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Last year, SheSpark featured the article “The Pole Dancer With Breast Cancer – An Instagram Chronicle” about Michelle Master’s goal of seeing her 40th birthday and the struggles she faced in her battle against cancer. One year later, we’re catching up with our favorite hobbyist pole dancer who hasn’t been able to dance lately as her cancer metastasized and causes daily pain. Michelle’s story is raw yet full of grace. We are in awe of her strength and appreciate that she’s sharing her story with us (and continuously on Instagram) as a way to help others.
In her positive “can do” way, Michelle started a GoFundMe fundraiser for promising cancer treatments in Mexico that are not available in the United States. If Michelle’s story resonates with you, please donate to the cause. No donation is too small.
SS: You made it to your 40th birthday! We were thrilled to hear you hit this milestone, but saddened to find out you received bad news that same week. What happened?
MM: Honestly I don’t recall which specific bad news I received, there has been so much of that. Basically anytime I’m at a doctor’s office I receive bad news… Just one reason I try to stay away from the doctor’s office as much as possible (lol).
You might be referring to the news that my ribs could be fractured from the cancer spreading to my bones but once the cancer is in your bones, many unpleasant side effects/pains tend to occur. The trick is learning how to manage them and not looking at each instance as a new tragedy but more taking it as a whole. I mean, I expect to have these challenges/pains now so what actions can I take to prevent them or at least manage them while I’m going through it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a challenge to not get scared every time you experience a new pain (common with bone metastasis) but it’s definitely something I feel determined to work through (and the more I practice, the better I get).
SS: Since our last interview, you moved back to Michigan to be with your family. How did that transition affect you emotionally and physically?
MM: Wow, great question. Moving back to Michigan has affected me so much. I wish I could say that everything has been easier since moving back and that I’ve felt so supported here, etc.; but it’s been quite the opposite. The medical system here is not what it is in L.A. and for the bulk of my time here I have felt very alone in my beliefs and my choice of treatment. So much so that I agreed to do chemo when I knew in my gut that it wouldn’t work. It was a newer, very targeted form of chemo that LOGICALLY seemed like it should work but deep down I knew it wouldn’t. Unfortunately I ignored my intuition (also because there was pressure from the doctors and my mom) and did it anyway.
After just two treatments, the cancer spread to my liver and we had to stop. The blessing in that apparent tragedy was that I actually needed that slap in the face to promise myself to NEVER ignore my truth again. So despite increased pressure from doctors to do more aggressive chemo (and my mom who is constantly worried and afraid), I made the choice not to. It was honestly the most freeing feeling to make that choice, to commit to my own truth above all else. And since then my emotional state has definitely improved.
I do still face the challenges of being surrounded by fear here (I’m the girl who is dying of cancer here vs. in L.A. I was just “Michelle”) and living in a place that is not at all in alignment with who I am. I hate the cold and miss the conveniences of living in a place where health is more of a priority. But in the end, I think moving here was what I needed. It caused me to come face to face with what I will compromise on and what I will not. Being here has taken its toll on me both emotionally and physically. I did suffer side effects as a result of the chemo and every other Western thing I’ve tried here. But sometimes we need to get to our lowest lows to realize that we have the strength to pull ourselves out of the darkest place if we simply choose to.
SS: What is your current cancer treatment regimen — what does a typical week look like?
MM: My current cancer treatment is focused more on the spiritual/emotional aspects of this disease. I have come to learn that they are just as important (if not more) than the physical aspects. My biggest dose of “medicine” lately was my recent trip to L.A. It became clear to me when I was last in the ER with excruciating pain that what I needed most was not more opioids, more drugs, or more hopeless options thrown at me (my mom was actually looking into hospice for me). What I needed was to go where I feel the most alive, where I feel supported, where I feel strong. So I committed to getting back to L.A. before I even knew how (I have no income currently). It was like the minute I made that commitment, The Universe got behind me and made it happen.
It was honestly the most rejuvenating, magical trip and strengthened me in more ways that I could’ve imagined. Less than five days before I left, I was in excruciating pain again (the worst yet) but rather than going to the ER, I decided to just ride it out. I knew they may not let me go on my trip if I did go and that all they would do is increase my pain meds. I got through it and made it to L.A.! I had more energy and strength there than I’d experienced since moving to Michigan. I walked daily and saw friends, etc… There were a couple days with pain but I just listened to my body and slowed down. I also saw a healer there who I had a strong intuition to see and since seeing her, I’ve had no pain.
Now I’m back in Michigan and back to my days of pretty much just staying indoors and not doing much (it’s getting cold here). I do have a daily schedule of meds that I’m on (an unfortunate mix of steroids and pain killers) and I get weekly lab tests to monitor my blood counts and calcium. My calcium typically gets high when my bone is breaking down. I also get a shot every three weeks to push the calcium back into my bones and strengthen them. Unfortunately that shot has the side effect of more pain, hence the constant pain meds.
In the Western world there is no cure for me so everything is focused on managing pain and symptoms since they can’t get me to poison myself further with chemo that is literally referred to as the “red devil.” A typical week involves:
- A doctor’s appointment (we have to drive an hour away for that, so I tend to spend the day doing errands in the “bigger city” on those days)
- Lab appointments on another day
- Counseling or pain management appointments
- Driving 3 hours each way for colon hydrotherapy on another day (another FULL day but crucial for me).
I focus a lot on nourishing myself outside of these typically frustrating appointments and do that with my natural supplements (including CBD/cannabis), making myself nourishing food and tonics, focusing on the good, and cuddling with Leo, my cat (a.k.a my guardian angel). I laugh and try to make light of my situation as much as possible. For example, I have some socks that I love to wear that say “shitting rainbows” on them- it’s the little things lol. I also research a lot and will be working on my website now (something I had given up on after moving here but feel renewed inspiration around after L.A.). I think having something to look forward to– having a purpose– is critical.
SS: Introduce us to Robert! We hear he’s tall, dark, and handsome. How and why did he come into your life?
MM: Aw he is! We were a bit prematurely separated with my trip to L.A. (not easy with any new relationship– lol) but will be reunited this week. Robert came into my life in a very magical way… I had been saying since I moved here that I wanted to ride again. I rode and did show jumping growing up but had stopped for the most part after college. Of course my mom was against this idea as cancer in the bones causes them to break very easily. Falling off of a horse could do a lot of damage, and that is something that can’t really be prevented when riding. I’m not someone who likes to take no for an answer, though, and I certainly don’t give up on things that bring me joy. So that desire had never left my heart.
One day when driving the usual route to a doctor’s appointment, my mom and I noticed someone riding English at a house on our route. Most people out here ride Western, which is not my preference. It looked like there was someone giving them a lesson… So there it was, exactly what I’d been looking for: English riding lessons! We decided to check it out further on our way back home. Upon returning from my appointment hours later, my mom drove right up the driveway to this house and walked right up to the barn where there was a lady, Anna, cleaning out the stalls. I was cautious about just driving up and intruding like that but my mom wasn’t. She is far more used to small town life than I (lol) and that definitely paid off that day.
At first we inquired about English riding lessons but Anna said she was pretty much at capacity (it was just a small barn and she didn’t have any “school” horses), and she wasn’t sure she could help. We got to talking though and turns out Anna’s mom had just been moved home for hospice as she was battling cancer too. We listened to Anna’s stories (she had also lost her husband and was going through a rough time) and were there for quite some time before disclosing that I too was battling cancer. I’m not sure if it was that or the fact that we truly empathized with her struggles but she suddenly told me about this horse Robert that she had. He was her horse but she didn’t know how much time she would have to ride him now that she would have to take care of her mom, not to mention the rest of the farm. She suggested I meet him and come back tomorrow to get acquainted… which I did.
I came back the next day, spent an hour grooming him, and we decided that I would come and spend time with him as much as I wanted. She said he would make a great therapy horse, that I could exercise him as much as I wanted and that I could ride as soon as I felt comfortable. Honestly, I could not have come up with a better scenario. Anywhere else I would have had to pay for riding lessons or seek out a therapy horse but to have the option for both based on how I would be feeling was such a gift. Being around horses has always been a spiritual experience for me and one that is incredibly healing. Not to mention getting to meet Anna who has since called from time to time just to see how I’m doing… Oh, and one more thing: the name of her farm is “Camp David.” David is the name of her late husband, but it is also the name of my father who died of brain cancer when I was 18. Anna said it was a magical place. And I couldn’t agree more.
SS: What do you do to get through the hard days?
MM: This question really hits me deeply and I appreciate you asking it. Because honestly there is nothing more challenging but at the same time, exquisitely beautiful as those hard days. People see me sometimes and assume I’m just “normal” or that you know, you just get through it. But having to face your own death on a regular basis is truly the most grueling thing ever. It’s easy to be optimistic and hopeful on days where you have energy and the symptoms feel more muted. But when you are in constant excruciating pain, you feel like your bones are crushing, you feel the tumors crowding your lungs, and you can’t even find relief in a good night’s sleep, feeling hopeful and strong requires a lot more than just positive affirmations and deep breaths.
I have questioned many times why I am fighting so hard– I have no husband, no children, no great job waiting for me on he other side of this. I’m not an “influencer” and I don’t’ have the audience I wish I did to create the change I’d like to create. But you know what? When I look in the mirror into my own eyes, there is no option for giving up. There is something greater than I can even imagine in store for me and now is not my time. And it is not me telling myself that, that drive comes from somewhere else. I feel very close to God/the Divine/the Universe on days like that. And I allow for that closeness. I allow myself to feel supported by something bigger than me.
I have asked for signs before in my darkest moments, signs that I am on the right path. And moments later the power will go out or the lights will flicker. That partnership is what gets me through those days. And I would not have been able to feel this partnership so deeply without those bad days. Full disclosure: I am NOT a religious person. I consider myself very spiritual, however, and feel like I have a direct connection to the Divine that has been strengthened as a result of my hardest days.
I have had days where I’ve pleaded to God– I’ve cried my eyes out and promised to do whatever I’m meant to do and go wherever I’m meant to go so long as I fulfill my purpose here on Earth in this lifetime. That may sound desperate but it is much more than that. It is a surrender so deep, and there is so much peace in that. Committing to following my truth (a.k.a. the nudges of the Divine) and being a vessel for whatever I’m meant to be is really so comforting when you truly begin to experience it in action. It does require a huge amount of trust and faith and courage, but things begin to unfold in the most magical ways… Hence me meeting Robert and getting to travel to L.A. In other words, leaning into that trust is also what gets me through those days.
Each day I return to that trust and partnership with gratitude, humility and love and THAT is what really keeps me going.