|Michelle Morgan’s two “loving, accomplished daughters” have given her four grandchildren who “kept me focused on the joys of life.”|
Michelle Morgan, president of Signature Travel Network, passed away September 17, 2013. Here, we remember her remarkable story, told to us in the summer of 2011. Her brave tale of battling breast cancer appeared in Travel Agent's Pink Issue in 2011 and served as inspiration for others battling the same disease.
Michelle Morgan, president of Signature Travel Network, has had a big year in 2011. She was named the godmother of Celebrity Cruises’ newest ship, Celebrity Silhouette, and presided over its naming ceremony in Hamburg, Germany, on July 21. She was also inducted into the Cruise Lines International Association’s (CLIA) Cruise Industry Hall of Fame on April 16 at a gala evening event during CLIA’s cruise3sixty conference in Fort Lauderdale. On November 1, she will celebrate 20 years with Signature.
These joyous occasions that pay tribute to Morgan’s numerous contributions to the travel industry over the span of her career have been preceded, however, by the greatest challenge of her life: her battle with breast cancer.
Here, she shares with our readers her inspiring story of perseverance, constant optimism, and survival, and what it was like to balance everyday work demands with her ongoing medical treatment.
I’m the luckiest person on the planet. I have an extraordinary career in a dynamic industry, working for the past 20 years for an extraordinary company that makes me proud and with extra-ordinary individuals who are true professionals, approaching their work and their lives with dignity, integrity and humor. I have two loving, accomplished daughters and four grandchildren very dear to my heart. I’m fortunate to have many friends and business colleagues, with relationships that go back decades. I’m also blessed that my 85-year-old mother is healthy and enjoys cruising three times a year. Life is good!
It was a Sunday night in August 2009. I had a dream that I had a lump under my left arm, and in the dream, I was diagnosed with cancer; my daughters and friends were distraught. I was so disturbed by the dream that I sat up in bed, wishing to dismiss it. I felt under my left arm, but couldn’t feel a lump. That week, I had an appointment with my internist, and sheepishly mentioned the dream. He felt under my arm and didn’t feel a thing. He urged me to go to my gynecologist, affiliated with St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica. Fortunately, I had scheduled an appointment with her for the following week for my annual checkup.
Dr. Cornelia Daly, my longtime gynecologist, reviewed my chart. We talked about the fact that my maternal grandmother died of breast cancer at 50 and that my mother had breast cancer at 50. She examined me, did not feel a lump, but scheduled a mammogram and ultrasound to be safe. Dr. Daly also proactively made an appointment for me to see a surgeon, Dr. Amy Kuskee, to discuss gene testing and a potential prophylactic mastectomy, just to explore all options. I had the BRCA gene test, which came out “negative.”
The mammogram and an ultrasound were taken the same day. The radiologist was called in during the ultrasound by the technician. He said, “I see a slightly enlarged lymph node under your left arm, but I see those all the time—it’s not unusual. I’ll send a ‘clear’ report to your doctor. Come back in 12 months.”
With that statement by the radiologist, I was sorely tempted to accept the “good news” and simply abandon all additional investigative measures, but decided to keep the appointment with Dr. Kuskee to gain another view on the matter. I told her about my dream, how vivid it was. She told me later that she had a gut instinct after talking to me. When she reviewed my file before I walked into the treatment room, she was prepared to examine me and tell me to come back in six months. However, when we met and talked, she decided she was going to have to fight with the insurance company (all tests had been negative), but one way or the other, we were going to get a needle biopsy of that lymph node.
The biopsy revealed breast cancer cells. I then had an MRI, CT scan and PET scan. Amazingly, a tumor was never found. The mammogram, MRI, CT scan all showed “clear.” The PET scan revealed multiple “hot spots” (of cancer cells) under my left arm. No tumor. Simply cancer cells.
So here I am, with breast cancer history in my family, dutifully going for mammograms annually, getting breast checks from my gynecologist every six months. And there it is: breast cancer.
Nothing prepares you to hear the words, “You have breast cancer.” I was planning to go to Napa with friends over Labor Day weekend, when I received the call. Instead I spent the weekend with my family. I felt the need to be surrounded with their love and care; it was the right thing for all of us.
Both my gynecologist and my surgeon highly recommended an oncologist, Dr. Melanie Shaum. Before making an appointment with Dr. Shaum, I had a discussion about her with my internist, and coincidentally, she had been his student at UCLA. He told me that she graduated number one in her class from Columbia and that he felt infinitely confident in her ability to manage my treatment. But, as was his practice, he also sent me to another oncologist for a second opinion, and that physician eventually agreed with Dr. Shaum’s treatment plan.
For me, the key is having a team of doctors whose professional capabilities you trust, and who you believe care about you as an individual. Dr. Shaum told me that less than 2 percent of breast cancer patients have tumors that are not detectible by diagnostic tools today. She might see one patient a year with this diagnosis.
My proactive gynecologist, the surgeon who had a gut feeling, and my oncologist, who wasted no time getting me into an aggressive treatment program, saved my life.
The timing was a little challenging, as Signature’s annual owners’ meeting was imminent and I had my first chemotherapy session a week before it.
I attended the meeting, and didn’t tell anyone except two board members and several staff members about my medical issue. I did not wish to derail the meeting, wishing instead to keep it 100 percent focused on the business issues, not me. Think about the business climate in the fall of 2009!
So, I stood on stage and conducted the meeting, and attended every meal function. In between sessions, I went to my room and rested. Karen Yeates, Signature’s vice president of Internet business solutions, took care of me during those “down times.” She and her three beautiful children prayed for me every night. Is there anything in the world more precious than the prayers of sweet, innocent children?
I made a decision that I would not, under any circumstances, let this disease define me, or disrupt my real life. Everyone deals with these medical challenges differently. I’m not saying my approach is best or better than how others handle their diagnosis. I did not go on the Internet to research my particular type of cancer and I did not seek the safe haven of support groups.
I was determined to live my life, do what the doctors told me and come out the other side. My dearest friend, Jo Engel, took charge of my medical situation. She created a binder, went to the doctors’ visits with me, asked questions and kept track of every detail of my treatment plan, medications and tests.
I couldn’t drive before or after my treatments or surgery. Signature’s board chair, Tim Smith, was adamant that Stephanie Coxen, the company’s meeting planner, would be at the ready, to drive me to doctor’s appointments, to pick up medicines or groceries. He said, “Taking care of you is taking care of the company.” How grateful I was. My daughters live two hours from my doctors, have careers, and are busy wives and mothers. It was my Signature family that helped me through so much of this.
With that said, I learned many lessons along the way. I learned that I could not be my usual self-sufficient self. I had to rely on the caring support of friends and colleagues. And what I realized was that people who care about you feel helpless. They don’t know what to do or say, and they wish very badly to help in some tangible way. So, I swallowed my pride, admitted my need for support and allowed people to help me through this process.
Balancing aggressive medical treatments and endless doctors’ appointments, and running a company was a challenge. But everyone in my life raised their hands to help me. The staff at Signature were unbelievable. They carried on their responsibilities and duties, and the company did not miss a beat in its support of its members.
I only missed a total of two weeks of work during the entire year. I went to the office before each chemotherapy treatment and returned afterward. The conference table was removed from my office and replaced with a sofa and two chairs. Often, in the afternoons, I would close the door and lie down for 30 minutes or so. That kept me refreshed, and able to continue working.
On the days I didn’t feel well enough to come to the office, the staff came to me. My apartment is only a few minutes away. So, we would conduct business in my sunny living room. Again, I was determined to maintain normalcy, and Signature is an extremely important factor in my life.
I endured two rounds of chemotherapy and surgery to remove all of the tissue under my left arm. The pathologist’s report revealed that 16 of the 18 lymph nodes still had cancer cells after the first round of chemotherapy, so round two was ordered. It was determined that having a mastectomy would not improve my long-term survivability, so that was not part of the treatment.
During my eight weeks of radiation treatments, I didn’t miss any work time. I didn’t experience the expected fatigue, or, perhaps, I didn’t allow myself to feel the fatigue normally associated with this phase of the treatment.
My spirits were consistently high during the ordeal. I did not allow myself to have one negative thought. Did I feel fear at times? Yes, I did. But honestly, my commitment to the company and my family drove me to rise above any thoughts of fear or self-pity.
Where do I begin to talk about the million acts of love and kindness that I experienced during the treatment period? Eric Maryanov, owner of All Travel, a board member and friend, sat with me and held my hand during each chemotherapy session. Susan Reder, co-owner of Frosch-Classic Cruise and Travel, was a constant source of support. Tim Smith, who also owns Carefree Vacations in San Diego, consistently offered his care and support, encouraging me to take time to walk on the beach, slow down and pamper myself.
Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean International’s senior vice president of sales, sent me the most beautiful cards and notes through the year. Vicki and I started our careers together more than 30 years ago at First Travel Corporation. We’ve been friends for a long time, and she always let me know she was thinking about me.
After my surgery, Jo and another friend Gladys Lyons, DSM for RSSC, brought me home. We had a slumber party, complete with martinis! Not sure if my doctors had this in mind for therapy, but I needed to keep upbeat, and surrounded myself with dear friends who kept things positive and life-affirming. I knew that if my daughters accompanied me, it would be much more emotional.
Bryan Leibman, owner of Frosch Travel, was a physician before he jumped into the family travel business. He asked that I gather up all of my tests and reports for him. He took them to MD Anderson Hospital in Houston, had their tumor board review my case, and returned to me their findings and recommendations.
Talk about above and beyond the call of duty. He called me every other week, just to see how I was feeling.
Probably one of the most challenging aspects during my treatment was being unable to travel. Typically I have a demanding travel schedule, but most of that had to stop. The Signature board of directors was so accommodating. We held the annual board retreat at the Fairmont in Santa Monica, so I could go for my daily radiation treatments. Meetings were held on the West Coast, so it was easy for me to participate without disruption to my treatments.
Everyone understood my limitations and accommodated me. So many Signature owners and members sent e-mails, cards, flowers and gifts—amazing acts of kindness and love. I still get teary-eyed thinking about it.
While my friends, colleagues and family surrounded me with love, it was my grandchildren who kept me focused on the joys of life. I adore each of them: two little four-year-old boys (my daughters gave birth at the same time); a beautiful blonde, green-eyed granddaughter; and a seven-year-old grandson, my eldest. I spent as much time with them as I could, and did not spare the hugs and kisses. I focused my thoughts on being with them when they graduate from high school, because I wholeheartedly wish to participate in every aspect of their lives as they pass from childhood to adulthood.
The truth is, I’m a very private person. I was reluctant to step out and talk about my breast cancer experiences. I thought honestly that the people who know me are aware of what I went through. Why would others care or need to know? But then Richard Fain called me a few months ago and asked me to be a godmother to Celebrity’s newest Solstice-class ship, Silhouette. He told me that all of the other Solstice-class ship godmothers faced breast cancer, and they told their story to educate and help others who might experience it. I thought, maybe this was my destiny—to step out of my comfort zone and talk about my journey.
The christening was in Hamburg. Again, I was accompanied by a “dream team”—Jo and Horst Engel, Susan Reder and Ellen Kalish (co-owner of CruiseCenter in Houston). The audience was predominately German and European. After the incredible ceremony, many men and women came up to me and thanked me for telling my story. One woman said, “If I am ever diagnosed with cancer, I will remember you and I won’t be afraid.” That was so powerful…I’ll never forget her words.
Supporting Susan G. Komen
So, stepping out is something I’m doing now. The Signature board has recently made a decision to support breast cancer research and awareness programs. Every successful company should “give back” and have a charitable endeavor—this will be ours. So many women within the Signature organization have been touched by this disease.
While there are other foundations, it was determined that the Susan G. Komen foundation provided more local opportunities that would enable members to get involved. I love the ad Signature’s ad agency created for this edition of Travel Agent magazine. The program, as of this writing, isn’t fully developed, but Executive VP Ignacio Maza, a dear, longtime friend, will be spearheading Signature’s efforts.