Michelle Holstein’s family had no history of cancer until 2003. At age 40, Michelle, raised in San Antonio and a longtime Bay Area resident, was diagnosed with Stage IIb breast cancer. Multiple surgeries, chemo and radiation followed. She expected a full recovery. One of her oncologists described her experience as a “bump in the road.” The bump turned into a mountain. She’s turned it into another bump.
In 2010, Michelle’s cancer came back. By 2011, it was Stage IV, spread to her brain and liver. Doctors gave her 6 to 12 months. Michelle could have become bitter and withdrawn. She took the opposite approach.
Michelle’s 2011 prognosis prompted her to ask questions: What do you do with that news? How do you live your life? What’s important? “Suddenly,” she says, “there’s a lot that’s not important.”
Her work was important, so Michelle continued as a quality-assurance specialist at Genentech. She’s still there. She also stayed close with her support team—people she deems positive and strong with a wicked, irreverent, sometimes black sense of humor. They make a difference she says. “They treat me normally.”
Radiation and medications granted a “reprieve.” The side effects weren’t pleasant. Hair loss was the least of it. Taxotere made Michelle feel like she was walking through a swarm of fireflies. “Wherever one hit me, it would burn like an ember then fade.” Xeloda made her hands and feet turn red, tender and blister. A radiation treatment required her to wear a Hannibal Lecter-type mask with only small holes for her nose and mouth. She couldn’t open her eyes or speak. Recently, fluid was removed from around her heart.
But there’s a bright—let me say dazzling—side to Michelle’s story. “Cancer is not the death sentence it once was,” she says. “It’s becoming more of a chronic illness to be managed.” Michelle manages her cancer with a very positive outlook. “What you have to go through will be the same, but if you smile, are pleasant, can have fun with it, even laugh and take it in stride, things go much easier.”
When Michelle lost her hair, she walked around bald to demystify the disease. “You can still be strong and beautiful and out in the world.” She takes strength from “an amazing family and friends” while serving as the “go-to cancer lady” at work—someone people can talk to about loved ones’ encounters with the disease.
Diving headfirst into life, Michelle indulges in random acts of kindness while taking greater joy in dancing, the beach, sunshine, laughing kids and babies, gardening, quiet time and “simple beauty.” She also cites a wonderful development: “Pre-cancer I was very guarded and stingy with the word love. Cancer brought down that wall. I’ve learned to love and be loved.”
Michelle has learned much about dealing with doctors and people who mean well but say foolish things. However, her best advice resonates for all of us: “Seek out things that make you laugh, make you happy, make you feel comfortable and secure.” To which we can all say, “Amen!”
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Read a review of my new novel The Boy Walker. Then order soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com or iUniverse.com. Check out my short-short story “White on White” in the Winter 2014 online edition of Summerset Review.