Michelle Cook was busy raising two children and running her dog-grooming business when her life took a frightening turn.
“In June of 2018, I started noticing that my left breast was getting larger than my right,” she said. She brushed aside thoughts of breast cancer because she had no family history of the disease and no significant risk factors. She knew that the probability of having cancer at age 34 was very low, so she monitored her breast changes for several weeks before scheduling with her doctor. Within six weeks, however, Michelle was concerned.
“By the time I went to the doctor, my left side was almost twice as big as my right. It was growing that quickly,” she said. Following a mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy, SBL Obstetrician/ Gynecologist Rick Miller, DO, delivered the devastating news. “There were two tumors on my left side, and they were cancerous,” she said. “I was in shock.”
Michelle was referred to SBL Medical Oncologist Abdur Shakir, MD, who didn’t waste any time getting treatment started. Following an MRI, Michelle was diagnosed with infiltrating ductal carcinoma, HER2-positive and estrogen and progesterone negative. “It’s an aggressive and fast-growing type of cancer so I started chemotherapy right away— just one week after being diagnosed,” Michelle said.
“It was terrifying,” said Cathy Tucker, Michelle’s mother. “We very quickly learned so much that we never knew— and really never wanted to know.” Dr. Shakir urged Michelle and her family not to research her diagnosis until her PET scan results were in.
Thankfully, the news was better than Michelle had feared. “As crazy as it sounds, it was almost a relief when Dr. Shakir told us it was stage 3,” she said. “The cancer showed up in the first lymph node along with the two tumors, but it was contained and curable.” Cathy added, “We were still terrified, but it was reassuring to hear that there was at least a small silver lining in that cloud.”
Michelle barely slowed down while receiving six repeating three-week cycles of intense chemotherapy. The first week of each cycle was always the most difficult because it was the largest. “I would feel just awful and nothing tasted good,” she recalls. Michelle is grateful that the targeted therapies she received during weeks two and three were easier to tolerate.
The treatment took a much bigger toll on Michelle emotionally. “There were a few days I couldn’t get out of bed and many when I didn’t want to, but I did it anyway. Life doesn’t stop,” she said. Losing her hair was especially painful. “Nobody prepares you for that. I thought it would just go a little bit here and there, but, no, it falls out by the handfuls. It is terrible,” she said. “I was a red head and I had really long hair. I don’t think I’m a vain person, but that was hard.”
Michelle and her mother were extremely anxious to learn if the treatment was working. A PET scan was done after the ninth week of treatment to check. “I don’t think either one of us could breathe, and then Dr. Shakir walked in the room with the biggest smile on his face. I immediately lost it when he told us that my tumors were gone,” Michelle said. “That was an amazing day.”
Michelle finished another nine weeks of chemotherapy, and then she had a bilateral mastectomy. “I knew from the very beginning that I would have to have a mastectomy. A lumpectomy was out of the question because of the size and location of my tumors,” she said. “It sounds crazy, but having that done was actually easier– trauma wise— than losing my hair.” Michelle and her family were overjoyed when the pathology from her surgery showed no evidence of disease. “That was another great day,” she said.
In early March 2019, Michelle underwent 28 radiation treatments and she also resumed chemotherapy at the Regional Cancer Center once every three weeks to destroy any undetected cancer cells and to reduce her risk of recurrence. Michelle completed her final treatment on August 14 and celebrated the milestone by ringing the chemo bell with her son, Jack, 11, and daughter, Tessa, 8. “My kids have been champions. They’re my biggest cheerleaders,” Michelle said.
“We couldn’t have asked for better care anywhere along the line,” Cathy said. “And I can’t say enough good things about Dr. Shakir. He’s fantastic. He will answer every question no matter how silly you think it may be. I never ever felt rushed with him, and the nurses in the infusion room— oh my goodness— you couldn’t ask for a nicer group of people.”
Michelle’s positive attitude and sense of humor, along with an outpouring of support and prayers from family, friends and even strangers have helped to make her journey bearable. Her boyfriend has been by her side from the start and her ex-husband has been a great help with the kids, too. Social media has provided a comforting avenue for sharing news and a bit of humor with others, as well. “Cancer isn’t funny but I believe you have to laugh when you can because if you don’t, it’s agonizing,” she said.
When Michelle’s childhood best friends and sister hosted a benefit for Michelle last November at the Mattoon Eagles Club, people responded in such large numbers that some weren’t able to enter due to the large crowd. “The turnout was overwhelming and humbling. Still, to this day, I can’t quite wrap my mind around it,” Michelle said. The benefit, along with financial coverage that she’s received through the Illinois Breast & Cervical Cancer Program, have proven to be lifesavers. “That was a real kicker; I was completely uninsured when I was diagnosed,” she said. “I’m grateful that there are programs in place for people who need them.”
Michelle is now learning to navigate life as a breast cancer survivor. “It’s an ongoing struggle to return to some sense of normalcy, if that’s even possible,” she said. “One of the worst things is having to go through my life wondering if it’s going to come back and having to go through it again.” Genetic testing has revealed that Michelle has a rare PALB2 gene mutation which doctors are monitoring closely. The family finds comfort in the mantra: “Let your faith be bigger than your fear,” and they’re grateful for any and all prayers.
Michelle’s hair is slowly growing back and she’s happy to be grooming dogs again at her shop, 4 Paws Spa & Boutique. She is scheduled to have breast reconstruction surgery on October 28. “I’m pretty much an open book. I figure the more people I can help, the better,” she said. “I try not to take anything for granted anymore, and I no longer put off things that I want to do.”
Since Michelle was diagnosed younger than the recommended age of 40 for an initial mammogram, she encourages women of all ages to see their doctors if they notice anything irregular.
For more information, or to make an appointment at the Sarah Bush Lincoln Regional Cancer Center, call 217 258-2250.