MARY ANN ANDERSON
Michaela Todd’s journey as a breast cancer survivor is an opportunity for her to help others, and she has sound advice for those who are diagnosed with the disease.
“You never give up,” said the 35-year old mother of one, Bentley, who is five. “You can’t lie down and wallow in self-pity. You have to keep fighting. You have to have hope and pray for the best outcome.”
Todd, who is married to Kevin Todd, was only 34 years old when she was diagnosed last summer with Stage 3 invasive ductal carcinoma triple negative breast cancer.
“It’s the worst diagnosis you can have,” she stated.
Todd, whose parents are Kimberly Williams and Randy Doyle, is a health care professional. She has a Bachelor’s degree in nursing and is currently working part-time as a registered nurse in behavioral health at Appling Health Care and Jeff Davis Hospital. She was working at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, where she had been for 11 years, when she found the initial tumor in August of 2020.
Not even a year before, she had just had a clear mammogram, her first ever, in October of 2019. She was 33 at the time, but considered high-risk because her grandparents and aunts had breast cancer. A mammogram, she figured, was a good idea.
In 2009, Todd underwent breast reduction surgery. That, combined with the clear mammogram, gave no indication that anything was wrong, so when she felt the tumor for the first time, she knew something was amiss.
One night when she was showering, her breast, she said, “just flopped,” with her explaining, “If you had a plastic bag, and you put water in it and set it down, like the heaviness of it, my breast flopped. I told myself that something’s not right. My breast should not feel that heavy. It felt like a balloon.”
But she put off seeing about it right away, saying, “I kept thinking there was something there, but being a nurse, I just put it off. I was just working, working, working as director of nursing in a high stress job, and I was just going and going and going.”
Todd asked a nurse practitioner with whom she worked at Georgia State Prison to look at her breast. As it turned out, what she termed “somewhat of a riot” happened at the prison that day, but after it was over the and adrenaline settled down, she, several others and her aunt, who also worked at the prison, had a chance to get into an exam room. Her aunt saw immediately that there was a problem and urged her to call her doctor in Savannah that very day.
“If it wasn’t for my aunt, there’s no telling when I would have gone to the doctor,” Todd concluded.
After a mammogram and ultrasound, a biopsy was ordered. She had found the tumor on August 14 and was diagnosed positive for breast cancer on September 14.
Todd said that on getting the devastating news that she had Stage 3 cancer, she thought was going to die.
“I thought, I’m too young to die,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion. “I’ve got a baby to raise. It wasn’t even about me. It’s about him.”
She went on, “It didn’t make any sense. I never smoked a cigarette in my life, ever. I asked myself, where did this come from? Why me? Why a good person like me? Emotionally, I’m too young to die. You’re not supposed to die when you’re 35.”
Her cancer, she said, is not “the one you want to be diagnosed with,” plus the only treatable option was chemotherapy, which is frightening under any circumstances.
Todd also added that her oncologist told her that he had only one successful nonrecurrence story in all his years of practice, a 35-year-old like herself, but that so far the patient is 11 years without reoccurrence.
“He hopes I’m his next success story,” she said.
From October of 2020 to February of this year, Todd has undergone chemotherapy, including 12 rounds of Taxol and four rounds of an AC regimen that includes the drugs doxorubicin hydrochloride (Adriamycin) and cyclophosphamide, also known as the “red devil” because its most memorable characteristic is that it is bright red. Afterward, the pathology report had shown that the chemo didn’t kill all of the cancer, that it was still in the lymph nodes, although the original balloon-like tumor had shrunk. In March, she had her breast removed. Afterward, she went through 30 rounds of radiation and is now taking Xeloda, another type of chemotherapy, by mouth.
And as was to be expected, Todd also lost all of her hair.
“It came out in wads,” she said. “That was the worst.”
Bentley, her son, still doesn’t know she has cancer.
“How do you tell a five-year-old that all of your hair is about to fall out?” she asked. “You don’t. I couldn’t tell him.”
Since it was around Halloween, she came up with the idea that she would be GI Jane and Bentley would be GI Joe. “I told him that GI Jane doesn’t have hair, so I asked him if he wanted to cut it.”
In a heartbreaking and descriptive moment, she recalled how he used “his little school scissors” to cut off her remaining locks, and then had a friend finish shaving her head. Her family was by her side as all of this was going on.
As time went by, Bentley tired of the bald look, telling her, “Mom, I’m ready for your hair to grow back.”
Even now, with her once-straight hair grown back in wavy thickness, she still hasn’t told Bentley about the cancer, saying, “I pray the Lord leads me until he’s old enough to understand.”
Now and Afterward
Todd’s doctor still hasn’t given her a prognosis as of yet, but she is hopeful for what the future of a breast cancer survivor looks like.
“You have to keep going until you’re told to go home and get your affairs in line,” she said. “All you can do is fight through every needlestick, through every emotion, through every misunderstanding, through the burdens, through the sickness, through it all. You just have to keep fighting.”
Her advice to other women is to start getting checked early, to not “wait until it’s in your armpit like I did,” and not to second-guess yourself.
“Just bite the bullet,” she advised. “If I could have had it cut out of me at Stage 1 when it was still localized, that would have been wonderful.”
She also wants others to know that the cancer is not what defines you.
“You’re going to be a whole hot mess, like a whole totally different person, but you’re still you,” she said. “You’ll long for the way you used to look, but you’ll never be that person again.”
When you see the word “fighter” in relation to breast cancer survivors, don’t just think it’s a cliché, she noted, summing up her journey as she continues to combat the disease with all the strength she has, “When you’ve been in that seat fighting, that’s all you can do. You have to have hope and pray for the best outcome.”