Four-time cancer survivor keeps studying and keeps the faith.
Michelle Myers, a part-time neonatal intensive care nurse at Columbia Regional Hospital studying for a bachelor's degree in human services at Columbia College and mother of three, doesn't believe in miracles.
She knows miracles happen. She's survived not one but four forms of cancer, two of them quite aggressive, kept jobs, kept her sanity and reunited her family. She's now on disability but still works, speaks of her incredible journey before stunned audiences, studies at Columbia College and cares for her family.
Myers was first diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1995. She began hemorrhaging before surgery, and the surgeons had to perform an emergency hysterectomy to save her life.
In 2002, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer and was told to put her affairs in order. She then made funeral arrangements, made out her will and chose guardians for her two daughters (more on that third child later).
In 2007, she had two tumors on her neck removed, survived and is now on thyroid medication.
She's also had several bouts of skin cancer with growths removed from her chest and arms. She has to return to the clinic every six months for treatment. But she's survived.
Uncovering the past
Sandwiched between these crises, two marriages broke down, she had to deal with broken finances, broken bones and the general drama of daily life with two growing girls. Aside from full-time nursing positions, she's often been on call, which sometimes involved long car trips for outpatient care, all-nighters or both. The debilitating cancer treatments, some so severe one is nicknamed "red death," dented but didn't break her.
It was the secret from her past that truly haunted her. Where was her son?
Myers became pregnant in high school in Jacksonville, central Illinois, and gave her infant son up for adoption. The couple who adopted Josh told her they'd send letters and photos of the growing boy. Nothing ever arrived.
In the late 1990s, after her first bout with cancer, "I started going to [northern Illinois] high schools, asking people, looking at microfiche records," she says, "but just hit dead ends."
A private investigator gave her the names of all babies born in the state the day Josh was born and these now-adolescent's current city of residence. That was enough. Years before, the adopting couple had dropped clues: their town was north of Jacksonville and about an hour and a half away. Scanning the list the PI had given her, Myers narrowed it down to six possible towns.
One day in 1997, she bundled her two daughters into the car and drove to Princeton, one of the northern Illinois towns, but found nothing. Myers was discouraged and decided to head home to Ohio (she's since moved to Columbia, Mo.).
Then she saw a boy and girl about Josh's age washing a car and stopped. Did they know Josh? Not only did they know him but the boy said Josh was his best friend, described him and his car to a T: it bore an image of Taz, the Warner Brother's cartoon Tasmanian devil.
Myers and her daughters drove on. To their amazement, they spotted the car within five minutes. Myers made a U-turn, honked and flashed her lights as the freaked-out teen sped to escape. But Myers wouldn’t give up.
"He just kept going, he wouldn't stop," she recalls. "He led me on this wild ride through stop lights and stop signs. Finally he pulled over in a parking lot.”
"I got out of the car and went over – I didn't know what to say! What if he hated me, didn’t want to speak to me? What if I had the wrong car? My stomach was churning with all the what-ifs."
When she saw his face through the window she knew. He looked just like her father and soon Myers, Josh and the two half-sisters he didn't know he had were hugging and crying.
The family was reunited. And today her daughters are on the college track and Josh is a married father of three studying to be an electrician. They all stay in close contact.
"God is not done with me"
How did Myers keep going? Simple: her faith.
"I have a firm belief that God is not done with me," she says. "I still have a lot to say. My experience has opened my eyes."
Some of that awakening is directly related to her own family and to Jacksonville, Ill., where she grew up. Cancer has cut a very wide swath through hers and other Jacksonville families, and she's convinced chemical and other industries are to blame — and not just in Jacksonville.
Myers says she has studied the mechanized food chain in America with its densely packed animal feed lots, biotech products and crops heavily sprayed with pesticides, and has become a lean, fit vegetarian ("pretty much — when I eat meat it's organic"). She says she has no choice; there's a dramatic chance of cancer resurgence in overweight breast cancer survivors. She also says the well-publicized onset of very early puberty in girls and the increases in cancer of every type, autism and Alzheimer's disease are not coincidences but by-products of modern life.
And she delivers her message of hope and cleaner living to groups of cancer patients and potential Columbia College students — discretely, as is her way.
"I may talk about how radically I have changed my diet, but don't push my faith or beliefs. I just try to open the way for people who want to change their lives."
At a recent Columbia College Evening Campus information session, every speaker met with polite applause. Not Myers. She received thunderous applause after describing her path through life, the importance of education, how Columbia College has helped her and her academic plans.
Myers intends to go for a master's degree in social work when she's done with her Columbia College degree. "I made more as a nurse than I probably ever will as a social worker," she says, "but there's more to life than having pennies in the bank, a big house, big car. We have to be open to miracles — look at me."