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They say life is made of small moments, but just one moment can change your life forever. At 52, Michelle Messer of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, was told she had an aggressive form of ovarian cancer — one of the deadliest cancers for women and for which there is no reliable test for early diagnosis.
When it was detected, her tumor was about the size of a pineapple.
“I remember sitting there thinking, now I know why my right hip hurts — because it’s my right ovary,” Michelle says. She also had experienced lower back pain and bloating. Suddenly, all the symptoms added up.
When she was diagnosed by Suzette Peltier, M.D., a gynecologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Michelle was already at stage 4, meaning the cancer had spread. It had moved throughout her abdominal cavity, liver, lungs and colon.
Michelle’s husband, Shaun, says the news was devastating.
“That was probably the most crushing thing I have ever felt in my life,” Shaun says.
Then the couple had to break the news to their two adult sons and young daughter.
“How do you tell a 13-year old her mother might not be here in a year or two?” Shaun says.
The couple’s daughter, Hannah, knew something was wrong when she came home from school and found her parents sitting on the couch.
“I told her I had cancer,” Michelle says. “She started crying and said: ‘No,’ and she fell to the ground. What can you do? The only thing you can do is hug them,” Michelle says.
NO TIME TO LOSE
After the tears and initial shock subsided, the entire family quickly moved into action mode. Within three days, Dr. Peltier arranged for Michelle to be seen by specialists at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. After rounds of tests, Francis Nichols, M.D., a thoracic surgeon, performed Michelle’s first surgery to remove cancer from her lungs.
It was a fearful time, but Michelle and her medical team remained positive. Dr. Nichols told her, “We’re going for the gold, and this is the Olympics.”
“Statements like that when you are so fearful are empowering,” Michelle says.
Two weeks later, while still recovering, Michelle underwent a nine-hour abdominal surgery, performed by Carrie Langstraat, M.D., a gynecological oncologist, which included a full hysterectomy. The tumor was removed, along with her gallbladder, part of her colon and dozens of lymph nodes.
Michelle underwent chemotherapy every week for nearly eight months at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, close to her home. It was grueling, she says. She lost her hair and energy, but she never lost hope. Michelle credits her medical team, along with many fierce, loyal friends and family who served as her support system, for helping her hold onto hope during this challenging time.
Michelle went into remission, though with stage 4, she knew she would never really be considered cured. Her hair grew back. Then one day, a year and a half after her initial diagnosis, she felt a lump on her neck. It was a recurrence of the ovarian cancer.
That meant more surgery and chemo, and losing her hair again. The treatment was even harder on Michelle’s body the second time, but hope persisted for Michelle and her oncology team. Michelle recalls a tough chemo day when Sandeep Basu, M.D., her oncologist, stopped in to see her.
“I smiled and said, ‘I’m faking it ‘till I make it,’” Michelle says. “He kind of cocked his head and said, ‘You’ve already made it.’” Michelle says Dr. Basu’s daily support was a huge source of hope.
Michelle says she is forever thankful for the support she received from Dr. Peltier the day she learned she had cancer. She recently had a chance to reconnect with Dr. Peltier — five years later — and tell her how important that moment was.
“It’s very humbling,” says Dr. Peltier, fighting back tears. “I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see somebody five years out from stage 4 ovarian cancer.”
“I think Mayo Clinic has all the pieces,” Michelle says. “They have the heart. They have the intelligence. They have the professionalism. They’re efficient, but they also have that warmth — that humanness about them. I would highly recommend them. They saved my life.”
Today, Michelle is an active volunteer at Mayo Clinic Health System with her pet therapy dog, Hunter. The pair visits patients and providers in the Albert J. and Judith A. Dunlop Cancer Center — a place Michelle knows well, but doesn’t fear.
Five years after her initial diagnosis, Michelle again is in remission, truly living life with stage 4 cancer, and yes, at peace with what may lie ahead.
Watch Michelle’s full story of hope and healing, as she recounts her journey with stage 4 ovarian cancer:
Read our blog on the importance of exercise in cancer survivorship.