Why we relay: Crossing the finish line

Michelle Bryant-Gravelle, fourth generation breast cancer survivor, wants it to end with her

A goal orientated, powerhouse is how Michelle Bryant-Gravelle should be described. Always on the go and reaching for success since her first job at 16-years-old. The daughter, sister, mother, wife, grandmother, teacher, kick-boxer, and corporate affairs manager won all these title-belts prior to December 2019. Now, in May 2020, not six months later, cancer warrior can be added to her trophy shelf.

“In my heart I knew from the moment I felt the lump that (cancer) was what this was,” Bryant-Gravelle said, as we sat in her quiet her back yard on a sunny but breezy May day. We sat a decent social distancing length apart, on the cushioned outdoor furniture, for two reasons. One: COVID-19 social distancing etiquette and two: her compromised immune system from the other ‘C’ word violating her personal world – cancer. Michelle looked relaxed with her feet tucked under her and a scarf covering her head. I’d not met this woman previously, but I could sense her feeling of peace and determination. She was more soft spoken than I imagined.

The cancer journey for Michelle, who is only 44, has been quick and fast paced. Finding a lump under her breast upon return from a family vacation, just before Christmas, she telephoned the doctor straight away. Due to the holiday season there was a wait. When she did get in to see her doctor, a diagnostic mammogram was booked. With no mammogram technician in Prince Rupert, Michelle had to wait even longer for an appointment in Terrace, which took until February.

“The whole time I kind of knew. I’m the fourth generation in my family to have breast cancer. My great-grandmother, my grandmother, my aunt and now me.”

On Feb. 11, 2020, Michelle was accompanied by her husband and her mother to her mammogram, almost two hours drive away. Upon arrival she was told that a biopsy would be completed that day. On Feb. 14, Michelle was provided the diagnosis. it was one that she had expected all along. The expectation of it didn’t make the delivery or the acceptance of the news any easier.

“It was hard,” she struggled to say catching a missed breath and tearing up.

As journalists, we are supposed to remain unbiased, but in that moment, I felt my breath falter in unison with hers and my own eyes started to water as I felt her pain.

She said fear was the first thing that went through her head.

“It was just fear of the unknown, fear of my life being turned upside down.”

“I’m the oldest of four sisters. There has always been a goal. Go to school, get good grades, go to university, support your family, it has always been ingrained, so that’s just what I have done,” Michelle said.

“Throughout parts of my life I have been a single mom and have always been goal orientated. I come from a family who always pushed education, especially as an indigenous woman. Our family has been pushed.”

Michelle’s goal now is to beat cancer.

It’s one thing to deal with cancer treatments. It’s a completely different thing to deal with cancer treatments during a pandemic, she said.

That fear of the unknown she initially had at the time of diagnoses hasn’t dissipated with time as procedures continue. A lot of steps on this new journey for her have had to be alone and in isolation.

“I can’t have anyone come into my appointments or my treatments with me. …going to my first chemotherapy treatment was probably the hardest because for one, I don’t know what to expect, never being to chemotherapy before or even seen it.”

Michelle said while she knows her family were there for her emotionally, having to go to chemotherapy by herself was traumatizing.

“I sat in that chair and I was scared and tears were rolling down my face knowing the people who loved me couldn’t be there with me.”

“… another thing having to deal with cancer treatments during the pandemic, if you or someone close to you contracts it (COVID-19), it could potentially kill you.”

READ MORE: Why I relay – Cancer survivor learns to heal

Michelle says her mom and dad have been great supports. Her dad, who lives in Lax Kw’alaams, stayed with her for a couple of months as the community was in lock down.

“You know the most important thing with my mom and my dad has been that nurturing. They have been from the beginning.”

“My mom has been tremendous. She lives here in Rupert. She has been doing everything for me. She has been at my appointments. She has been doing our shopping, so no one in the house has to has to go out.

Michelle has completed five out of eight chemotherapy sessions here in Prince Rupert. Once they are finished, she will still have to go to Vancouver for surgery and radiation.

There are many side effects of chemotherapy.

“That first cycle was painful. They (doctors) said a possible side effect would be nerve pain, and I got it. On a scale of 1 to 10 the first six days would have been an 8 or 9. It was bad” she said.

Describing the pain, she said was like needles pricks and burning over the bottoms of her feet.

“It radiates. It doesn’t stay in one area. It is like its own life force running through your body, just affecting every nerve.”

Able to get the pain under some control with medication, for the subsequent chemo sessions, she said she still has numbness in her extremities and through her body. In her last chemotherapy, the medication was changed to ANC drugs.

However, they left her debilitated and barely able to get out of bed for the first six days. A week later she said she finally felt about 50 per cent of her normal self.

Due to the pandemic, appointments and consultations with her doctors have had to be over the phone, so physical examinations have been nonexistent, however, an oncologist ordered ultrasound for the midway treatment point showed the 33 mm tumor had shrunk down to 21 mm.

Expectations are something that she doesn’t hold because she is treating her cancer experience as a journey. The doctors don’t expect to get rid of all the cancer either, she said, as it is in her lymph nodes. She has stage three invasive ductal carcinoma that is estrogen and progesterone positive.

“…The journey that’s carried me to now is knowing that I can’t live my life the way I was previously. Things will have to change and priorities will have to shift. But you know at the end of the treatment process, I visualize for myself, the tumor is gone…every cancer cell in my body has been transformed.”

“I see a life, my life, lived with more purpose. Not to say it hasn’t been, but with a more meaningful progress, enjoying the moment without stressing about all the little things that have to be done, and just allowing a moment to pass.”

Previously active and physically fit, Michelle attending kickboxing twice a week and enjoyed walking. She said she is now out of breath walking up a level in her split level home.

She has been finding peace and solace in energy sessions, also known as healing touch therapy. She has a team of therapy workers who will remove negative emotion or energy blocks. She has sessions before and after chemo.

“I could literally be on my knees, depleted like you wouldn’t believe. Then after an energy session I feel like a million dollars. It’s just amazing.”

“I feel like my cancer diagnosis is also like a rebirth of myself, of redefining myself, and who I truly am. Not who other people want me to be, or what I think I should be. That’s probably my greatest lesson. Right from the diagnosis.”

READ MORE: Why I will relay -Wings of fight

Prior to her cancer diagnosis Michelle was the face of the corporate affairs for nine years at one of the busiest port terminals in Canada. Her job at Ridley Terminals consisted of public relations, internal and external communication. She said the focus has always been on community and that’s where she became involved in Relay for Life as it is one of the main charitable organizations RTI donates to. The relay team in the past has been called the Coal Strollers.

“The one thing that I can say about the Relay for Life in Prince Rupert is the amount of people that come together, to organize it, to participate, to support in whatever way they can is absolutely amazing. That’s one thing that I feel really grateful for, is to have a level of community support for people who are going through cancer. Just that level of compassion and empathy, and whatever means that people can help.”

Michelle said her Nan is huge inspiration to her. As a two time cancer survivor at the age of 83-years-old, she walks the relay every year.

“If my Nan has the strength, then I will have the strength.”

“Cancer has touched our family so much. We’ve lost a lot of family members from cancer on both my mom and my dad side. We’ve also have several survivors. Donating to cancer charities, participating in cancer events has always been a part of who I am.”

“We talk about the Relay for Life. When you think about what a relay is… you’re passing the baton, from one to the next. That running parallel, to having four generations of breast cancer, is just like a relay. I’m determined that I will cross the finish line of this relay and there’ll be no one else to pass the baton to.”

K-J Millar | Journalist
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