was over the first time around after the lumpectomy, the radiation and then I took tamoxifin, which blocks the cancer from attaching to your cells.

 

BM: We’ve talked about the lumpectomy, but as for the mastectomy, what was the toughest part of that?

 

MB: A mastectomy is challenging, that is for sure.  The changes that it makes in your body, there is the emotional aspect of it because I had my breasts removed, which are part of something I identify with as a woman, but really the physicality of it is very challenging.  I had both done at the same time.  My left breast was a little more because I had been radiated on that breast four years prior, and you cannot expand skin and muscle that has been radiated.  It won’t hold together and since I wanted to have reconstructive surgery, I had to have a latissimus backflap on my left side.  The doctors are amazing.  Once they remove your breast tissue, they go around to your back, underneath the skin and I have an incision on my back about four inches wide and they take skin and muscle, and they wrap it around and pull it underneath and fill out the exterior part of that breast.  I am still amazed that they can do this.  That is how they were able to reconstruct my breast with expanders and allow the fresh, new skin from my back to expand.  I am still in awe of all the things they can do with the human body.

 

BM: Michelle, you bring up something interesting, because we have a guest from a previous interview who is cancer free since 1993, which is a wonderful statistic, but I am guessing you are already processing what she must have gone up against with the technology that existed at that time.

 

MB: Oh, I cannot even imagine.  I know I am very fortunate with the medical advances that we have, and honestly women in ten years are going to be better and maybe in 20 years we won’t have to deal with this anymore.  I am just so fortunate.  I have a wonderful team that really gave me of options and support when I needed it.  As you had asked, Bruce, during the healing portion of the mastectomy, there are times when you cannot lift your arms.  I had to have my family wash and blowdry my hair, to get shirts on and off, and there were times when I couldn’t lift my arms higher than my head.  I have done a lot of physical therapy.  I have myofascial therapy, which is amazing, as it has helped me to move my body again.  Not too long ago, I leaned up to the kitchen counter, reached up to grab something, and said to my husband, “Look!  I can move my arms again!”  It is something you think is never going to happen while it’s happening because there was a lot of depression during that time period because my body had changed so much.  Now I can look back at this and say it does get better.  It takes time, just give your body time to heal and be your own advocate and do you own therapies, do your exercise.  It does get better.  My body has changed, but I am here and that is what’s most important.

 

BM: You make it sound like you are whole again, or pretty close?

 

MB: Yes, I am whole, with some different parts.  In the breast cancer community, we are fond, if we have reconstruction, to show them off.  They were something created by our surgical teams, and we really like to help other women who haven’t gone through it yet to know what they look like.  I used to joke, “You can see them because they are not mine,” but over time I have learned to embrace them again as they are mine, they are part of my body, and really what was taken out was the cancer.  I am still whole because it is a mental thing.  On the outside, no one would know; it’s just me in my head, you know, I am grateful for what I have.

 

BM: Okay, so you can raise your arms like before, but is there anything you could do pre-diagnosis that you can’t do now?

 

MB: One thing that is challenging for is that I am on an aromatase inhibitor.  My cancer fed on estrogen, so they took out my ovaries to stop the estrogen production, but our bodies are smart enough that they take testosterone and turn it into estrogen.  You can’t get rid of everything, so the medication I take now it stops the testosterone from turning into the estrogen and that called aromatase.  I struggle with this medication.  It gives me a lot of joint pain, muscle pain, my hands and my feet hurt a lot, so I cannot be as physically active as I would like.  I don’t go on long hikes, I cannot walk for long periods of time because my feet just ache.  I have found THC products lessen the pain.  I use different oils and rubs and magnesium, I take all my supplements and while those things do help, the physical part of really exercising is tough.  One thing that I love, we purchased a Peloton bike last year and now I can do that because I am not putting pressure on my feet.  I have not been to say I want to exercise and ride my bike, but every day I am anxious to get on my Peloton all the time because I enjoy it and I am moving my body and I am sweating and it is good for me and it doesn’t hurt..  That’s probably the biggest thing that has really changed is that I have had to figure out different ways to move my body that don’t hurt.

 

BM: Let’s go back to the lumpectomy and the mastectomy again.  Knowing what you know now, is there anything that you would have done differently in how you approached those procedures?

 

MB: There is always that part of me that says if I would have gotten that mastectomy that first time, but if I look back on it in a big picture sort of way, it would not have brought me where I am today because I found Breast Friends of Oregon, for whom I work for and have found my best friends through that organization, so I can’t say I wish I would have done it differently; but one thing to remember for anybody before surgeries, trust your surgical team, but if you have any questions, ask them; if you feel like you need a second opinion, go get it.  No one is ever going to be offended by you going to get a second opinion, and if they are, that means you definitely need a second opinion because your surgical team and care team, they are really there to support you and answer all of your questions.  I am very fortunate that I found a great team right off.  I have a nurse navigator who is amazing.  She helped me through my first diagnosis.  She is the one who actually gave me my second diagnosis, so just finding the support you need, that is critical because while you may have wonderful friends and family, and I do have an amazing support system, they haven’t had cancer other than my mother-in-law, but it is really helpful to find people who have been through it because they can be your supporters.  That’s the most important thing to have a really good care team, that you are secure in that, and that you have a good support system in place, because surgeries are no joke.  It is great to have friends who will bring meals to you or even if somebody will do your laundry every now and then.  My sister gave me the best gift.  She paid for house cleaners during my treatment because there were kids and dogs running in and out, so having that, having friends and family who will just be there and surrounding yourself with those people is the best thing you can do for yourself.

 

BM: Let’s talk a little bit more about your support system.  We’ve heard about some of the things that were done to help you along during your cancer journey, before, during and maybe even after.  What are some of the things that you haven’t mentioned by way of support from friends and family.

 

MB: Randomly, just dropping by with coffee or Jamba Juice or flowers, which tell me that, anytime you make an effort you are taking the time to think about me and to do something that will make me happier, I appreciate.  I have another girlfriend who gave me this amazing gift package before my first surgery, which included a cashmere sweater that I wear to this day, lotions, candles, stuff, things that were comforting, that gave me a nice sense of security, and I knew every time I put on that sweater that she was there for me, the house cleaning, the meals, and then there is my husband.  He is 100 percent my rock.  He was always very busy with work, but anytime I was being seen, he was there, bringing me food, helping me with my drains, a whole other side of the mastectomy that is an interesting side of the conversation.  He couldn’t fix me because the medical professionals had to get rid of the cancer and get me to the point in which I had no evidence of disease, but he listened.  Sometimes I had the crazy ravings of a crying woman because I have all this going on and here he is reassuring me that now he is going to love me even though my body is different and my brain is different because cancer, it changes you in a lot of ways, but you need to find those ways to move forward and take those changes and become a better person from it, and I really feel like my support system helped me with that.

 

BM: You mentioned the term ‘cancer brain.’  We have heard the term ‘chemo brain’ from certain guests who encounter this, they have their ways of dealing with it.  They use their cellphone, their Ipad to make mental notes for them about upcoming events.  Have you done that, Michelle?

 

MB: One hundred percent.  If I don’t have a post-it iu front of me or my phone to write something down, don’t talk to me because I cannot remember a lot.  I can remember things I did in high school, but I literally cannot remember anything from two days ago.  It drives my husband crazy, but it one of the gifts that menopause has given because after surgery I was put in a surgical menopause.  Estrogen is really important to our brain functioning and I did not have any of that in my body, and I cannot supplement that, so I was having some memory issues.  It is no fun, but as much as I can, I try to joke about it because there is not a whole lot I can do about it.  I make lists, I take notes, I have found other ways to combat that because I need to know what’s going on, so if I have to write it down, I do.

 

BM: As for Breast Friends, when did you find out about it?

 

MB: I am fortunate enough that I live about a mile from Breast Friends, and I drove by it all the time.  When I went through my first cancer bout in 2012, I really felt like I had an easy journey compared to many and I kind of moved on with my life.  I had my lumpectomy, my radiation, my medication, four years later, in 2017, I had my second round and I went through all of my treatment and I needed to do something.  I was a stay-at-home mom and I took a job at my son’s school as a lunch lady, but literally during lunch time I would talk to the kids, give them bathroom passes, make sure everything was okay, it was two hours a day and I got to be around my son and all of his friends.  The problem was, I couldn’t be on my feet for more than two hours a day.  So, after three days I went to the principal’s office and tell her I can’t do it and it kind sent me into a mental spiral, and I just had this lightbulb go on in my head that said, “go to Breast Friends because you can volunteer there,” because nonprofits always need volunteers.  I left school that day and drive directly to Breast Friends, and I met with Allison Hancock, who is now our Executive Director.  At the time, she was the volunteer coordinator, among many other things, and I gave my application to be a volunteer.  She looked at me and she sensed I had been crying and she took me over to see the director of programs, Yvonne.  I sat down with her in her office, and I cried for an hour, going on about my journey, the challenges I was facing, that I felt useless because I couldn’t even work a short time at my son’s school, and now, she is my best friend.  Yvonne is the silver lining to my cancer journey.  So, I started volunteering there at Breast Friends, basically doing data entry because that is what I am good at.  I am a former chief level executive assistant in my past life, and computers were my strong point.  I was very good at that, scheduling and data entry, all kinds of things like that.  So, that’s what I started to do, data entry for a hat project.  Breast Friends mails out hats free of charge to women around the country who have been through chemo, and they have funny sayings on them.  Anyone out there, if you need them, go to our website, breastfriends.org, and you go to the Programs link and sign up for a funny baseball cap to be delivered to you.  I loved doing that, and I volunteered there for a year and a half, helping with programs, with events I love, with event coordination, setting up gift baskets, silent auctions and they could see I was very passionate about it.  I started volunteering about six hours a week.  Then eventually they called me into the office, and at first, I thought I might be in trouble, and they hired me as an employee.  I was incredibly honored.  That was in early 2019.  I was the programs assistant, so I would help the director, Yvonne, set up workshops, support groups, events, outings, things like that, and she and I were a great team, we worked together really well.  She retired in early 2021, and staffers were moved to different positions.  As a result, I was given the chance to host our weekly podcast, Breast Friends Cancer Support Network.  Now every week I am fortunate enough to be able to interview cancer survivors, practitioners, health care workers, just a variety of people who really are helpful in the cancer community, and I love it.  It really speaks to my heart because I get to talk to people all the time about what they can do to help cancer patients or how cancer has changed their life and made it better.  I could not be happier with what I am doing.

 

BM: Do you see Breast Friends widening its scope even more.  No doubt Breast Friends is doing more now than when it started in 2000, but it could be doing more, say a year from now.

 

MB: Yes!  Actually, here is a rundown of what we do at present.  Breast Friends was founded in the year 2000 by two women, Sharon Henifin and Becky Olson, both cancer survivors.  Becky, sadly, has passed away, so everything we do right now is to honor her memory.  She left us quite a legacy, but the organization was founded so that women do not go through cancer alone.  We have support groups set up around various areas of Portland.  There are walk and talk groups, so people can join in.  There is a young survivors group for women that were diagnosed at a young age that have different challenges than those who were diagnosed late in life.  We have a Rainbow Warrior support group for those in the LGTBQA community because it doesn’t matter who you love, you still get cancer, so we are really there trying to support everyone.  We have a wonderful thing I adore called the Bald Is Beautiful program, where women who have gone through chemo, they get to go get professionally made up, full makeup, they bring in their fun clothes and we take photo shoots of them with a professional photographer and they get all these prints for free, and they get to see that it is not their hair that makes them beautiful, but it is their smile and their inner light.  In the past few years, we have enhanced the program by inviting people’s families to come in.  So, they have their children, their spouses, their animals in the pictures with them, and it is really a good reminder to show them that cancer does not take the light or the beauty from them.  There are so many things that we do, but one thing we would like to expand on is doing some sort of a camp, a sleep away camp for women.  There are a few other organizations already doing this.  In the past, we have done weekend retreats at the Oregon Coast.  We work on thriving beyond cancer or specific issues that support young warriors, but one thing we really hope to do in the future is to go out to a camp that is already established as a summer camp and rent that out for three or four days to have 50 or 100 women there together who can really come together and listen to facilitators talk about issues that are important to them.  That is something on our bucket list.  It is something that is not inexpensive, so we have applied for some grants.

 

BM: One other thing that we want to ask before we wrap things up.  All these things are of course available in the Portland metro area, but in this internet-driven society, are there services from Breast Friends that can be accessed in Indiana, Alabama and beyond?

 

MB: Yes, definitely.  Before we were mainly virtual, we were open to those mainly in the Portland area because that is where we were based, but now we have expanded into many Zoom programs, and now many of our support groups are now over Zoom because we can reach a bigger audience.

 

BM: Before we get our final question, let’s let people know how they can get hold of Breast Friends, with web address and any other pertinent information.

 

MB: We can be reached online at breastfriends.org.  You can click on the patient programs for the different services that we have, there is a calendar where you can look at the different upcoming events, which are either in person or virtual and you can sign up there.  You can hear me on a weekly basis at Breast Friends Cancer Support Network on Voice America or all of the regular podcast platforms, so please subscribe because I would love to expand my reach, as I feel that what we are doing is really valuable for connection and inspiration, and I hope listeners out there do as well.  You can follow us on Instagram at BreastFriendsPDX, we do have a Breast Friends of Oregon Facebook page.

 

BM: All right, Michelle.  We are going to wrap up and we are going to wrap up the way we always do.  If you found yourself in a one-on-one situation with someone who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer, there might be many things you would want to say to them, but what single message would be top of mind?

 

MB: That they are not alone and no matter what they are going through, it does get better.  They might be having surgery or craziness or they might be living with the disease, but they should surround themselves with support.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  There’s no place for pride in cancer treatment because we all need help and inspiration at one time or another.  And be your best advocate.

 

BM: Wonderful, Michelle, and wise and inspirational words those are, not only for what you have gone through, but what for what you are still doing.  Thanks so much for taking the time to be with us.

 

MB: Thanks, Bruce, and I would love to come back at any time.

 

BM: We’ll keep that in mind.  That concludes this episode of Cancer Interviews, and until next time, we’ll see you on down the road.

 



 


תגובה אחת


Michelle Beck
Michelle Beck
03 ביולי

Sharing a cancer story can be so traumatic, but Cancer Interviews helped me to feel at ease with telling the nitty gritty details of my two breast cancer diagnosis and beyond! Thank you!

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