"Just don't give up" - Bonnyville woman continues her fight against cancer
Monday, Apr 17, 2017 02:00 pm
There is no doubt that Michelle MacCormack is a fighter.
Since her first battle with cancer when she was a young child, to her ongoing fight against breast cancer, the local mother hasn't given up.
Growing up in Bonnyville, MacCormack (nee Bourbeau) was just 4-years-old when she was having absence seizures. Doctors diagnosed her with a cancerous brain tumour – a grade four astrocytoma, and put her through radiation treatment.
“The doctors told my mom that it was actually a miracle I survived that tumour because it was such a high grade, and a scary kind of tumour to have,” said MacCormack, noting from what she can remember, the treatment took about a year or so.
“I was admitted into Edmonton General, at the time it was an active hospital, while I was going through my treatments.”
After finishing radiation, life went back to normal for MacCormack as she went through her elementary schools years as any other child. In 1998, she had just graduated from the nursing program at NorQuest College when she went to see a doctor for the frequent headaches that had been occurring. Now 19-years-old, they found that the radiation she had when young had caused other tumours to form, some of which were cancerous cells.
“Those were caused by the radiation I had when I was four, but without that radiation I probably wouldn't be here, so it's a scary thing. For that, I ended up having surgery. That was the only option for those, to have surgery and wait and watch. To this day, I still go to my neurosurgeon to watch for that cancer,” explained MacCormack.
Unfortunately, her fight against cancer was far from over. In 2011, with a young daughter of her own who was just over one-year-old, MacCormack started to notice a hard lump was forming in her breast. However, after frequent trips to the doctor, she kept getting told it was due to her not breast feeding or because of an infection. Not satisfied with the responses, she decided to go see a new doctor – one that didn't know her history.
Sent for a mammogram, the results that returned were what she had feared. MacCormack was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. “Here I was, just newly married, I had a little baby to take care of, and my husband at the time wanted to move me to Slave Lake.”
Determined to beat cancer once again, the young mother travelled back and forth to the city for treatment – going through chemotherapy and radiation. To fully remove the cancer in her one breast, MacCormack agreed to undergo a mastectomy.
“That was when it got really hard. My marriage started to fall apart, because I didn't feel like a woman anymore. It was hard on a relationship because you body goes through so many changes, and your hormones,” she recalled. “To this day, I still just have a prosthesis there.”
While she had won her third battle against the disease, unknowingly at the time, she had an even greater fight that lay ahead.
After overcoming breast cancer and moving back to Bonnyville, MacCormack got back into her career as a nurse. It wasn't long before the local cancer survivor started feeling ill again.
“I was feeling really tired and not myself. I had gone for a walk with my mom and daughter, just to go half a mile I was out of breath.”
Given antibiotics for what the doctors said was bronchitis, when the medication didn't work MacCormack made a trip to the emergency department.
“It was a doctor that has known me since I was little, they took one look at me and said 'we don't even have to do the tests to determine what this is, you know what this is.'”
And she did. In 2015, the cancer had returned for a fourth time.
Chest x-rays revealed a large quantity of fluid in MacCormack's left lung. Upon draining it, and sending it away for pathology results, she was diagnosed with recurrent breast cancer. It didn't stay in her breast this time though. The cancer had metastasized to her liver, left lunch, and lymph nodes in her stomach.
“I just thought, 'why me, why again?' I've got a little girl to raise on my own, the only other people that are there for us are my parents, that's where we live because other than that I have nowhere to go... but I thought, I have to be strong, I just have to keep my faith and keep going. If not for myself, for my little girl.”
So, MacCormack went through the all to familiar scenario of cancer treatment. With a drain in her lung to keep the fluid away, she immediately started chemotherapy every two weeks.
Unlike in her first three battles against cancer, the difference this time is she knows there isn't an end to the treatment. MacCormack explained that in the doctors terms, the cancer is palliative, all she can do is keep fighting.
Living with cancer
Currently, MacCormack is going for what's known as targeted therapy at the Bonnyville Cancer Clinic. The treatment targets the specific cells that the cancer is feeding off of to keep it at bay.
This treatment, along with the chemotherapy she was receiving in 2015, has shrunk the cancer that was initially there and prevented it from spreading further, allowing her to reduce treatment from every two weeks to every three. She continues to visit the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton every three months for scans to monitor the cancer.
“It will keep on going the way it is now until it doesn't work anymore. Then, according to my oncologist, they'll try something else that might work,” said MacCormack.
The effects of living with cancer day-to-day are far reaching. Unable to return to work because of her illness, MacCormack tries to keep busy by being involved in different aspects of the community and at her daughter's school, when she can. This has also caused a major financial burden for the young family.
Emotionally, MacCormack expressed she would be lying if she said it wasn't draining and she didn't get depressed.
“It's hard, not only as a young woman, but as a mom. It's really hard to have to know that you have to keep going and keep fighting this. I just have this faith inside of me that I've got to keep going, keep on fighting, and watch my little girl grow up to be there for her.”
Explaining cancer to her daughter, and others
“In 2015, when I had to start going through all the chemotherapy again, it just knocked me right out. My daughter found it hard because mommy lost her hair again so she's thinking 'what's going on?' She remembers when I was diagnosed the first time; even though she was little, she remembers little things about it.”
At just seven-years-old, MacCormack's daughter Kaylee has seen more of the impact cancer can have than most children her age. To help her cope and understand what's going on, MacCormack noted the nurses at the local cancer clinic provided her with books that captured the disease through the eye's of a child.
“It's about how not to hide when you're scared because mommy is sick, and how just for her to express how she's feeling. One explained the kinds of stuff people go through when they have cancer and how not to be afraid of it. I know she is though, because she knows more than any seven-year-old should know.”
When it comes to friends and acquaintances, MacCormack expressed that it can be hard for those who have never had cancer to understand just what someone’s going through. Since her current treatment doesn't affect her outward appearance, just because she may look like she's doing good, that's not always the case.
“I would just tell people, if you know someone with cancer be there for them. Don't just say, if you need me phone me. Touch base with them on a daily basis, see how they're doing. If they're a parent to children, see if you can help the children in any way like bringing the kids out to movie just to get their minds off of it.”
Particularly for MacCormack, having long-term cancer has put a strain on her relationships.
“I have friends that have actually distance themselves because they're too afraid to face the fact that this isn't curable for me. In the doctors terms, it's palliative for me.”
Keeping the faith
A lot easier said than done, throughout her long, unending journey with cancer, MacCormack has focused on not giving up and staying positive. Something she credits her faith and her family with helping her through.
“I know that no matter what happens, there's nothing I can do to change the outcomes. I just put my faith in God because, for me, I know that's whose given me this path to walk on,” said MacCormack, citing 2 Corinthians 5:7 as a bible verse she always keeps in mind. “I will walk by faith, even when I cannot see.”
Along with keeping the fight up for her daughter, her parents and sisters have played a large role in being her support system through everything she's already overcome, and has yet to go through.
“My family, they've been really supportive. They might not understand all of the emotions and everything I go through, but they've always stood by me. My mom and dad have been here through it all, and my sisters have always been there not only to support me but supporting my daughter and helping her through it too.”
For those in their own battle cancer, no matter at what point in the journey, MacCormack's advice is “try to not let yourself give up.”
“Try to just keep going for whatever reason you have in your life to keep going. If you have a faith-filled life, just keep following that. Just don't give up.”