They say life is made up of small moments, but just one moment can change a life forever. For Michelle Messer of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, that moment came when, at age 52, she was told she had an aggressive form of ovarian cancer — one of the deadliest cancers in women.
When the tumor was detected, Michelle's was told it 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 those symptoms made sense.
Michelle's cancer was already at stage 4 when she was diagnosed by Suzette Peltier, M.D., a gynecologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire. It had spread throughout her abdominal cavity, liver, lungs and colon.
For Michelle's husband, Shaun, the news was devastating. "That was probably the most crushing thing I have ever felt in my life," he says.
Then the couple had to break the news to their two adult sons and teenage 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."
After the initial shock subsided, the family quickly moved into action. Dr. Peltier arranged for Michelle to be seen by specialists at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus. After a series of tests, Francis Nichols, M.D., a thoracic surgeon, removed the cancer from Michelle's 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, Michelle underwent a nine-hour abdominal surgery performed by Carrie Langstraat, M.D., a Mayo Clinic gynecological oncologist. Michelle's tumor was removed, along with her gallbladder, part of her colon and dozens of lymph nodes. The procedure also included a hysterectomy.
After that, Michelle had chemotherapy every week for nearly eight months at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire.
It was grueling, she says. She lost her hair and energy, but she didn't lose her faith in the future. Michelle credits her medical team, along with many 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 cancer, 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 cancer.
The return of the cancer meant more surgery and chemotherapy. The treatment was even harder on Michelle's body the second time, but optimism endured for Michelle and her oncology team.
Michelle recalls one tough chemotherapy 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 encouragement was a significant source of comfort to her.
She's also forever thankful for the support she received from Dr. Peltier the day she learned she had cancer. Michelle recently had a chance to reconnect with Dr. Peltier and tell her how important that moment was.
"It's very humbling," Dr. Peltier says. "I can't tell you how refreshing it is to see somebody five years out from stage 4 ovarian cancer."
Today, Michelle is again in remission and is living her life fully. She's an active volunteer at Mayo Clinic Health System with her pet therapy dog, Hunter. The pair visits patients and providers in Eau Claire's Albert J. and Judith A. Dunlap Cancer Center — a place Michelle knows well.
Michelle says she is at peace with whatever lies ahead, grateful for the care team that has guided her along the way.
"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."
Learn more about Michelle's story in this video:
Note: A version of this story previously was published in Hometown Health.