Facing Breast Cancer With Gusto and Grace

Michele Boyd of Signal Travel & Tours is adamant that getting a mammogram is the first, most vital step in the battle against breast cancer.
Michele Boyd of Signal Travel & Tours is adamant that getting a mammogram is the first, most vital step in the battle against breast cancer.

Michele Boyd, owner of Signal Travel & Tours in Niles, MI, has one major piece of advice from her bout with breast cancer and that is that no woman should hesitate to go for her annual mammogram and no one should avoid it because they’re apprehensive of what they might find out.

“I want to encourage women to not be fearful, to just look at it as tackling another project and getting the tests done and staying on top of getting them done [annually],” says the travel agency owner, who has three offices, two in Michigan (Niles and St. Joseph) and one in Granger, IN.

Here, we recount Michele’s story, which she has so kindly agreed to share with the readers of Travel Agent magazine in the hope that her tale will inspire others who may be faced with the challenge of breast cancer.

Michele Boyd had just returned from accompanying a small group on a river cruise in the south of France in the spring of 2013 and was going through a check list of regular medical checkups so she could kick back and enjoy her summer. On one day alone, she visited the dentist in the morning and then went straight for her annual mammogram. “See you in a year!” she cheerfully said to the technician on the way out.

Fast forward to the next morning. It’s 10 a.m. and her phone rings. The doctor’s office is asking her to come back in. Boyd asks what’s wrong.

“Well, we want to take some more pictures,” the caller replies. Twenty minutes later, Boyd is back for a second mammogram and the technician is eyeing the test films.

“I’m going to get the doctor,” she says.

Minutes later Boyd is getting an ultrasound; she’s then called in to speak to the doctor. He sees something on the test results and wants to schedule a biopsy, which is set for the following Tuesday. Once the biopsy is done, what follows are “the longest three days ever,” as Boyd and her husband await the outcome.

Friday morning she gets the call to come in to discuss the results. Hearing those words, a harsh sense of reality sets in and Boyd is blunt with her response. “I said, ‘Well, you just told me what the results were. Why do I have to drive over there to discuss them?’” But drive over she did and the discovery of cancer was confirmed. It was May 10, 2013.

“You fear those words and then when you hear them, they’re not real,” says Boyd. Yet, she was grounded enough to call her trusted family oncologist she’d known for 30 years, the man who had seen both her father and mother through cancer, to tell him of her news. He assured her that he’d get a hold of her test results over the weekend and would meet with her at 7:30 a.m. sharp on Monday to lay out a plan of attack.

Making the Big Decision

As promised, that morning he had a list of recommendations ready when they met. She put herself in his hands, and the whirlwind of tests and consultations began. One decision she made was to get a mastectomy of the breast that had cancer.

“From there on, I felt like I was sitting on the floor with a tornado going around me,” says Boyd. “From the oncologist, I went to a surgeon and from the surgeon to a plastic surgeon to make up my mind if I wanted to have reconstruction or not. I also talked to other people who were in the same situation I was in.”

She describes the process of accepting her diagnosis: “You’re trying to put your arms around it, but you’re reaching and it’s a very surreal feeling because you don’t think it can be happening to you. You just don’t. It’s hard for me to even understand that it happened although obviously, you can look in the mirror and see that it occurred. I would sit there at night and think, ‘This isn’t happening.’ Then I’d wake up in the morning and realize I had another appointment and yes, it was happening and I had to get moving.”

Breaking the News

One of her toughest moments came when Boyd had to break her news to her mother who was 92 at the time and still extremely active. She was strong emotionally as well.

“I would sit there at night and think, ‘This isn’t happening.’ Then I’d wake up in the morning and realize I had another appointment and yes, it was happening and I had to get moving.”

“I’m her only child,” says Boyd. “We have no children. I had to tell her and that was probably the hardest thing to do. She just said, ‘We have fought a number of battles throughout our lives and we just have one more. God has given us another one to fight.’”

If there’s an upside, the timing of Boyd’s mammogram had been fortunate. She had been diagnosed with a lobular carcinoma, which isn’t typically detected by touch. A ductal carcinoma had also been traced that was definitely still too small to have been detected by touch. It was, in fact, so small that it showed up only in a pathology test.

There were more upsides on Boyd’s path to recovery, including the fact that new pathology testing technology was able to provide the probability percentage rate of a cancer reoccurrence for her.

“That test hasn’t been out for many years,” she says. “When that comes back, the results are the final determination of your treatment. If you are under a certain number, then a pill [for treatment] will be sufficient. If you’re over a certain number, then chemotherapy or radiation or both would be necessary.”

When the physician with those test results walked into the room, Boyd told him she thought he had good news for her. She had read the paperwork in his hand upside down and seen only a single digit number. He laughed. She was correct.

“Yes, Ms. Nosy, you’re right,” Boyd recalls him saying. Her percentage indicating a possible recurrence was a low number six. The news was excellent; she would not have to go through chemotherapy or radiation; her course of treatment would be to take Arimidex orally for the next five years.

The good news continued; Boyd went through other testing to ensure there was no other cancer in her system; those results came back negative.

There was still surgery to be had, however, for she had elected to have a mastectomy on the breast that had cancer. That took place on June 5, less than a month after her diagnosis.

“I went through the whole process in basically three weeks. We moved rapidly, very rapidly,” says Boyd, who speaks with appreciation of the availability of the testing that provided her physicians with so much information about her up front. It was especially gratifying to receive, since she has a history of cancer in her family.

“I’m fourth generation with cancer; two of my dad’s sisters and my great-grandmother had breast cancer and my great-grandmother was about my age. She lived to 88, so she lived another 20 years [after her diagnosis]” says Boyd, who notes that years ago, a diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer was fairly general, without any of the detail that testing today can provide.

“Today, women who are diagnosed have so much available to them. All I can do is encourage everyone to get those tests. They’ve got to do it.”

Looking back, Boyd says she is so pleased with the teamwork that took place at her agency, Signal Travel & Tours, where she has 23 advisors (10 inside and 13 outside) to help her run the business as she confronted her ordeal. The agency, a member of the Signature Travel Network, has a roster of very upscale clients and runs the gamut of preparing itineraries for family vacations, Disney and cruises, as well as a group department that operates motorcoach tours for seniors and one-day theater trips to Chicago. It also has a business travel department.

“Everybody really chipped in. Everybody pulled more than their weight and understood,” Boyd recalls. “I was tied from home to the office with my computer and they could call. After about three weeks [of recovery], if somebody was coming into town for a couple hours, I would come in. Then I gradually increased that. I probably didn’t take as much time off as they wanted me to, but it’s hard. When you’re used to working every day, it’s very hard not to go in.”

Bouncing Back

Following the mastectomy, Boyd elected to have reconstructive surgery, which took place on October 4, 2013. She returned to work relatively quickly.

“After that last surgery, I was only off a few days, but I would go home early or I would come in later. I didn’t work full eight-hour days,” she says, adding that she pursued light therapy over the winter and spring to keep swelling down that’s caused by the fact that her surgery was on her predominant side.

“Other than that, that’s it, aside from some minor side effects from the drug that I will be taking for the next five years,” she tells Travel Agent.

She admits she sometimes feels a bit frustrated at having a somewhat lower energy level on some days than she had in the past, due to the surgeries, but overall, she feels blessed.

“I am thankful for the support that I had from my medical team, the staff, my family and from absolutely wonderful friends who were there every day for me,” she says. That her doctors and their team members kept her so well educated about every aspect of the treatment process is high on the list of things she is grateful for.

“I am thankful for the support that I had from my medical team, the staff, my family and from absolutely wonderful friends who were there every day for me.”

Her family oncologist provided another highlight experience. “He sat me down and talked to me about the doctors that were available and he really took the lead. He said, ‘You’re busy with your business, I’m taking the lead and I’m your friend.’ He guided me through.”

While Boyd is convinced that the battle against breast cancer provides so many more options than it did in the past, she is adamant that getting a mammogram is the first, most vital step of the process.

“Today, I think any women who are diagnosed have so much out there available to them,” says Boyd. “All I can do is encourage everyone to get those tests. They’ve got to do it.”

Donate to the Secret Sisters Society

Michele Boyd believes that early detection of breast cancer begins with an annual mammogram. Recognizing that women don’t always have the means to afford such testing, she has asked that the portion of the proceeds of the ads supporting breast cancer awareness in this issue of Travel Agent magazine be donated to the Secret Sisters Society, an organization that sponsors women and supports the early detection of breast cancer.

Since 2003, more than 4,000 mammograms have been scheduled through the fund. In 2011, the Women’s Task Force expanded the fund’s purpose so that the Society now gives women ages 40-49 a chance to receive both mammogram screenings and cervical cancer screenings. This opportunity is provided to those women who under normal circumstances would not be able to receive such screenings until age 50, due to financial limitations. The purpose of the fund is to provide younger women access to these life-saving procedures. You can become a Secret Sisters Society member by donating $50 or more.

For more information, reach out to Kristin Garvey Michel ([email protected], 574-335-4541), manager of development at The Foundation of Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center.

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