Photo by Gabriel Goodwin
Michele Coulter (center) gets a kiss from both her daughters, Carrie (left) and Chelsea, as they talk about how cancer has brought them closer together as a family. Coulter is a Wyandotte resident who has battled breast cancer for a year and a half. Her daughters helped her decorate the house pink, for the Paint the Town Pink event, so they could show their support for other survivors. Coulter is almost done with her treatments and will have one last surgery Friday. Her daughters said the experience was “a rollercoaster to say the least,” and taught them not to take advantage of her and appreciate more of what she does.
By GABRIEL GOODWIN
Sunday Times Newspapers
WYANDOTTE — While the city celebrates its breast cancer survivors this month, one survivor spoke out about her “overwhelming and unexpected journey,” but said she wouldn’t change any part of the experience.
“You can’t let it eat at you and you can’t let it make you angry because it will feed on that negativity,” said Michele Coulter, a Wyandotte resident and a year-and-a-half survivor of breast cancer. “Anyone going through this has to stay positive and find their reason to keep going. For me, that reason was my children.”
Coulter said the day she was diagnosed is a date that will stand out in her mind forever. Everything was normal before she walked into the hospital for her yearly mammogram March 1, 2012, she said, but one statement changed her life in a split-second.
“The doctor came in and told me he found two masses in my breasts. It was such an overwhelming and emotional experience,” she said. “The first day was the hardest. Everything was just too new for me at the time. I just burst out crying.
“But after that, I wouldn’t let tears in my house because I wanted to stay positive through the whole experience.”
This wasn’t the first experience she had with cancer though. She said her mother battled breast cancer and her best friend battled uterine cancer. Her mother survived breast cancer and has now been cancer free for four-and-a-half years, but her best friend lost her 15-month battle about a month after Coulter received the cancer diagnosis.
She said the idea of cancer was one of the hardest things she ever had deal with. The only thing that may have been harder at the time, she said, was to tell her friend and mother she had cancer. She said she called her friend and neither one could say anything during that conversation because all they could do was just cry together.
“This was not something any of us ever wanted to share,” Coulter said. “But, it helped me to have people with experience to ask what I thought were stupid questions.”
Coulter said she got used to the idea of cancer after a while, but was still uncomfortable with the physical changes due to the chemotherapy and hair loss.
“I was still too self-conscious with being bald, then, to put myself out there like that,” she said. “I finally got used to it and started wearing ball caps. I pretty much wore (hats) for a year, but the response I got from people in the grocery store was overwhelming.”
She had people coming up to her, giving her hugs and telling her stories about their mother or their wife, who battled cancer and either lost or beat it, and she said it gave her the hope and inspiration to stay strong.
“I learned a lot about people and I learned a lot about myself through this situation,” Coulter said. “I wouldn’t have changed anything that happened over the last year and a half.”
Coulter wanted to stay strong for her family and said she knew her kids were having a hard time dealing with the news of cancer. She was determined to keep her sense of humor and keep a smile on her face.
She gave an example of the sense of humor she kept during the whole ordeal, and said on the day of her mastectomy, when she was going into the operating room, she asked her husband, “Want to take one last squeeze before it’s gone?
“That was just my way of dealing with it,” she said. “It was a serious issue, but you have to make the best of it because it is what it is.”
She recalled the one time her son, Jake, opened up to her about the cancer and said, “Mom, are you going to be OK, because, I can’t imagine our lives without you.”
He was the type who never asked questions and never addressed it directly, she said, but would spend every night, by her side, sleeping on the couch with her.
“I think that was his way of support,” she said. “Because I don’t think he knew what else to do.”
She could remember her oldest daughter, Chelsea, trying to stay strong for everyone. Chelsea said she felt she had to take over the role of “mom” for her other siblings and make sure everyone got to where they needed to be.
“This type of situation makes you grow up a lot. It was like a rollercoaster, to say the least,” Chelsea said. “My mom had her good days and her bad days, so every day was different. We all had things each of us focused on, but it brought us all closer together in the end.”
Chelsea said looking forward to the good days and staying positive helped everyone get through it.
“Everyone was so nice to us,” she said. “We even had perfect strangers offering their help. Our neighbors even brought dinner to the house on my mom’s treatment days.”
Coulter spent a lot of time on social media, making posts and updates about everything that was happening. The support she received from various groups she joined and friends, she said, was “overwhelming and unexpected.”
She described a situation where she posted about how she was craving for oranges, due to her treatments, but could only find Clementines and was irritated. She got home to find two eight-pound bags of oranges left at her door.
Another situation she could remember was posting about a test that said she was low on iron and got a surprise when she checked the mailbox to find a bottle of iron supplements.
Those kind of memories helped her through the last year and a half, she said, and knowing her battle with cancer can inspire others.
“I never said, ‘Why me?’ Not once. I didn’t ask for pity. I saw that it was in God’s plan for me and I just want to be able to share my story with others,” she said. “If I can help one person through their fight, then that is my answer for ‘why me?’”
Every time the discussion of surgery came up, Coulter said, the idea of something happening to her, where she had to leave her children behind, was always in the back of her mind.
“The thought of my children having to live without me was the most troubling thing I had to deal with.” she said. “I didn’t want to have that thought, but it was a reality they may have to face. That scared me.”
She said throughout her whole ordeal, her husband, Tim, made sure the bills was taken care of because she had to quit her job to deal with her breast cancer.
“He was always working to ensure we had everything we were needed,” she said. “He worked like a dog because we didn’t have the additional income anymore. That took a lot of stress away from the home and made it a little easier on the rest of the family.”
Throughout her fight against breast cancer, she also fought with the feelings that she would let her children down because she could not be super mom to them. She said a year before the diagnosis, she was so wrapped up in taking care of everyone else that she skipped a yearly mammogram.
“I was used to being everything for everyone. I did it for 20 years.” she said before being interrupted by her daughter, Carrie.
“You’re not letting me down,” Carrie said. “You were always strong for us and that strength brought us together as a family. We definitely appreciate you at least 10 times more. We will always love you.”
Carrie said the whole experience made her realize how much she appreciated her mother and showed her how “important she actually was” to her.
Coulter said she would never know exactly when the cancer showed up and couldn’t dwell on the missed mammogram now, but believes that no woman should ever skip out on a yearly mammogram for any reason.
“You just never know,” she said. “Just because it is negative once, doesn’t mean you are out of the woods.”
(Gabriel Goodwin can be reached at [email protected])