Michelle Judson’s cancer army

Life’s a beach: Michelle Judson with husband Evan and children (from left) Stone, 4; Sapphire, 18 months; and Scarlett, 7.

Michelle Judson was concerned, but not alarmed, when she felt a lump in her breast in late February. She was nursing her younger daughter, Sapphire, at the time, and figured a milk duct had gotten clogged.

A visit to her doctor and a battery of tests, however, changed everything. Michelle, just 39, had stage 3 breast cancer. With that diagnosis, she was thrust into a dizzying new world that at first brought more questions than answers. What happens next? What kinds of treatments will I need? What are my chances?

“From the moment that I found out I had cancer,” she recalls, “I just knew that, ‘Oh man, I have three little kids and my husband works away from home five days a week. I don’t have the luxury to even process this. I have to amass this army of support now.’”

For Michelle and other patients like her, Providence Cancer Institute has a team of experts to treat every aspect of the disease, beginning with those fearful and uncertain first days.

Within an hour of her diagnosis, Michelle got a phone call from a Providence nurse navigator, who explained that she would guide Michelle through the care process, helping her at every important stage of her treatment.

For Michelle, that phone call offered welcome comfort; she and her family wouldn’t be facing this disease alone. At home and at Providence, Michelle’s army began to coalesce.

Alison Conlin, M.D., who specializes in breast cancer, would be her oncologist. Michelle would have an acupuncturist, Loch Chandler, N.D., to ease any symptoms she might have with chemotherapy. Her surgeon would be Shaghayegh Aliabadi, M.D.

Dr. Aliabadi met with Michelle to talk through her options. “I brought you in to ease your heart and mind, not out of a sense of urgency,” she told Michelle. “It’s not good to have cancer at 39, but we will approach this as aggressively as you will let us and as aggressively as you want.”

The family connection
Through further testing, Michelle learned not only that she did have a genetic mutation that left her vulnerable to getting cancer, but that her immediate and extended family also carried the same gene. The family patterns that she’d never connected – that her father, uncles, grandmother, great-aunts and second cousins all had cancer – suddenly became obvious.

“I have a sister who’s 32 and a sister who’s 25,” Michelle says, “so now they’re getting tested. They know if they have the gene they face a much higher risk of developing breast cancer. The best thing for them going forward is to get mammograms.”

Her husband, Evan Judson, whose job requires him to divide his time between the family home in Portland and his work in Seaside, marvels at the outpouring of support from friends and family.

“We’ve had child care, meals brought over regularly. We’ve had friends come over and clean up our house,” he says. “You have to be able to swallow your pride and ask for help. I know that was really hard for my wife because she’s a superwoman.”

Michelle opted for a double mastectomy, which took place in April. She underwent chemotherapy during the summer and will start radiation in October. For the brief span of time in between, Michelle and Evan agreed to share a joyful act of defiance against the disease that turned their family’s lives upside down. They would compete in a triathlon.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Michelle says, “as a way to throw up my arms and give a big woo-hoo!”