When athlete, mother and physician, Michelle Bouchard from Damariscotta, Maine was diagnosed with Stage 1 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC) breast cancer, her busy and athletic lifestyle was forced to take a turn. With breast cancer awareness and prevention at the core of the SportPort™ women’s activewear products and mission to help women stay healthy and protected against risk factors, we appreciate Michelle sharing her personal story with us.
The abruptness of her breast cancer diagnosis serves as a reminder that awareness and preventative lifestyle measures can act as a shield against invaders we don’t always see coming.
SportPort: Thank you for sharing your personal story and journey through breast cancer. Can you tell us how you first discovered something was wrong?
Michelle: I noticed last fall, maybe earlier, that one of my nipples was pointing in a different direction. I didn’t think much about it at first. I thought that was just a result of my age, I was 46 at the time, and part of the aging process. After a couple of months and continuing to notice that change, I don’t know why, but it suddenly hit me and I thought, “you dummy, you need to get that checked out.” That was in December of 2016, and from there it was very quick; doctor visit, mammogram, biopsy and diagnosis.
SportPort: That is interesting to point out; physical warning signs or changes in our body may not seem unusual as we age. Did you have any other indicators beforehand that you were at risk for breast cancer?
Michelle: Before this finding, I had no idea if I was at risk for any type of cancer. I am adopted and although I have met my birth mother, knowledge of my family medical history is limited. I have since learned that I do not carry a genetic mutation for breast cancer, so this was just my bad luck.
SportPort: We can imagine that the abruptness of an unexpected breast cancer diagnosis can be very challenging. What was the medical diagnosis to treatment process like once you realized something may be wrong?
Michelle: My doctor first recommended a mammogram. Once I went through that and a mass was detected, I received a phone call that they wanted a biopsy. I kind of thought that a breast cancer diagnosis was where this was gonna end up, so getting that call wasn’t really a big surprise. I was really anxious and worried at first because I had a different doctor than my own primary care physician (PCP) for the initial visit and he was the one that called to tell me about the tumor cell biopsy results. He didn’t interpret or explain the information he had or really tell me anything other than I had “stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma”. It was scary to wonder if I was going to live, if I had to worry about my family surviving financially after this, if I was going to have chemo, etc. But after a few days, my actual PCP called me to apologize for not being available when I needed her (she had her own family emergency when I made that initial appointment). She proceeded to explain all the tumor biopsy results, which were GOOD as far as breast cancer goes, that I would have a mastectomy, take Tamoxifen, and not need more drastic IV chemotherapy or radiation. She said I would be fine and back to my regular life in about 6 months. That was a HUGE relief.
SportPort: That must have been a tough few days of waiting before your physician was able to give you your breast cancer treatment plan. Although you mention the results were good as far as breast cancer goes, you’re still talking 6 months out of your life with treatment and recovery. What was your personal experience with this process?
Michelle: I chose to have a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction, which included implants. I had to have my left breast completely removed, nipple as well, because of the location of the tumor and because my breast was so small that the surgeon would not be able to do a lumpectomy and leave a decent cosmetic result. I opted to have the right breast removed as well because I wanted them to look similar and also because I would have had to have a preventative MRI and mammogram every six months if I had kept that breast. The actual mastectomy surgery, which was performed in late January, wasn’t awful. I was very scared at first, but the recovery wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. The surgeons, anesthesia group, nurses and everyone involved with my care were outstanding and provided excellent quality of care. I had a second, reconstructive surgery to put the breast implants in, which was performed in May about 4 months after the mastectomy. This was disappointing because I had hoped to have both at the initial surgery, but the second breast reconstructive surgery really was a piece of cake for me and I had zero pain.
SportPort: That’s excellent the breast surgeries were uncomplicated and successful for you. What about the other side of this, your recovery? How did that go with kids and a family to take care of at home?
Michelle: As a mother of three children, it was difficult to go through having such major surgery, because, like a lot of moms, I do find myself doing most all of the housework and am in charge of everything related to the kids. Not being able to do these things was very difficult for everyone. It was challenging and frustrating to try to get my family to clean the house in the way that I want it done. I often would just get up and do it myself anyway. It was easy to rest when my mother visited because she is compulsive and particular too, and would do all the work, but when she left, it was much harder. It was difficult to sit and look at the laundry that needed folding, or the floor that was dirty, because I was home all day. I would allow myself to fold just this one load of laundry or just vacuum this area, but doing even these simple tasks set back my recovery process because I didn’t rest properly. The activity affected me to the point where I wasn’t able to have my drainage tubes removed as scheduled. That was emotionally devastating for me, even though it was of my own doing.
SportPort: That’s awful. We definitely understand that when setbacks interfere with our expectations, it adds more stress. Speaking of stress, financial challenges can arise with medical expense and issues due to breast cancer. Do you feel you were equipped to handle this area okay?
Michelle: Well, as a self-employed optometrist, the difficulty came with worrying not only about my own finances, but also my business partner’s. We are equal partners so my missing 3+ work-weeks impacted his income as well as mine, and as the primary breadwinner for my family, it became a very stressful time trying to make ends meet but also trying to take care of my health. I realized pretty quickly that I had not planned properly for a health or financial crisis. I was luckily able to return to work about 4 weeks after my mastectomy. Then, I was able to get back to work only after a long weekend from my reconstructive surgery.
SportPort: We know you are an avid runner and enjoy marathons and local races. So, on top of all of this, you probably weren’t able to stay in condition or run. How did you adjust to not being able to exercise?
Michelle: This was super difficult. I am a very active person and do not like to sit down for very long. I average 15-20 miles a week running when training for a race and this year I was planning to run the Sugarloaf Marathon in Maine with hopes to qualify for the Boston Marathon. It was pretty devastating to realize that this was not going to happen. For 3 weeks after surgery, I was not allowed to exercise. That was so hard. Exercise and running are honestly why I don’t need a therapist! And to not have that outlet was not easy. After the surgery, I was slower and things hurt, I couldn’t run as long or as fast, but I would go anyway. Probably not a good idea to possibly risk the healing process, but, right now, I’m back averaging 9-minute miles, but was able to run 52:56 at the Beach to Beacon 10K this August. That was an 8:32-mile average. I was more than happy with that. I have a half marathon coming up next weekend, which I have no idea how I’ll do since my longest run recently has been only 8.5 miles but I’m going to do it anyway!
SportPort: Getting your fitness level back up must have been a process, especially along with adjusting to other physical changes. You chose to have both breasts removed, what was this like for you?
Michelle: Personally, I didn’t care about losing my breasts or nipples. I was done having children so I didn’t need them anymore. Big breasts have never been important to me or to my identity so that was really a non-issue. I definitely wanted implants to look like a female, but otherwise, I just didn’t care.
SportPort: It sounds like you have the right mindset to handle this type of physical change. At any point did you consider a 3-D nipple tattoo to replicate the look of a natural breast?
Michelle: Yes, I had heard of them and I think it’s a great option for those that want that, but for me it’s not something that I care about personally. I may get a different type of breast tattoo, like a flower or something, but I also may do nothing. In fact, I really like my breast with no nipple. I wish I had thought to have the other one removed as well! Then I would never wear a bra again! I’d recommend other women talk about these nipple options well ahead of any surgery. I wish I had.
SportPort: Definitely helpful to know more about your personal options ahead! From this overall experience with breast cancer, do you have any other take-aways you’d like to share?
Michelle: Honestly, I had no idea how many people cared about me and my family. The outpouring of support through offers to help where needed and to prepare meals for my family was overwhelming. We are a keep-to-ourselves kind of family. We don’t go out a lot, we don’t have parties and we just kind of do our own thing. So it was surprising to see how many people sent flowers, brought food, drove my kids and showed us support. I had no idea that many people cared. So, I’d say to other women diagnosed with breast cancer to not be shy to talk openly about your diagnosis and let others know. We can all learn so much more and we all like to help. It’s amazing!
SportPort: That’s wonderful. I’m sure that must have been extremely uplifting for you and your family. Anything else that you’d like to add?
Michelle: I learned a lot more about the importance of diet and nutritional needs that work for my body and for healing. I gained extra weight during this whole process and had to fix that. I’m currently working with a program a friend recommended, called Stronger U Nutrition (https://www.strongerufit.com/).
Initially, I thought my weight gain was due to the Tamoxifen and was ready to ask my doctor if I could consider going off the medication. But the program helped me to discover that I was eating WAY too many carbs and fat and not nearly enough protein. Knowing and changing this in my diet, allowed me to start losing the weight I had gained and remain on Tamoxifen as a maintenance plan.
SportPort: Now the important question, what is your current cancer status now?
Michelle: I am cancer free right now.
SportPort: That’s excellent news! It must be a relief. Thank you for taking the time to share your story with us. You’ve been very open throughout your experience with breast cancer and we admire your ability to be candid and honest about something so personal.
About Michelle Bouchard:
- Work: Co-owner of McCormick& Bouchard Eye Care, LLC
- Age at Interview: 47 years old
- Diagnosis: Stage 1 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC) Breast Cancer
- Treatment Plan: Full Mastectomy. Tamoxifen. Reconstructive Surgery
- Current Condition: Cancer Free. Maintenance Plan of Tamoxifen. Continued Check-ups with Doctor. Better Diet & Nutrition.
- Athlete Info: Runner/Marathoner. Personal Bests: Marathon 4:08:37; Half-Marathon 1:55; 10K 50:25, 5K 23:18. Plans for the Sugarloaf Marathon in 2018!
- Michelle’s Personal Blog & Cancer Diary: http://ltlindian.blogspot.com/
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