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 Michelle could have become bitter and withdrawn.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!”

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read a review of my new novel The Boy Walker. Then order soft cover or e-book at, or Check out my short-short story “White on White” in the Winter 2014 online edition of Summerset Review.


  1. Carolyn Perlstein on January 3, 2014 at 7:17 pm

    Bravo! Michelle is a real hero; you are a mensch for writing this.

    • David on January 3, 2014 at 9:52 pm

      Michelle truly inspires me.

  2. Ron Laupheimer on January 3, 2014 at 7:25 pm

    I agree with Carolyn. Thanks for writing this. What a positive story, just like you are. Anyone reading this should see how important it is to get one’s priorities correct. A great way to start off the New Year. Keep it up (which I know you will)!

    • David on January 3, 2014 at 9:51 pm

      Being positive plays a tremendous role in our wellbeing. I think of what Dr. Viktor Frank, a psychoanalyst who survived Auschwitz, wrote in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” We can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control our attitude towards what happens.

  3. Chrissy on January 13, 2014 at 9:27 pm

    Thank you for writing this article about Michelle! I’ve had the good fortune of working with Michelle over the past 10 years and not only is she an inspiration to me everyday, she is just such a darn good friend. Her positive outlook and great sense of humor are infectious and help me have a better perspective on life and the curveballs and mountains that come our way and intersect our life. Michelle is our Wonder Woman around here and she is greatly loved. This article is a beautiful way to capture her attitude, personality and love for her life and in her life.

    • David on January 13, 2014 at 10:23 pm

      You, too, are inspiring Chrissy. People with cancer need all the support they can get, and you’ve been there.

  4. Danielle on January 14, 2014 at 3:22 am

    Michelle, you are a true inspiration. I love you very much.

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