Michelle Peterson and her husband, Travis, had their hands full with two children under the age of 5 at home, two more children coming and Travis' new business when they found out in July 2012 that Peterson had breast cancer.
In late 2011, Michelle Peterson, then 30 years old, got happy news: She and her husband, Travis, were expecting. Just a few weeks later, they got the news that they’d be having twins.
Both happy and a little overwhelmed, she and Travis set about preparing for their third and fourth children to join their family. With a young daughter and son already at home, their lives were busy.
Travis changed jobs and was working hard to build his new business. Peterson, while preparing for new babies, was chasing two children under the age of 5. Their happy family was full of activity and excitement.
In July 2012, when Peterson was 28 weeks pregnant, she discovered a lump in her breast. It was quickly determined to be cancer, and she started chemotherapy right away. In order to receive the chemo, Peterson had to have a port inserted into her neck. But because of her pregnancy, she couldn’t have full anesthesia. Determined to protect her babies at all cost, Peterson proceeded through the surgery and prepared for chemotherapy. “It was terrible,” she said. “I could feel everything.”
Letting people help
Chemo, while debilitating for the best of candidates, is even more grueling on a pregnant mother. Peterson was sick and exhausted, not to mention terrified for her unborn babies and the rest of her family.
The twins were born six weeks early and had to stay in a neonatal intensive care unit in Overland Park for a month. At this point, Peterson had had the port inserted, three chemo treatments and a cesarean section. With 13 chemo treatments to go, she traveled back and forth between Overland Park and Lawrence to see the babies every day, and continued on her treatment path.
“We had help,” she said. “There’s no way we could have survived that time without all of the help from our church and family.”
Help came in many forms. People brought meals several times a week. Someone came every night to give the children baths and put them to bed. Peterson said she just had to give up and let God and her army of helpers do their work.
“I just had to sit there and let them. I was too sick to help.”
Peterson says she looks back on that time and it seems unreal. “I just can’t believe that was my life,” she said. “It’s amazing what will go through your mind. You wonder what will happen if you don’t survive. I wondered how my husband could possibly handle it all by himself.”
She says the ordeal may have been harder on her husband than on her. “He was working, building a business and there was no way for him to stop. He had to take care of all of us and continue to see clients and stay on top of everything, as well as live with the fear of what could happen.”
The couple was very honest with the children about the cancer. “They knew Mommy had to have treatment for cancer. Of course they didn’t know the potential seriousness of it, but they knew I was sick,” she said. “They got so used to my doctor routine that sometimes I would catch them ‘playing doctor,’ saying they were going to get their chemo.”
Almost back to normal
In January, Peterson elected to undergo a double mastectomy and reconstruction. While her oncologist, Dr. Sharon Soule, said she could have had just a lumpectomy, because of family medical history she decided to be proactive and reduce her chances of recurrence as much as possible.
After the surgery, Dr. Mark Praeger said there was no trace of cancer left. As of May, she was “almost back to normal” and was awaiting the final surgery to get her permanent implants in just a few weeks.
There is an 85 to 90 percent chance the cancer will never return, and Peterson is pleased with those odds. “Dr. Soule was wonderful. I had all my treatments at Lawrence Memorial Hospital and I couldn’t be happier with the care I received.”
Of the ordeal, Peterson said that it taught her perspective. “It taught me the important things in life. Lots of things we worry about just don’t matter.” With a laugh, she explains that during the treatment and while the babies were in the NICU, someone pulled into her driveway and had a car malfunction that caused them to smash into the garage.
“She ran into my brand new van, and the van crashed through the wall into my laundry room.” But she just shrugged and smiled. “That is the kind of thing that doesn’t stress me out anymore,” she said. “I just went, ‘Oh well, we’ll put up a tarp.’”
Peterson said that she was amazed to see how many people helped her and her family, and she learned how many people really cared about her. “We are lucky,” she said. “We had people all over the country praying for us. We believe in prayer. I know not everyone does, but we do. I know it helped.”