“Cancer wasn’t even on my radar. I knew something may be wrong because I was having some bleeding—I thought I had IBS or allergies. But cancer, no way. I didn’t even have an inkling,” she said of her shocking diagnosis.
Michelle’s journey started after her third daughter was born. She was having some bleeding and mentioned it to her PCP at her annual physical. Her doctor referred her to a GI doctor to get checked out, which she did right away. She described her GI exam as a “light check” with the doctor who did not recommend additional tests or follow-up.
Michelle recalls, “I specifically remember the doctor saying, ‘nothing warrants me to think you need a colonoscopy.’ Then a year went by until my next physical when I mentioned at the very end of my appointment that I was still bleeding. My PCP dropped everything and told me I needed a colonoscopy. She literally saved my life.”
A few days after the test, Michelle received the dreaded news from the doctors that they found a tumor and thought it was cancer. She describes feeling very helpless and in a fog when she was diagnosed with stage 3-plus colorectal cancer. She remembers a doctor handing her a phone number of a specialist to call and “try to get on their schedule.” This was completely uncharted territory for Michelle. No one in her immediate family has ever been diagnosed with cancer. She was at a loss and said, “My head was spinning. I didn’t even know where to start.” Luckily, she had a friend whose husband had a similar diagnosis and quickly put Michelle in touch with her husband’s care team at UC Health.
“Once I got into the system, they handled everything. I was expedited because I was stage 3-plus. I was hooked up with a coordinator the first day and they handled everything. They had it all mapped out. I didn’t have to think—I just had to show up. I was taking in the enormity of it all and I needed someone to tell me what to do.”
“They told me that they didn’t think I’d be able to work. In my head, I said, ‘watch me…watch me.’ That was the thing that got me through it all. It was a distraction.”
— Michelle Blood, Colorectal Cancer Survivor & Eternal Optimist
She began an aggressive treatment regimen that included eight rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, and two surgeries where 12-inches of her colon was removed. As a result of her treatment, she suffered severe neuropathy, facial twitches, nausea, and felt extremely run down from it all. Yet, somehow Michelle didn’t miss a beat at work and continued to show up every day even though she was fighting for her life. “They told me that they didn’t think I’d be able to work. In my head, I said, ‘watch me…watch me.’ That was the thing that got me through it all. It was a distraction,” she said.
What’s more, her girls also needed their mom and were old enough to know what was going on. Michelle remembers, “I put on a happy face as much as I could. I was so grateful the day they told me that I wouldn’t lose my hair. It would thin, but I wouldn’t lose it. I felt such a sense of relief for my kids. They didn’t need another visual reminder that Mom is sick.”
Throughout all of this, Michelle also found strength in those around her. “I truly believe in the power of friendships and family. I got some really amazing advice from a friend. She told me that now is my time to receive. As women, as moms, we are so proud and think we can do it all. I took her advice and let people in. That was the turning point for me. So much love was felt,” she said tearfully.
Michelle battled cancer with all she had and won. Her determination and will to live undoubtedly fueled her fight. She is cancer-free and now on a mission to pay it forward whenever given the opportunity to help. And, even though she fought to the brink, she has no regrets. “I wouldn’t trade this journey for anything. It taught me and my girls so many lessons. Every day is a gift. You just don’t know and must live with kindness and graciousness.”
There was one thing Michelle had to do before moving beyond her cancer experience. She had to get back in touch with the GI doctor who initially missed her diagnosis. It was her “calling to save others” and after a few attempts to get in touch, she finally got the doctor on the phone. “I said, ‘I’m not calling out of anger. I’m calling because I need to tell you that there is never a too young anymore.’ I told her she missed the mark and I was fighting for my life.”
Of course, the doctor was beside herself and completely devastated. But Michelle’s intention was to tell the doctor that cancer doesn’t care how old you are or what your family history is. It’s ruthless and indiscriminate. “Nine times out of 10 it’s nothing, but what if it is something? You just never know and it’s always better to know for sure,” Michelle said.
Michelle is a warrior who faced cancer with grace, courage, and ultimately kicked its butt. She is unstoppable and an inspiration to anyone who faces adversity. Thank you, Michelle, for sharing your courageous story. You’re truly amazing!
It’s hard for me to describe Halle without using clichés and metaphors that people normally use to describe their role models; Brave, strong, and resilient are the first ones to come to mind when thinking about my sister and not-coincidentally the same ones little kids use to describe a superhero. Though she has all the qualities of a modern-day Wonder Woman, it was her wit, confidence, and spirit of adventure that made me sure she had what it takes to save the world. It wasn’t until her cancer diagnosis during her sophomore year of college did I truly realize the sheer power of my sister.
My sister left our hometown of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, for Atlanta, Georgia, in the summer of 2014 to attend Emory University. Halle’s transition to college was seamless. She was a standout runner on the Emory University cross country team and led her team to the national championship meet in her first season. She began studying environmental science and economics, and found a tight group of friends.
I remember visiting Halle for my spring break during her freshman year. I admired how perfectly she juggled the academic, athletic, and social demands of college so effortlessly. Everyone on her dorm floor knew and loved her. Her cross country coach talked about her grit and toughness. Halle returned to campus the next fall excited to pick up where she left off.
During the start of her sophomore cross country season, Halle found herself sleeping more and having less energy. “I just started feeling kind of run-down”. After undergoing testing at Emory Hospital, Halle was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She had just turned 21.
Halle recalls, “It was a pretty crazy, weird time for all of that to be happening. Since I was over 18, I had to be the one to tell my parents.” Despite our family being in Ohio, Halle decided to stay at Emory to keep her life as normal as possible. Although she could no longer compete on the cross country and track team, Halle continued a rigorous course load while incorporating cancer into her college routine. “The hospital was right on campus, so I would almost just treat going to the doctor as my next class.”
Not only did Halle have to deal with the physical and emotional stress of cancer, but she also had to manage the stress of college. “You’re stressed out because you have a final, but you don’t actually care that much because you just had a doctor’s appointment that was way more important.”
Halle says she would have gone home to get treatment if it wasn’t for the incredible advocacy and effectiveness of her nurse navigators. “I had an awesome team. It was kind of a weird case, I had all these different endocrine issues going on and they just wanted to take care of me. They were exhausting a lot of brainpower and making sure that they were being creative and innovative. Honestly, the majority of it was how transparent they were with me the whole time. That was huge.”
“Though she has all the qualities of a modern-day Wonder Woman, it was her wit, confidence, and spirit of adventure that made me sure she had what it takes to save the world. It wasn’t until her cancer diagnosis during her sophomore year of college did I truly realize the sheer power of my sister.“
Halle’s first surgery was a partial lobectomy. “I went home for surgery over fall break and thought I could recover after fall break and have my finals perfectly lined up. That, of course, didn’t happen.” Unfortunately, later tests showed the cancer metastasized to the remaining half of her thyroid and lymph nodes. “Instead of having this ‘Found out, got it fixed, done with’ (experience), it spread it out through a good chunk of my college experience.”
During all of this, Halle was mourning the loss of that sport that she has been competing in her whole life, as well as mourning the loss of life as a normal college student. I have always looked up to Halle for her ability to use her own light to brighten times of darkness, but even during this, she was focused on shielding me from the trauma she was experiencing.
“One of the things that I would go back and do over is change how I internalized a lot of it because it wasn’t a fun conversation I wanted to have. I think that is something I would do sometimes in the beginning, but then I just realized that is never going to work. If I wanted to have fun and keep my friendships, I was going to have to be a little more open about what was going on.” With our family 700-miles away, Halle had to learn to lean on her friends. “I would try to have fun with my friends, go on walks, go out if I felt up to it—just trying not to set my entire focus on this”.
Halle underwent radioactive iodine treatment that she described as “you basically take a pill of radioactive iodine and for the next 30 days you’re radioactive” to make sure the surgeries worked.
Directly after treatment, she was quarantined for a week and a half in an American Cancer Society home, which was located near Emory’s campus. Halle remembers her friends leaving her treats and presents at her door daily. Our parents were able to come down and quarantine with her after the risk of contact radiation decreased. After 30 days, Halle went back to the doctors. On February 15 of 2017, Halle was declared cancer-free.
“I feel brave,” Halle said confidently. “It was something I did and a lot of it on my own. It was scary, but I feel like there are a lot of things I can do now because I overcame this.” Halle said she learned a lot about herself through her experience. “I learned I can empower people through my story so making them feel a little more comfortable in helping people who have gone through something hard like that or need to empathize with something that is going on in their life.”
Despite all of this, Halle graduated from college a semester early and moved to Denver, CO, a few weeks later to begin a consulting program with Oracle. Halle became a “Love Your Melon” ambassador and is committed to destigmatizing cancer.
“I have a pretty funky scar that goes over my neck, so whenever I see someone that has a similar scar, I ask about it, which some people think is rude. So much of what has helped me is believing that it’s a shared experience.” She says making cancer “a little more normal” helps her and others overcome.
This month, and every month before and after, I have been the proudest little sister. I am extremely honored to celebrate my sister’s story and all other cancer warriors during Cancer Survivor Month.
Just like most U.S. hospitals, St. Peter’s Health, where Jamie works in Montana, is limiting the number of people coming to the hospital. As a result, many of Jamie’s patients are forced to come to their appointments alone.
“Right now, some of my patients need a little extra support,” said Jamie. “I’m the extra set of ears and an extra set of eyes in the room. I help ask questions and write down notes so they can tell their family what’s going on.” Of course, Jamie doesn’t mind being there for her patients. She absolutely loves this part of her job and a pandemic isn’t going to change the way she cares for them.
Montana hasn’t had a lot of COVID cases to date, but Jamie said her community has taken the necessary precautions to slow the spread of the virus. Only a few of her patients are coming in for appointments and the rest are using telehealth to stay in touch with their doctors.
“This has put some stress on patients, but I just make sure they know that we’re still here taking care of them,” Jamie said. “We always want to make sure people have everything they absolutely need.”
Whether Jamie sees her patients in person or connects over a video call, she always takes the time to check-in and be there for her patients. So even though COVID-19 has changed the way Jamie helps her patients navigate cancer, it hasn’t changed her commitment to them.
“Whether or not there’s a virus, people still have cancer,” she said. “We’re just here to help them with whatever they need right now and always.”
“I’m the extra set of ears and an extra set of eyes in the room. I help ask questions and write down notes so they can tell their family what’s going on.”
— Jamie Wilcox, Nurse Navigator at St. Peter’s Health
Jamie Wilcox is a true patient champion. She works tirelessly to keep her patients informed and is always a source of encouragement. Thank you for everything you do, Jamie.