Michelle Beck is a two-time, ten-year breast cancer thriver, and multifaceted individual who embraces life with enthusiasm and compassion. As a busy woman juggling various roles – wife, mother, friend, dog mom, podcast host, advocate, speaker and writer – Michelle's resilience and determination shine through in all aspects of her life and have led her to work with various cancer communities. Starting with Breast Friends of Oregon, she found solace, support and inspiration from women who understood the weight of hearing those daunting words, "you have cancer." During her time there, she also took on the role of hosting the Breast Friends Cancer Support Network podcast, providing a platform for shared experiences and empowering stories.
Currently, Michelle is channeling her strength and resilience into completing her book, titled "I Never Liked Pink...and Other Things I Learned From Cancer," which serves as a beacon of guidance for individuals facing trauma and offers insights on healing through adversity. She also recently joined the National Parent Committee for Kesem, which is an organization that provides free, fun support for kids whose parents have been affected by cancer. In addition to her advocacy work, Michelle hosts her own podcast, "We Rise by Lifting Each Other," aimed at sharing stories of remarkable individuals doing good deeds and spreading positivity to the world.
Michelle's commitment to helping fellow cancer thrivers and her unwavering dedication to spreading hope and positivity make her an inspiring voice in the breast cancer and cancer community. Her experience of a secondary occurrence in her other breast serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of regular mammograms and early detection. Get ready to be wowed by Michelle Beck's incredible journey, and her unwavering commitment to making a positive impact for others, in this week's In Her Words.
Name: Michelle Beck
Location: Tigard, OR
Current Health Status: NED
Tell us a little but about yourself.
I grew up in Southern California, attended college at UC Santa Barbara and paralegal school at UCLA. This led to working in a high-end law firm in downtown Los Angeles for 5 years before transitioning to become an Executive Assistant/Personal Assistant. After 9 years, I needed a major life change, took 6 months off to travel (Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and a bunch of U.S. trips to visit friends and family), then moved to Portland for a job. I met my now husband 6 weeks later when he took a job at the same company, and we have been married almost 13 years. We have a 12 year-old son, and I have 4 bonus kids, now ages 18-25.
For the past 5 years, I volunteered and was then employed at a support organization, Breast Friends of Oregon. For the last 2 years of that position, I hosted the Breast Friends Cancer Support Network podcast. I am currently working on a book about my cancer journey called I Never Liked Pink . . . and Other Things I Learned From Cancer, and I host my own podcast “We Rise by Lifting Each Other,” where I highlight good works being put out into the world to help others.
In my spare time, I binge true crime and paranormal podcasts and fall asleep every night while attempting to read good books. I love to explore new places in the Pacific Northwest in our travel trailer and vacation whenever possible. Life is meant to be LIVED!
When were you diagnosed with breast cancer?
I was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer at age 41. I am so incredibly thankful that I had already been doing regular mammograms for a few years. My paternal grandmother passed from metastatic breast cancer when I was 37, so it was always in the back of my mind. I was early stage, low grade, ER/PR+ HER2- and BRCA-. Unfortunately, 4 years later, I had a new primary occurrence in my other breast – again caught with a mammogram – with very similar pathology.
How did you feel when you were diagnosed?
I was not at all surprised when I was first diagnosed, due to my family history. I had always held a fatalistic view and just “knew” I was going to experience it one day. That said, I was angry, sad, scared and overwhelmed. My oncology team, gave me choices, yet I did not want choices. I wanted them to tell me what to do! As I settled in with my diagnosis and became better educated, I realized how lucky I was to have found the cancer so early and that my pathology was very treatable. When I was diagnosed AGAIN, I felt like I was emotionally broken. Why me? If I had decided on a different treatment plan 4 years prior, would this have happened? I developed heightened anxiety and depression during this time. Despite the fact that the cancer was surgically removed from my body, it was lodged deep in my mind.
How did your friends and family take the news?
My husband was by my side from day 1. He is former military and knows how to make a game plan, compartmentalize and strategize what needs to be done. He was and continues to be my rock, holding me up when I cannot stand on my own, literally and figuratively. The hardest hit was when I had to tell my father. It was his mother who had been through breast cancer 3 times, and it finally took her life at age 73. He and I cried a lot together and at times, I felt like I was holding him up. My mother was extremely positive, never showing any doubt that I would be fine and come out on the other side NED. My son was so young the first time, he did not understand what it all meant. To him, his mom has always “had” cancer. The second time, we explained the basics, and he watched me very closely as I went through treatment, helping out wherever he could, even at age 6. I was the first of my friends to go through an illness like this, and they rallied around me, with meals, call of support and childcare. I was very fortunate.
What kind of treatment did you seek?
As I had watched cancer take my grandmother, I had always said that if it ever happened to me, I would have a mastectomy and be done with it. Who needs breasts? Turns out when it actually happened to me, it was not as easy as that. For my first diagnosis, I opted for a lumpectomy and radiation, along with 5 years of Tamoxifen. When I was diagnosed the second time, the decisions were much easier, and I was as proactive as possible. I opted for a bilateral mastectomy with a latissimus back flap for reconstruction and removed my ovaries (to lower estrogen production) as well as my uterus, fallopian tubes and cervix. Bye-bye to all of my feminine parts in less than a few months. I wrapped it all up with 5 years of aromatase inhibitors.
Did you work while you were going through treatment?
I was a stay-at-home-mom both times when I was diagnosed. When I finished my active treatment the second time, my son was in 1st grade and I wanted to DO something other than sit at home. I took a part-time job in his school, helping out during lunch. That lasted all of 3 days before I quit due to the aches and pains of being on my feet. The following day, I found Breast Friends, a support organization less than a mile from my house, and walked in to volunteer. I was thrilled to find such an amazing community of women who truly understood what I was going through. They provided me support that I had no idea how badly I needed.
How did you find the best care?
My oncology team has been top notch from day one. I was referred to them by both my gynecologist and a neighbor and never looked back. The connection I made with my nurse navigator, herself a breast cancer survivor, still exists 11 years later. (She was actually the one who told me about my second diagnosis, and I am forever grateful for her empathy and kindness.) I also found so much care from the other women at Breast Friends – employees and others who had been through their programs and come out on the other side. Everyone was willing to share their stories so I did not feel alone. They opened their arms whenever I needed a safe place to land.
Did you receive additional support or seek alternative therapies?
After my second round of treatment, I was a physical mess due to multiple surgeries and the side effects from the AI meds. At a friend’s referral, I began to see a myofascial therapist – she is now a friend of mine and I call her “Magical Queen.” With the long holds and pressure, she was able to release tight scar tissue from radiation, deal with capsular contracture in both of my reconstructed breasts and assist with pelvic floor therapy. She also doubles as my emotional therapist, as we share so much during my sessions. I have also become a HUGE fan of acupuncture, along with Chinese herbs. This was a huge step for me as I am severely needle adverse, even after cancer. I recommend to everyone I meet who has faced breast cancer to check out these modalities for better health.
Who have been your biggest supporters and make up your cancer tribe?
The silver lining from my cancer journey is my friend Yvonne. I met her the day I walked into Breast Friends almost 6 years ago and she is now my person. We are Yin and Yang. When we are together, it is as if we share a brain. We worked together for 3 years, and she was my mentor. She taught me how to help other women throughout and beyond a diagnosis, as well as how to find healing powers within myself. I am eternally grateful for the women I met due to cancer, and they will now be forever a part of my life. I leaned into their support – being around other women who understood made all of the difference to me.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of the experience for you?
Cancer impacted my life so drastically, with the good and the bad. I have new things to add to my resume (podcast host, author, patient advocate), but my body will never be the same. It is a struggle to deal with reconstructed breasts without nipples or any sensations. Breasts are a huge part of intimacy, and when the sense of touch is gone, there is loss. The side effects from the AI medication were devastating to me, and I fought them for 5 years. I was the poster child for hot flashes, insomnia, joint pain, lack of libido, vaginal dryness, weight gain, weakening of my bones and mood swings. I am sure I forgot some symptoms, because that is also a side effect – brain fog. I had been on the 10-year plan for AI medication until I found the Breast Cancer Index test. I had my tumor tested and was able to discontinue the meds, due to a low likelihood of possible recurrence. Hallelujah! Information is education.
What is one thing you wish you knew before you were diagnosed?
When you are first diagnosed and make a plan (or plans in my case) with an oncology team, you are given a false sense of what the future will hold. My surgeons removed the cancer from my body, yay! My oncologists managed my meds, and now I am almost 6 years cancer free, yay! But no one tells you about what comes after active treatment is done. Cancer forever changes you and makes you face your own mortality. Your body is different, your emotions are all over the place, your family has been through trauma – everyone in your family, not just you. Life is forever altered because of tiny cells that grew in your body. Survivorship is hard, but the alternative is much worse.
Is there a particular mantra or inspiration that helps you?
Over the course of hosting Breast Friends Cancer Support Network, I met so many amazing individuals. One in particular, Michelle Kambolis had written a book When Women Rise: Everyday Practices to Strengthen Your Mind, Body and Soul, which was incredibly helpful to me. In her book I found my new mantra “I am grateful for this body, this breath and this life.” Every day, I take the time to say it and truly appreciate how fortunate I am. One of my inspirations is the artist P!nk. In a weird way, she is part of my cancer journey (it will all be in my book), and her song “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken” is my jam. She is strong, authentic and outspoken, and in her music, I can lose myself and find words to live by.
If you could offer a woman, who has been newly diagnosed, some words of wisdom for her journey, what would you tell her?
Take it one day at a time. Find your people, whether it is with family, friends or others who understand what you are going through. Accept help wherever, however it is offered: meals, laundry, child care, all of it. Always take naps. Give yourself grace.
What are you most proud of in your cancer journey?
I am proud that I have helped many women navigate their cancer journeys through my time at Breast Friends, as well as how open I was about my own experience. If I can help one person by sharing what I went through, it fills my cup.
How has breast cancer affected your outlook on life and illness?
When faced with something in your own body that can kill you, it forces you to evaluate what is truly important in your life – the people you love. Material things and money are great, but it is life experiences shared with your people that matter most. I tell my family and friends that I love them as much as possible and try to say all of the important things so there are no regrets. I also appreciate my body more than I did before – yes, cancer grew in my body, but despite all that I am still here. My body has changed, but it is strong. It still supports me every day and allows me to enjoy my one precious life.
Throughout this journey, how have you changed?
I know now that I can make a difference for others. I know how important it is to find your people and heal together through adversity. I am so passionate about helping others and talking about good in the world that I started my own podcast to highlight individuals and organizations who are doing the just that. I now live a fuller life, because I was reminded how precious it is. I am stronger and more resilient than I ever thought possible, and I thank cancer for showing me that.