Michelle Beck: I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
Be Positive — Attitude Attitude Attitude!! Yes, cancer sucks. Yes, it is incredibly scary. Yes, it can kill you. But it also may not. Having faith in your oncology and integrative medicine teams is so important. They will do their very best to remove the cancer from your body and keep it from coming back. Your job is to be positive and hopeful; it will allow you to keep doing things which are good for you, whether it is moving your body, being mindful, creating a meditative practice and more. When I was diagnosed, I decided that I have so much to live for that I would not let myself stay in the deep despair. I did have bad days during active treatment, but most were bearable and I knew that I would make it out on the other side.
Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. Yet millions of people have beaten the odds and beat cancer. Authority Magazine started a new series called “I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It”. In this interview series, we are talking to cancer survivors to share their stories, in order to offer hope and provide strength to people who are being impacted by cancer today. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Beck.
Michelle is a two-time, almost ten-year survivor of breast cancer. Her second cancer trek led her to volunteer at Breast Friends of Oregon, and in the process she found support, encouragement and a group of women who understood exactly what it is like to hear the words “you have cancer.” Michelle then also found a new career path at Breast Friends: in 2019, she was hired as the Patient Programs Assistant and now hosts the Breast Friends Cancer Support Network podcast. Michelle lives outside of Portland, Oregon with her husband, son and two sassy dogs.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to publicly share your story. Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?
I was born and raised in Southern California by divorced, but friendly parents. Wanting to be on my own, but close to home, I went to college at UC Santa Barbara and then paralegal school at UC Los Angeles. After college, I began my career as a paralegal and spent four years at a high-end law firm — after working with attorneys I knew I could work with anyone! I then transitioned to become a C-level Executive/Personal Assistant. This position taught me so much about human interactions and how to treat people. The best executives treat everyone with the same kindness and compassion, board representatives down to the cleaning crew.
Seeking a life change, I took six months off to travel and just be! I bungee jumped in New Zealand, went hot air ballooning and snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and visited friends across the United States. As I was not independently wealthy, I needed a job and found a great one in Oregon, working for a software start-up. I subsequently met my future husband there, who came with four bonus kids — instant family! This move was the scariest thing I ever took on (by choice) in my life; moving to a new state where I knew only one person. This huge transition brought me what I needed — a major shake-up! We married and had one son together and I took on the hardest, but most fulfilling job I have ever had — that of a stay at home mom!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The devil whispers “you cannot withstand the storm.” The warrior replies “I am the storm.”
This resonates with me as I feel like there have been many challenges in life which I have faced. I learned to cultivate a mindset to move forward with determination and passion, no matter the obstacle. Life is full of challenges, but it is the grace with which you handle them which defines a person. I consider myself a temperate storm, only bringing the thunder and lightning when really necessary. I am not a fan of confrontation and will work to find a way towards a positive outcome with a smile, even if I am on fire on the inside!
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about surviving cancer. Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you found out that you had cancer?
I have a family history of breast cancer; it has been a part of my life since I was a teenager. My paternal grandmother passed from metastatic breast cancer in 2008 when I was 37. To be proactive, I requested to start receiving mammograms at that time.
I heard those dreaded words “you have cancer” at age 41 and again at age 45. I am incredibly thankful that my cancer was caught both times very early stage during annual mammograms. Due to the locations of my tumors, my treatment and survival options would have been very different if I had not been my own advocate, pushing for screening.
It is incredibly concerning to me that the standard age to start mammograms be pushed back to age forty-five; more women are being diagnosed younger and with more aggressive, later stage breast cancer. Raising awareness for young women is dear to my heart.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
After hearing that I had cancer in my breast, my brain shut down. Everything which my oncology team spoke to me sounded like the adults in Charlie Brown. It did not matter that my breast cancer was Stage 1, grade 1, I was positive that it was going to kill me. I watched my grandmother die from metastatic breast cancer so that was my experience with it. Why would mine be anything different?
This was fear and lack of knowledge talking. Cancer has such a stigma to it and so much of it is treatable, as mine was. Once I was able to hear what my team was saying “best type of breast cancer,” “very treatable” and “slow growing,” I relaxed (a little) and moved forward.
How did you react in the short term?
After diagnosis, I cried a lot and hugged my family close to me, physically and mentally. I then started reached out to others for support, my mother-in-law was a survivor and helped tremendously. I have found that trauma and grief can lessen if you share it.
I continued to make plans for actually living, not just for my upcoming surgeries and radiation schedule. My husband and I had previously purchased tickets to see P!nk in Las Vegas and I made sure to schedule my lumpectomy around it so we did not miss the concert! I really love P!nk!
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
Once the shock settled, I put my faith into my medical team. Prior to my diagnosis, I had always said that if “it” ever happened to me, I would have a bilateral mastectomy and be done with it. When “it” actually did happen, I could not go through with the radical surgery. At the time, my son was only twenty months; I wanted to snuggle and hold him as long as possible. My cancer was very treatable with a lumpectomy and radiation and my survival rates were consistent with either treatment option so I chose the “easy” route.
To keep my mental health in check, I compartmentalized everything in my life. Once my active treatment was done, I focused on raising my son and enjoying life, as best as possible while dealing with the side effects of Tamoxifen, the standard hormone therapy for pre-menopausal women post breast cancer. This was challenging for me physically as I suffer tremendously from all of the medication’s side effects, but I made the best of it and did what I could. I worked on being as present with my family as possible, despite some physical limitations.
After my second diagnosis, my world shattered; I was no longer able to put the cancer away into a box and go on living. I was a literal “hot mess” living in fear and with anxiety. To combat this cancer in my other breast, I opted for a bilateral mastectomy with implant reconstruction and removal of my ovaries to lower the estrogen levels in my body. That took care of removing the cancer, but my emotions where in turmoil and I was on a rollercoaster of rage, depression and despair.
I had been a stay-at-home mom for five years prior to my second diagnosis. After treatment ended, my son was busy in school and I was lost. Thankfully, I recognized that I needed to do something and wanted to help others. I found amazing opportunities at a non-profit, Breast Friends of Oregon whose mission it is to ensure that no one goes through cancer alone. I met women who understood what I had been through and had walked in my shoes. I threw myself into volunteering and was subsequently hired as an employee. I now host a weekly podcast Breast Friends Cancer Support Network where I speak with medical professionals, survivors, thrivers and caregivers to provide inspiration, education and hope to those walking the cancer path. I could write an entire article on what this organization has brought into my life and now I help to give back to others. It fills me with joy and purpose.
Physically, overall healing has been a challenge for me due to the side effects and chronic pain from the preventative aromatase inhibitor medications (“AIs”). I dealt with intense pain in my joints and the palms of my hands and feet, extreme fatigue and much more. Going for walks with my dogs was too hard and forget doing the weight bearing exercises my oncologist recommended.
As time moved on, I knew that I needed to find a way to move my body more for my physical and mental health. My husband and I took a risk and purchased a stationary Peloton bike with the hope that I could use it despite my chronic pain. Success! It allows me to work out without putting weight onto my joints or my feet. I am now a Peloton lover!
Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?
At Breast Friends, I found the silver lining to my cancer — her name is Yvonne. The first day I walked into the door to volunteer, I met Yvonne Nydigger, Director of Programs. I cried with her for an hour while she hugged me and told me that she would be by my side going forward. Yvonne had been diagnosed herself in 2011 and also found support and then a position at Breast Friends. We have a connection which cancer started, but we have built a friendship based on so much more.
We are ten years apart in age, she does not have children and loves gardening, while I hate dirt, she is a cat person while I have two big dogs, but despite our differences, almost five years later, she is my person. We accompany each other to scan appointments, share our fears of recurrence and hold each other up when needed. Her wisdom and experience have helped me move forward toward my “new normal” after breast cancer. I am the Ying to her Yang — yes, we know that it is “Yin” but she started calling me Ying with such affection that it stuck.
In my own cancer struggle, I sometimes used the idea of embodiment to help me cope. Let’s take a minute to look at cancer from an embodiment perspective. If your cancer had a message for you, what do you think it would want or say?
My cancer said “Hey — are you doing enough for others?” After my first diagnosis I attended a Susan G. Komen Issues conference and felt a call to give back somehow to the amazing group (of those impacted by breast cancer) which no one ever wants to join, but has the best members. I never got around to it; I was busy being a mom, I had waited a long time to raise my own child and wanted to enjoy every moment of it without cancer hanging around.
When I did not listen the first time around, the cancer reappeared and said “Uhm, HELLO?!? It is time to change your life and turn something awful into something that drives you and gives you purpose.”
Do I wish I had not been diagnosed with cancer twice? Of course!
I would never choose this route for the physical changes and challenges it has brought into my life, but it has allowed me to appreciate each day for the simple blessing of just being alive. The people which cancer has brought into my life are phenomenal, I have a new career as an advocate and podcast host, I am working on a book about my journey and I want to share it all on stage to help others. None of this would have happened without cancer and I am grateful.
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? How has cancer shaped your worldview? What has it taught you that you might never have considered before? Can you please explain with a story or example?
After I walked into Breast Friends, I signed up for every event possible so I could immerse myself in their hugs and support; a month later, I attended their annual Luncheon. One of the educational sessions was about “Taming the Fear of Recurrence” with Dr. Shani Fox. She guided us in a visualization exercise to imagine where we would be in five years if there were no obstacles in our way. Tears flowed from my eyes as I realized that I wanted to share my story to help others.
It was like a lightbulb went off in my head! I wanted to be a keynote speaker and write a book to help others. Never in my wildest dreams had I ever thought I would want to be on stage to talk about anything, but now I am so passionate about sharing what I have learned from cancer to help others! My goal is to publish my book in the next few months, and ultimately share it with readers and audiences alike.
I have so much untapped potential in myself that would have not come to the surface, but for cancer.
How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?
After I started to volunteer at Breast Friends, I knew that I needed to support those who came after me. I went through both of my cancer diagnoses surrounded by family and friends who meant well, most who did not understand exactly what I had been through. I feel that my purpose now is to share my story and all that cancer has taught me to help others through their own journeys. I consider myself an over-sharer — nothing is off limits, much to my husband’s dismay. Hosting a podcast is a wonderful way to inspire and educate others, providing light into a space which can be very dark.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?
Fighting cancer does not mean that you instantly become “strong.”
You want the cancer out of your body so you can LIVE, not because you want to show off your strength! No one wants to fight cancer and be positive about it, flexing their literal and figurative muscles! It is awful, with anxiety and depression trying to creep in and take you down. I had so many days during my cancer trek where I felt weak and hopeless, curled up in my bed, desperate for something, anything to change. It took a while and I cannot pinpoint that anything externally changed, but I found strength within myself to get up and move on.
Two years after my treatment ended, when I had finally gotten over the worst of it, I had a pink ribbon with the word “strong” tattooed on my forearm, where I can see it every day. I wanted to be reminded how far I had come and that I found strength in myself that I had no idea I possessed.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give to others who have recently been diagnosed with cancer? What are your “5 Things You Need To Beat Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.
I have been in the cancer world personally for almost ten years and have learned so much. Here are my Five Things You Need to Beat Cancer:
- Be Your Own Advocate — Make sure that you have all of your questions answered and that you are comfortable with the answers. Get a second or third opinion or tests to find out what you need to know. After five years, I recently made the decision to discontinue the use of my daily AI medication due to the severity of the side effects. I consulted with my oncologist and initiated a “Breast Cancer Index” test which would predict benefits of endocrine therapy for another five years. The results of this test allowed to me make an informed choice about the cessation of the medication. I am now choosing ME, not cancer, and living my life to the fullest extent in every way possible with a lot less pain.
- Find Your People — Going through trauma of any kind is made easier by sharing it with others who understand. Finding a support group or individual who you can share with will make it so much easier. If someone has already been there and you can walk in their footsteps, your journey will be less strenuous. The unknown is terrifying, but if someone can answer your questions and allay your fears, it helps! I found this with the women at Breast Friends; I walked in to volunteer and never left the circle of support and connection.
- Keep on Living — Cancer treatment is exhausting, overwhelming and plain horrible. As much as possible, try to fit in other experiences to have something to look forward to while you are recovering from surgery, nauseous from chemo or slathering on calendula cream after radiation. I was fortunate enough to be fit in many trips before and after my surgeries, along with a busy social schedule. Days after my second diagnosis, my husband surprised me with tickets to see “Rent” on stage to allow me to focus on something other than cancer. All of these events kept my spirits up, despite the challenges happening inside me.
- Move Your body — It is proven that moving your body, even during treatment, will help speed up your recovery. Quite often, the last thing you feel like doing is exercise while you are healing from a procedure or green from medications, but even a walk to the mailbox and back is helpful. I have always been reluctant to work out, but I did my best to take my steps, up and down the block as soon as possible. Getting out of bed and the blood flowing promotes healing; bonus points if you are out in nature which releases different endorphins. I had a young son during my treatments who did not care about cancer; we kept each other moving and smiling.
- Be Positive — Attitude Attitude Attitude!! Yes, cancer sucks. Yes, it is incredibly scary. Yes, it can kill you. But it also may not. Having faith in your oncology and integrative medicine teams is so important. They will do their very best to remove the cancer from your body and keep it from coming back. Your job is to be positive and hopeful; it will allow you to keep doing things which are good for you, whether it is moving your body, being mindful, creating a meditative practice and more. When I was diagnosed, I decided that I have so much to live for that I would not let myself stay in the deep despair. I did have bad days during active treatment, but most were bearable and I knew that I would make it out on the other side.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?
I sign off each podcast episode of Breast Friends Cancer Support Network with the phrase “We Rise By Lifting Each Other.” I truly believe in this; life is not a competition. The more we help others, the more we help ourselves. It lifts us all.
Breast cancer helped me find the heart to serve and give back. If I can do this by sharing my cancer experience and acquired knowledge, my hope is that it will help others go through their cancer treks a little easier and pay it forward themselves.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)
I would love to sit down with Glennon Doyle. A friend told me about her years ago and I devoured her books, social media and even saw her in person when she came to Portland on tour. She feels everything so deeply and keeps it real, admitting that she does not have all of the answers or really any of them. Her relationship with her wife, soccer legend Abby Wambach, co-parenting with her ex-husband, a shared business with her sister Amanda and life with her kids — it is all so honest and relatable. She, Abby and Amanda host a podcast “We Can Do Hard Things” and it is my go-to when I need life lessons, a laugh or even a cry. I feel like her guests (Jen Hatmaker, Brene Brown, Emily Nagoski and so many more) are my people. My hope is that I do the same on my own podcast, sharing life stories, the good and the bad, to help others. My dream is to be a guest on “We Can Do Hard Things” talking about my cancer experience. Plus, I just really want to hang out with them!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I write, not nearly enough as I am building up content for my book, at my blog I Never Liked Pink and that is also how you can find me on social media @ineverlikedpink. My podcast, Breast Friends Cancer Support Network, can be found on VoiceAmerica or wherever you listen to podcasts or watch on the Breast Friends YouTube Channel.
Thank you for letting me share my story!
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
About The Interviewer: Savio P. Clemente coaches cancer survivors to overcome the confusion and gain the clarity needed to get busy living in mind, body, and spirit. He inspires health and wellness seekers to find meaning in the “why” and to cultivate resilience in their mindset. Savio is a Board Certified wellness coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), stage 3 cancer survivor, podcaster, writer, and founder of The Human Resolve LLC.
Savio pens a weekly newsletter at thehumanresolve.com where he delves into secrets from living smarter to feeding your “three brains” — head 🧠, heart 💓, and gut 🤰 — in hopes of connecting the dots to those sticky parts in our nature that matter.
He has been featured on Fox News, and has collaborated with Authority Magazine, Thrive Global, Food Network, WW, and Bloomberg. His mission is to offer clients, listeners, and viewers alike tangible takeaways in living a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle.
Savio lives in the suburbs of Westchester County, New York and continues to follow his boundless curiosity. He hopes to one day live out a childhood fantasy and explore outer space.