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Michelle Maiellaro: I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

Acceptance. Trauma follows the 5 stages of grief and the first stage is denial. It’s easy to get stuck in denial because your life changes overnight and we all strive for the comfort of familiarity and safety. As I mentioned before, some people decide to fight, but you’re better off accepting cancer so you can channel your energies into healing, resting, recharging, recuperating. Acceptance is one pillar of survival.

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 Maiellaro.

A U.S. expat in Italy, Michelle Maiellaro is a leukemia survivor who helps people triumph over life challenges and dramatic change. She’s a freelance writer, screenwriter, and blogger. You can discover more about overcoming hard times and grab free resilience resources on her blog, The Resilient Woman, or connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Instagram.

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’m a U.S. expat living in Italy, a personal development geek, and a leukemia survivor thanks to a successful bone-marrow transplant six years ago.

When I found out I had stage III acute myeloid leukemia, one regret overwhelmed me: I never pursued a writing career. All because I lacked self-belief and harbored a fixed mindset, the attitude of needing natural talent to succeed. Since I believed I wasn’t talented enough to become a writer, I never tried.

So, I poured my regret into the will to survive, promising myself I’d change my attitude and life if I got a second chance.

Today, I’m a blogger, content marketer, and quarterfinalist in two writing competitions.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You get what you give.”

I’ve always had a problem with asking for things from others, for example, attention, help, advice, support, even love. But I always gave those things without asking or expecting anything in return. You do something because you want to, not because you expect something.

When diagnosed with leukemia, I was on the receiving end. And I believe that everything I ever gave came rushing back to me with interest. It’s as if I gave away a million dollars, and I received it all back.

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?

Sure. I felt tired a few months before my diagnosis, then developed recurrent fevers until I finally struggled with exhaustion. My doctor requested blood tests, which revealed severe anemia. Then she reserved a specialist visit for me at the nearest hospital. Long story short, I walked into the hospital in the morning and wound up staying for 45 days as a leukemia patient for my first of many chemotherapy treatments.

What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?

I felt caught in a nightmare with no escape route, yet I kept thinking one morning I’d wake up and life would return to normal. But that never happened. The doctors diagnosed me with stage III acute myeloid leukemia and I began chemotherapy immediately. So, I knew I could die, which will always be the scariest part.

How did you react in the short term?

I’m single with no children. So I almost resigned myself to think my time was up. What did I have to live for? I wasn’t doing anything of importance with my life, so why continue? But I didn’t want to make my parents, my brother, or my friends suffer. This rush of empathy for the people I loved filled me and a kind of despair of losing someone overwhelmed me. And I latched on to one regret, never becoming a writer. I thought, “I’ve been wasting so much time. And why? All because I believed I’m not capable. Enough with that kind of thinking.” So I made myself a promise — if I survived, I would write.

All of this happened in just a couple of days after my diagnosis. Maybe because I didn’t have the luxury of time, as I was confined to a hospital room and bedridden for a total lack of energy. Nor did I have the comfort of routine. So, in a couple of days, my reaction was quite intense and lucid.

After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?

Leukemia is debilitating, so much so you’re fatigued 24/7. Resting helps, but as soon as you’re active, you’re out of breath. So I allowed myself to rest as much as possible, and I took short walks around the hospital ward whenever I could. My hospital stays were always quite long, an average of 40 days for each treatment.

The combination of chemotherapy and prolonged immobility due to fatigue wreaks havoc on your muscles. The hematology ward had a stationary bike, which I sometimes used to keep toned, but I never had enough energy to use it often. Once, I bent down to pick up something off the floor and found I couldn’t get back cup because I had no more muscle mass. You realize quickly you have a new normal. So I learned to let go and live with the physical limitations.

Because of my fragile immune system and debilitating treatments, life became simpler. I had one goal: to survive long enough for a bone-marrow transplant. Every other worry disappeared as I laser-focused on surviving. That kind of focus left me feeling euphoric and grateful for everything and everyone because life is a gift: you realize your limited time and make the best of what you’ve got. I started living more in the present moment, practicing mindfulness and meditating.

In the beginning, I also indulged in positive thinking and a law-of-attraction-type attitude. But after the relapse, I realized that kind of thinking has its drawbacks, too. We all think we’ll live forever. But when cancer returns a month and a half after your last chemotherapy, mortality slaps you in the face. After the relapse, my doctors changed my treatment. Instead of receiving a bone-marrow transplant from my stem cells, I needed stem cells from an external donor, but my brother wasn’t compatible. So the search for a donor began, my positive thinking led to nothing, and my hope disappeared.

A few days after the relapse, I accepted the possibility of death and I decided to live in reality instead of in a super-positive fantasy world all the time. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t optimistic, but you need to have one foot grounded in reality to dream, to hope. If not, you’re setting yourself up for disaster.

Instead of telling myself everything would be okay, I created new mantras for myself: “Everything will go as it’s supposed to” and “Everything is as it should be.” I believe faith is knowing that whatever happens, you’ll be okay despite it all. And if that means death, then so be it. Death is part of the cycle of life.

Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?

I am grateful to so many people. My friends helped me with everything. My elderly parents traveled from the U.S. to Italy to take care of me. My coworkers sent videos of encouragement. And I will always be grateful to my bone-marrow donor who saved my life.

I’m a personal development geek and had been working on my personal growth for years before leukemia, both on my own and with a life coach. So, my coach’s teachings helped me cope, but his wife and sister-in-law gave me what I needed. His sister-in-law sent me visualizations geared toward healing, helping me connect to a place of inner peace, which played a big part in my emotional and mental healing.

And his wife gave me one piece of advice I will always remember. She said, “Don’t fight it. Accept it.” Most people reading this will think, “What? Is she crazy? Of course, you should fight.” But any battle will imply spending energy, the energy I didn’t have emotionally, mentally, or physically at the time. On a profound level, I understood I didn’t need to fight. Once you accept something, you can let it go to move forward. You can let go of feeling like a victim, you can let go of the fear that cancer will win, you can let go of the anger. You can let go of all the trauma and the pain and live. You get to see how lucky you are for being alive, having the right people surrounding you, having breath still in your body, and a heart that’s beating.

With those few words, she freed me from a lot of pain and helped me connect to my life on a deeper, more spiritual level.

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?

Yes, I think I was suffering from burnout before my diagnosis. I already felt fatigued by life. I had lost my joy and felt life was one enormous struggle. Instead, leukemia showed me how beautiful, precious, and short life is. So, if leukemia had a message, it would be to love life. And that includes doing more things you love and spending more time with the people you love.

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?

I was always a loner and somehow felt separate from others, even though I’m very sensitive and empathic. Instead, cancer showed me how alike we all are and how we’re all connected. Just the fact that 7 of my proteins matched with two non-related people as my potential bone-marrow donors shows you how connected we are. The bone-marrow transplant increased my empathy and connection with others. I no longer feel alone.

Not once throughout my cancer experience did I ever think, “Why me?” Anybody can fall ill. It’s time we stop dividing people into groups, the good and the bad, the healthy and the unhealthy. Now that I’m in remission, I’ve fallen somewhere in between, neither healthy nor unhealthy. I hate labels. I know they’re used to inform and help identify, but we rely on them too much and I feel they wind up dividing us instead of uniting us.

How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?

I started a blog a year ago to share my life experiences with the world. I called it The Resilient Woman, not because I think I’m resilient, but because anyone can be. And I especially want to help women understand they’re not alone, they don’t have to struggle alone, and there are tools out there and stories like mine to help them and inspire them as they deal with life’s challenges.

What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?

One myth is you’re healed or cured after cancer. You’re not. You’re in remission and all cancer patients live with a daily paranoia of cancer returning.

Plus, radiotherapy and intravenous or oral chemotherapies wreak havoc with your body. All those therapies can create various physical repercussions over the years. You’re never completely free. There’s a life before cancer and a different one after cancer.

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.

  1. Acceptance. Trauma follows the 5 stages of grief and the first stage is denial. It’s easy to get stuck in denial because your life changes overnight and we all strive for the comfort of familiarity and safety. As I mentioned before, some people decide to fight, but you’re better off accepting cancer so you can channel your energies into healing, resting, recharging, recuperating. Acceptance is one pillar of survival.
  2. Connection. No one succeeds alone. I survived thanks to the excellent care I received and the love of many family and friends. When you allow yourself to receive love and caring, then you’ve already won half the battle. Some people may feel guilty about being a burden to others, which is also one hurdle I had to face. But I accepted receiving help and let go of the guilt. Yet other people may struggle with this and refuse help altogether. And each person’s struggle is very subjective, so I don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all recipe for cancer survival. Eventually, whether it’s early in your cancer story or later on, receiving help from family, friends, a counselor, or a psychologist can complement your physical treatments. Cancer is emotionally and mentally trying, and tough to survive on your own.
  3. Know you’re not alone. It’s also crucial to connect to others who are living similar experiences because no one can understand what you’re going through, if not a fellow patient with the same type of cancer. Not only will you feel understood, but you’ll realize you’re not alone in suffering. This type of awareness helps to eliminate a victim mentality and creates instant bonding, helping you feel stronger mentally and emotionally. Twice a month, I take part in a mutual support group of cancer patients where we share our anxieties and support one another wherever we may be on our cancer journey. It’s helped me to feel more understood because your family and friends, even though they mean well, can never understand what you’re going through. You can’t expect them to have the answers or always know what to say.
  4. Secular faith. You don’t need to be religious to have faith. All you need is to believe you’re going to make it through. Yes, there’s a possibility you might not make it, but for the time being, all you can be is hopeful. So keep your hope alive.
  5. Love. I learned to love my life thanks to cancer. I had always lived in fear of making mistakes, not being good enough, or not being talented enough. A lifetime of passive anxiety.

Instead, when you love your life, you develop resilience and learn to cope with whatever comes your way because you want to keep living. You want to keep going forward so you learn to live with obstacles and heartbreak. A love of life gives you the strength to go on.

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?

In this day and age of division and hate, I would love to unite people. I feel we can all do more good right now by teaching our children to love one another just how we are. Diversity is a strength. So recognizing and accepting our diversity of gender, race, and health can unite us instead of dividing us. If we can teach this to our children, we may create a better future.

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. :-)

Suleika Jaouad. I discovered her TED Talk during my convalescence post-bone-marrow transplant. And she was the one who made me notice the divide between the healthy and unhealthy. I admire her work as a thought leader and as a writer.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

They can subscribe to my blog to receive my latest blog posts and weekly newsletters of support, encouragement, and inspiration. And I also publish inspirational thoughts, quotes, and articles on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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