Survivor in the Spotlight: Michelle Allen
Tell me a little about yourself. Where you are from, what you do for work, etc. Where do you live? Do you have children?
My name is Michelle Allen. I am 39 years old, grew up in Maine and currently live in Brewer. I am the mother of three beautiful children, an old weathered but affectionate rescue dog named Rover and the princess of our house, a kitten named Bella. In my twenties I worked as a stay at home mother, childcare provider, cake decorator and was an active volunteer in my communities’ church and school. I slowly worked my way through college and graduated from nursing school when I was thirty. I have been extremely blessed to have had a wonderful career as both a cardiac nurse and a school nurse over the last decade. I have currently found my passion practicing as a hospice nurse, a career that gives me great purpose and motivates me to continue my education, certifications and expand my skills.
How did you learn you had breast cancer and what was your reaction?
In the fall 2016 I was sent to my OBGYN for a routine work up. During this visit the doctor performed a breast exam and recognized a hard lump in my breast. After an ultrasound and a referral to a breast surgeon who quickly fit me in for a biopsy, I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. A close friend and my 17-year-old daughter were present in the room when the surgeon carefully explained the diagnosis. My initial reaction was a mix between shock and realizing part of me (the nurse side) had already known. But in those first moments after hearing her words, all I could do was look at my daughter’s face, attempting to read what she was thinking. I was asking myself why I had decided to let her come, and thinking of any way, any idea imaginable to save her from the fear, pain and challenges that I foresaw, and were already spinning inside my head.
Can you say a little bit about the course of your treatment? What were you most worried about and what was your source of strength?
My treatment started in November when my porta Cath was placed so that I would be able to start chemotherapy. Due to a complication during its insertion I spent the next week in the hospital. My daughters visited me on Thanksgiving, and we shared cafeteria turkey, thankful to be together. I did not know at that time the extreme rollercoaster of experiences and emotions we were embarking upon. I did however know that I was supported. I knew every day if I just got through one more day, eventually we would be okay. During December through April of 2017 I was able to complete my chemotherapy treatments, despite a hospitalization over Christmas, on New Year’s and others related to complications and side effects from my porta Cath, chemotherapy and the effect it had on my type 1 diabetes. I remember days that I was not strong enough to raise my head and days that I cannot remember due to medications and the effects of severe dehydration. I remember pain unlike I have ever felt before, feeling scared, dependent on others and I felt the guilt related to not being able to be there for my kids the way I wanted and had intended to be. Then, scattered in between all of these things were moments of divine grace; soups made by friends, parties thrown to show me love and support, gifts and cards, prayers, growing closer to friends that gave me guidance-who stepped in to take care of things when I couldn’t, moments with my children where the outside world completely fell away and together we enjoyed what we had in the present moment. My cancer experience literally broke down every piece of my life, shook it up, stretched it and then gave me all the tools, reasons, inspiration and motivation to glue it all back together in a more grateful, cherished, nurtured and meaningful way. My treatment was successful and in April I underwent a double mastectomy, clear margins were reported and my family I celebrated being cancer-free.
Did you work through your treatment or parts of it? If so, or if not, what was that like?
In between treatments when I was able, I returned to work as a cardiac nurse and as a school nurse. I was careful to wear a mask when necessary, was given lighter assignments and took care of myself the best I could. On one hand I was a single mom of three children and financially needed to work and keep my health insurance, but there was also a part of going back to work, even on the hard days that was very beneficial to me mentally and emotionally. After each treatment I would be too sick to get out of bed for a day, I would make my way to the living room to rest on the second day, take a shower on the third, try to get out of the house on the fourth or fifth day and then return to work. I honestly believe it gave me a goal and a reason to keep pushing forward, and the support I received at work from my coworkers, patients and schoolchildren lifted me up, kept me hopeful and positive.
Has cancer changed any relationships in your life? If so, how? What changes have you made in your life since diagnosis?
Most things about my life are different since having Cancer. Transitioning to life after Cancer was a big challenge. At first going back to Cancer Care monthly for check-ups and medications caused severe anxiety. Daily I thought about how to manage my life and the worry of recurrence. I had difficulty trying to balance feeling peace and meaning in my life with the urgency of “living in the moment” you feel after a life-threatening situation. I started a new career after cancer, the job I had always told myself I wanted to do someday. I moved from my home to live closer to people and things that my family and I love. Today after months of learning and healing my priorities every day have changed. I live in the type of environment and home I truly wanted, I focus on caring for myself and those around me and my faith interweaves itself through every day. My friendships are fewer and stronger, honest and authentic. I have a different perspective that allows me to feel more empathy for those suffering and an instinctual desire to pass on the encouragement and love that was given to me. The things that have really helped me move forward have been the small changes I have slowly put into place; changes in the way I eat, new habits and interests like mediation and strength training, a good support group and a dedication to practice self-compassion.
Some people like the term “survivor” and some don’t. What does the word mean to you?
Being called a survivor at first can be hard because… Well what if, you really aren’t one? The fear of recurrence can start at that first follow up appointment when your oncologist gives you all the data, percentages and the risks of Cancer returning. They map out the next five to ten years of your life, which medications and interventions will give you the best chance and what your surveillance plan will look like. The day you realize that life never goes back to the way it was before cancer can be surreal. You never again can pretend “that kind of thing will never happen to me”. No one wants to let their guard down, celebrate that they are a survivor and then be disappointed or caught off guard. You are forced to find ways to live your life knowing this, and you must choose how you wish to live each day. It took over a year and a lot of growing and learning about healing to get to a place where I feel comfortable where I am today. Very recently I started to notice I became more interested again in future goals, ambitions and plans. It takes not only time, but active involvement on the individual’s part to seek ways to heal and learn how to implement them. I believe we are all surviving… whether it’s the day, your childhood, motherhood, heartache, illness, whatever obstacles we face in life that are taking us to where we are meant to go. While it is true that Cancer made me stronger, changed my priorities and motivated me to change my life… continuing to survive after having a cancer diagnosis does not define me. What is important is how I choose to live, and I am grateful I have had the experiences that pushed me to learn the importance of being vulnerable, brave, self-compassionate and grateful.