Michelene Shannon is well-aware of MD Anderson’s vast resources and research – she’s been an employee here for 10 years. But in January 2014, Michelene’s connection to MD Anderson became a lot more personal.
“The pathologist at MD Anderson’s Undiagnosed Breast Clinic came in crying and told me it was breast cancer,” Michelene says. “She cried harder than I did. All I could think was, ‘Why me?’”
The surprise diagnosis came during an especially demanding time. On top of her job, the 46-year-old was enrolled in two college courses and stayed busy with a teenage daughter. Even as an employee at MD Anderson, Michelene didn’t know where to start. That’s when her coworkers stepped up.
“I felt like everyone I worked with was calling around and asking for references on my behalf,” says Michelene, who had an appointment at MD Anderson’s Nelly B. Connally Breast Center within a few days of her diagnosis.
“When I had my first appointment, Dr. Boozer came in with his entire team – social workers, nurses, radiation techs,” Michelene recalls. “They took care of everything from there.”
Balancing work, school and breast cancer
Daniel J. Boozer, M.D., and his team realized they needed an aggressive plan of attack for Michelene’s equally-aggressive disease – stage III triple-negative breast cancer. The first step? 16 rounds of chemotherapy.
“One form of chemo was so strong that I couldn’t physically take it,” Michelene says. “My taste buds diminished, I was constantly nauseated, and my fingers and toes were always numb from neuropathy.”
Again, Michelene’s coworkers intervened. When she had to cut back to a three-day-a-week schedule, they divided up her workload and encouraged her to focus on the most important task – beating cancer.
“I found that being positive and keeping with my normal routine as best I could gave me some sense of normalcy,” Michelene says. “I definitely had help, though. My daughter oversaw household chores, my husband handled my doctor appointments and I had an understanding work environment.”
That attitude, coupled with her support system, enabled Michelene to balance her responsibilities at home, work and even school throughout her treatment, which also included a bilateral mastectomy, 30 days of radiation and reconstructive surgery.
“Because I was in school, I felt like cancer had to be an afterthought,” Michelene says. “I knew I had to deal with it, but it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. Along with beating cancer, my goal was to get my degree in communication so I could move forward in my career at MD Anderson.”
Life as a survivor
A mere year-and-a-half later, Michelene has achieved both of those goals. She earned her degree and a no evidence of disease status.
“I’m a survivor thanks to research and all of the support I received along the way,” Michelene says. “My coworkers rallied around me, my daughter cooked dinners for me, my husband shaved his head with me. Once my doctor even sang to me before surgery to comfort me.”
When asked if she plans to return to school for a graduate degree, Michelene laughs.
“I don’t plan on it, but I didn’t plan on cancer either.”
Breast cancer and ovarian cancer are two areas MD Anderson is focusing on as part of our Moon Shots Program to dramatically reduce cancer deaths. Learn more about our Breast and Ovarian Cancers Moon Shot.