Hope and Healing

[00:00:00] Adam Walker: From Susan G Komen, this is Real Pink, a podcast exploring real stories, struggles, and triumphs related to breast cancer. We’re taking the conversation from the doctor’s office to your living room.

If you have breast cancer, you also carry a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, due to having a weakened immune system.  Today’s guest was diagnosed with Stage 1, HER2-positive breast cancer before COVID vaccinations were available yet and during a time when she should have been celebrating, as she had just received her doctorate in biochemistry. The effect of navigating this diagnosis during a global pandemic was overwhelming, both physically and mentally.

cHere today to share her story and how she held onto hope through the process is Morgan Mitchell. Morgan, welcome to the show!

[00:00:51] Morgan Mitchell: Thank you for having me.

[00:00:53] Adam Walker: Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate you joining us and just sharing your story and your life with us for a moment here. So I understand that last fall should have been a time of celebration and new beginnings for you. Tell us about the exciting things that were happening in your life.

And then tell us about your diagnosis.

[00:01:13] Morgan Mitchell: Yes. Well, again, thank you so much. Uh, Adam, for having me here last fall, it was in may that I defended my dissertation, um, for a PhD program in biochemistry that I’ve been working on for seven years. And it, you know, as you can imagine, it was a lot involved in that program.

Uh, during the course of the program, my dad tragically passed. I had to take a semester off from school because of that, just to deal with psychological issues and grief like that. So I, you know, during this time when I was getting ready to defend my dissertation and, and, you know, putting all the bells and whistles on and just editing, um, my thesis, I was really excited to finally, you know, be graduating.

And, and embark upon my career. And unfortunately what happened is that I ended up getting diagnosed with breast cancer and graduating, uh, from my doctoral program in the same month. And so that was last year in the August, 2020. So it was, you know, you, you hit this extreme high. And then it’s almost like your, your needs are cut from abundant.

You would this extreme, low. It was, it was real. And I was in shock.

[00:02:47] Adam Walker: I mean, I can only imagine, I mean, Uh, juxtaposition between those two extremes. I can just imagine how difficult that must have been. I mean, D do you have a family history of breast cancer at all?

[00:02:59] Morgan Mitchell: No. I don’t have a family history of breast cancer.

My mom doesn’t have breast cancer. My grandmother didn’t have it. My aunt doesn’t have it. So, you know, cancer was the furthest thing from my mind. I wasn’t thinking of cancer. I was young. I’m graduating. You know, with a PhD in biochemistry, I’m excited to be a scientist and to start work in the scientific community.

Again, I’m young at the time I was 34. I hadn’t even begun to do self checks because self checks are recommended at 35. And me with no family history, mammograms are not recommended until. And in bad health insurance won’t pay for it until then. So I, you know, it was a complete shock. I, I never thought anything.

I, it was the furthest thing from my mind.

[00:04:05] Adam Walker: So, so tell me, you were diagnosed. What kind of treatments did you have to undergo and tell us about that experience?

[00:04:11] Morgan Mitchell: So I got diagnosed and, and, and let me tell you, by the way, the story of how I got diagnosed. So it was during COVID and it was kind of during the early COVID.

I mean, it was during the summer and, uh, you know, it was like July or so, and I just happened to brush up against, you know, my breast and I felt something kind of, you know, a little bit different. And I said, okay, whatever, you know, and just shrugged it off. Cause again, it’s the furthest thing from my mind.

But then the next day I happened to feel it again. So I show my mom, she felt it. She said, oh yeah, there’s something there making an appointment with your OB GYN. So that’s what I did. I made an appointment with my OB GYN. She said, yes, there is definitely something here. She said, because of your age, you know, family history is probably just a cyst I’ve had in my entire life.

So it’s not uncommon. You know, we just get a biopsy and proceed from there and the biopsy results came back and it was cancerous five days later. And I was just in shock. I was, I was just in complete shock. Everything with, I mean, it was almost automatic at that point because I got diagnosed in August, 2020 of last year.

And I got my first chemotherapy treatment in September the day before my 35th. Wow. And so that’s actually my birthday and I went through six months of chemotherapy. I did a surgery and I did what’s called a lumpectomy surgery. Luckily I was stage one. So it hadn’t metastasized or anything like that.

Hadn’t spread to. So they’re just able to do, what’s called a lumpectomy where they just go in and essentially remove the love and surrounding areas. So I did that and then I did six weeks of radiation, and right now I’m on maintenance therapy. So it’s essentially medication and therapy. To help the tumor from not coming.

[00:06:40] Adam Walker: Okay. Gotcha. So you mentioned that you started this, or I think you mentioned you were diagnosed. Sort of at the height of the pandemic. And as I mentioned in the intro, this was pre vaccine. There’s a lot of stress at that time globally about COVID. Um, I mean, tell us about what you were going through during COVID dealing with cancer and how, how did that affect you physically and how did that affect you mentally?

[00:07:09] Morgan Mitchell: Yeah, Adam, it was really the scariest thing I’ve ever encountered before in my life. Once I got diagnosed with cancer, I knew that COVID for me, was gonna take on many different means because I knew that once chemotherapy started, I was going to be very, very immunocompromised. The only reason I left the house was to go to treatment.

That’s the only reason I never went anywhere else. Just for my safety. And just because I didn’t feel comfortable and everyone knew that then I was severely immunocompromised. Um, so it was, it was really hard to, to stay at home during those times, you know, at one point in December, I started having flu like symptoms and I, I had a fever of 1 0 2 and I was terrified.

I said, you know what? This is. I’m going to be like thousands of other Americans in a hospital fighting for my life. You know, it was, it was just really, really scary. The unknown part of it, the mental toll that it takes on. I wasn’t even comfortable going outside to park. It was a really, really scary time.

You know, it’s a scary time for a healthy person. You know, much less in immunocompromised person, you know, mentally, psychologically, you know, it, it became very lonely. You start to feel like you’re a prisoner and you’re in your own house. Not to mention, you know, the physical toll from. The treatment itself, chemo is very hard on my body.

You know, I had diarrhea, upset, stomach nausea. It was, it was really hard. It was really hard when you come by that psychological toll and the physical toll of having cancer. It was extremely scary. Words. Words cannot describe how. Terrified. I was, I was scared for my life, literally.

[00:09:33] Adam Walker: Um, yeah, I mean, I can only imagine, so, so what was it, I mean, what was it, or how did you keep moving forward during that time?

[00:09:41] Morgan Mitchell: A lot of things, I mean the support from my friends, my family, my community, every card and every sentimental gift just uplifted me so much.

And made me realize, you know, that people love me and they, they are here for me and they do pay her. That was one thing. Another thing my mom is retired. I live with my mom.

So that was extremely helpful because she was essentially my caretaker. Throughout this entire time, you know, she’s, uh, she’s a mama bear and she’s, you know, trying to make sure her, her baby is okay, so she’s cooking meals and feeding them to me in the bed and making sure I’m hydrated, you know, doing all of those things.

So that was really helpful. My baby. And my relationship with God really came so much more because when you’re going through, um, a life turn like that, and when you’re literally looking death, you know, in the face. Oh, yeah. You start talking to God a whole lot more.

[00:11:02] Adam Walker: I can only imagine,

[00:11:05] Morgan Mitchell: you know, a lot of people send me journals I’ve started journaling.

So I wouldn’t say it was one thing that really helped me to persevere, but it was more so a combination of, of all of these things. I mean, if any, one of these things. Um, had been absent. I wouldn’t have made it. It was, it was everything, um, put together, you know, some days I didn’t feel like journaling. So I would talk to that some days.

I didn’t feel like talking. So I would eat the Mac and cheese. You know, you gotta, you gotta say, take a little small games that you can’t not every day is a good day. You have a lot of bad days, but at the end of the day, you’re here and there are people that care about you and love you. Ultimately, you know, those things are what got me.

[00:12:03] Adam Walker: That’s right. That’s right. People do care about you and love you. Um, and, and you’re here. This, this is the day that you’ve got. So, so let’s talk for a moment about your medical team. I mean, did you feel supported by them? What was that experience like?

[00:12:15] Morgan Mitchell: I want to tread here lightly because I, I love my medical team.

I love my doctors, my nurses, my staff. They are very hardworking people. Put their life on the line every single day. Again, this was during a global pandemic and they were masked up, suited it up glove that showed up to work. And I felt as though they were fighting the battle with me, I never felt as though they were incompetent.

I never felt as though I was being neglected or overlooked. Um, you know, and especially the nurses, I mean, To have that type of job. You have to be a special person and just have compassion for people. I mean, it takes a special personality to do that. So I’m, I’m very grateful, um, format for my medical team.

However, um, I, I do feel as though some things were lacking. I feel as though if you go to different cancer treatments, you get offered a whole near yet of services from. It could be massage therapy, it could be psychological therapy. It could be any types of therapies that are often used other than drugs that are really helpful.

The place that I went to didn’t offer these services. So it’s kind of like I had to reach out to my nurses and say, Hey, do you know a psychiatrist? You know, that would be good with cancer patients. Do you know? I mean, is massage therapy. I mean, because in my case, in particular, I had a lot of nerve pain. I had a lot of nerve pain in my feet and in my hand, and at one point it got so bad.

I, I couldn’t walk. I was in a wheelchair and I was bedridden for a month. You know, and the doctors had to take me off of that medication and put me on to a different medication. But you know, these, these medications are very hard and they take a long time. They basically have to wear out of your system.

So, so those, the long-term and the residual effects are still there. You know, but it was basically me talking to just other people, you know, word of mouth and you know, me learning, oh, acupuncture may be able to help this or a massage therapy may be able to help this. And at some of the other, I guess, larger known cancer clinics, they have everything like that on.

They have an acupuncturist. They have a psychiatrist. All of those people are in place in there. They are waiting for you. The patient is already dealing with so much where we’re already dealing with so much, we have cancer. So the, the less that we have to do. Um, in terms of that front, I think that was Lackey.

And again, healthcare workers do so much. I mean, they put in hours upon hours upon hours and their work to the max and everything like that. And I’m, I’m so grateful for, for them, you know, providing the best care and the best. I think it’s more so in institutional or, uh, a suspended fail in that sense, you know, if it’s not one person’s fault, it’s a lot of people’s faults is not necessarily built into.

The patient system as should be. And the person who, who, who feels the brunt of this is the patient. And so you should be doing everything to make sure. The patient has whatever he or she needs at any of their fingertips. So is it was, it was, it was a little bit different in that sense.

[00:17:01] Adam Walker: Uh, Morgan, last question here, and really just appreciate, you know, all that you shared with us, um, about just such a difficult time.

Um, so the last question. Are there any parting words that you want to leave our listeners with? Maybe anything that you’d like to share that you wish you would’ve known before you went through this process?

[00:17:22] Morgan Mitchell: Yes, definitely. I appreciate this question so much and I appreciate the opportunity to really speak on this because breast cancer was the furthest thing from my mind.

It wasn’t at all on the radar, but when you look at the numbers and look at the statistics. About black women in breast cancer. It really is a totally different disease than white women with breast cancer. And because of that, we have to treat it differently. And because we have to treat it differently, it starts with awareness.

It really starts with breast health because by the time you, you say the term breast cancer, It’s almost too late because you already have cancer. At this point, we need to talk about breast health. We need to start it puberty. We need to start with young women who are developing breasts and teach them how to do self-checks teach them to know their breasts, teach them to know differences, teach them to know.

With something’s wrong or something seems off, you know, that that’s where we need to start. If you look at myself, anything that has to do with breast cancer, I’m not even looking at it because I don’t have breast cancer. So already that doesn’t pertain to me. You know, I don’t have breastfeeding. But now I do.

So now I’m looking at everything that’s breast cancer. Um, but we need to be in a more, um, preventative mode rather than a treatment mode. And it all starts with awareness. I mean, nobody told me, you know, black women are two times more likely to get breast cancer than their white counterparts. Nobody told me.

Why not. Why did it somebody tell me that black women are 40% more likely to die from breast cancer in their white counterparts? I was never told that why wasn’t that we need to, we need to start having these conversations. We need to start, um, having open in honest conversations. Um, a lot of times in the black community, it’s also taboo to talk about hell and talk about debt.

People don’t inquire how that person pass. It’s just like, oh, they, they pass. They’ve gone on to glory. You know? Well, how did they pass? Oh, I don’t know. I don’t ask those questions, but, uh, we, we, we need to ask this question. We need to know our family medical history.

[00:20:19] Adam Walker: That’s so important. So, Morgan, thank you so much for all the thoughtful things that you shared and for being vulnerable with us.

Thank you so much for joining us on the show today. Um, you’re right. Are the conversations that we need to be having. And you’re a part of that by coming on real pink today. So, thank you so much for all that you’re doing to bring awareness to these issues. Thank you for sharing about your experience with us and thank you for joining me on the show today.

Thanks for listening to Real Pink, a weekly podcast by Susan G Komen. For more episodes, visit RealPink.com. For more on breast cancer, visit komen.org. Make sure to check out at Susan G Komen on social media. I’m your host, Adam, you can find me on Twitter @AJWalker or on my blog, AdamJWalker.com.