I have a daughter, I have nieces; they could be in my shoes. I wanted to do something that could help other people, help eradicate this disease.
—Michelle Watson, SCCA patient navigator and breast cancer survivor
A decade ago, Michelle Watson led a busy life. Forty-three years old, married, and a mother of two teenagers – with the added responsibility of guardianship for her 17-year-old nephew – she worked full time as a financial lead and trainer at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
“I was in perfect health,” she said. “I felt wonderful.”
This all changed one Sunday night. “When I took a shower I felt a lump in my breast,” she said. “I’ll never forget that moment.”
Michelle saw her primary care physician the very next day and had a biopsy a day later. When the tests came back positive for cancer, she knew she wanted to receive care at SCCA. She considered it one of the top cancer centers in the country.
With oncology experts as her physicians, Michelle felt confident in her care for what turned out to be stage IIIA breast cancer. Her three-prong treatment team included medical, radiation and surgical oncologists – Dr. Julie Gralow, Dr. Janice Kim, and Dr. David Byrd. “I knew in my soul they’d take good care of me,” she said.
Emotional leader of the family
Michelle and her husband, Allen, decided to inform their children about Michelle’s diagnosis once SCCA doctors confirmed a treatment plan. “The mother is the emotional leader of our family,” she said. “And cancer is a family illness – everyone is affected. My children say in hindsight that they took their cues from me. My daughter said, ‘Mom, you were still fun and going to work, and always interested in my day.’ My son saw me continue to live my life, and said he ‘didn’t feel loss in his heart.’”
Michelle decided to stay as involved with life as possible. She recalled, “When my children were small, if they came to me with a tummy ache and wanted to stay home from school, I’d say, ‘Why don’t you take your shower and get dressed, and then come back and tell me how you feel?’ Nine times out of 10 they’d feel better!” This is how she approached her own illness and why she kept working as much as she could during treatment with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. On Thursdays after work, Allen met her at SCCA for her three-hour infusion sessions. “We’d play games, talk and laugh,” she said. “We treated it like having a date together.”
Despite her strong faith and personal strength, Michelle recalled the difficult moments of her experience. She sought support and now urged people with cancer to seek out emotional and spiritual support from an SCCA social worker or chaplain, or a counselor. “Your mind is flooded with information,” she said. “You need to quiet it down so your body can truly rest. It’s also important to have a place where you can discuss your true feelings – the doubt and fear that come up through the experience. I didn’t want to discuss my anxieties openly with my family, because I wanted to keep things positive at home.” Michelle found individual counseling sessions to be extremely helpful for her personally.
Having access to accurate information calmed Michelle’s anxiety. “People here were very gracious in answering my questions,” she said. “I’d ask, ‘What does it do? How does it help?’ If I understand the ‘why’ behind something it’s easier for me to go along with things.” She recalled that three weeks before she started treatment, SCCA held the grand opening for its new radiation oncology center. She toured the facility and spoke directly with the dosimetrist about the math and science behind the therapy. “Who gets this opportunity?” she asked. “It’s been a blessed journey. Everything just fell into place once I decided to come here.”
Dr. Gralow provided a particularly steady hand for Michelle throughout her diagnosis and treatment. “She gave me full information, and took time to make sure that my husband and I had our questions answered. Knowing I wanted to minimize side effects so I could be an active mom, she supported my use of alternative approaches, including acupuncture and relaxation.” Michelle also appreciated that SCCA professionals “get so real” about her intimacy and sexuality concerns and questions. “They believe that yes, you can be intimate, and here’s what we recommend,” she said, noting that Dr. Gralow was very skilled at bringing these issues forward and helping the couple talk about the effects of treatment and any related concerns.
Michelle found that support did not end with her treatment. Upon reaching her 5-year mark cancer-free, she receives ongoing care through SCCA’s Women’s Wellness Clinic. “There are many life issues post cancer, and you may not realize they are treatment related,” she said. Advanced registered nurse practitioner Heidi Trott has been instrumental in helping Michelle receive appropriate follow-up and manage the effect of the periodic swelling in her arm, which is sometimes aggravated by air travel or other activities.
Paying It Forward
Michelle strongly believes in the importance of helping others, to pay forward the kindness and assistance she herself received. Knowing that participation by people of color in medical research is typically low, she has participated in three studies. She also made a career change just over two years ago. Wanting to work more directly with patients and help them navigate the often overwhelming and complex cancer care system, she joined SCCA’s clinical patient navigation team, working hand in hand with colleague Carmen Cunningham to identify and overcome practical barriers (medical transportation and housing, and many others) that can keep patients from fully engaging in their prescribed cancer treatment.
Does being a cancer survivor and working in oncology ever feel like too much? “As a human being, yes, sometimes it does,” Michelle said. “Little things can trigger me occasionally. Yet something in my soul is fed by this work. It seems that every time I feel discouraged, I connect with a patient in a way that lets me know I still need to be here. What better way to heal than to be there for others?”