“I don't know if it's possible for you to go through something like breast cancer and come out the same, but it certainly wasn't so for me. I wouldn't wish it on my enemy, but amazingly, I also cannot imagine my life without it, because so much has changed that has also been for the better…”
Michelle Ashwood-Stewart reflected on her journey since doing her first breast exam in 2007, surviving her breast cancer diagnosis, then losing her only child to cancer last year. She believes that God has brought her 'through the valley', as she has fittingly titled her first book, which will be launched later this month.
Ashwood-Stewart affirmed that it was God who led her to have her first mammogram done in 2007, when she was 40 years old.
“That was divine, in my view,” she recollected. “Literally, I just felt led to do it. I had to insist, because I hadn't reached the threshold to get one done.”
But what she thought at the time was a strong urge to have a routine test done turned out to be the beginning of her test of faith. They spotted a lump in her right breast, which was confirmed by subsequent ultrasound exams.
“But when we went to do the lumpectomy [surgery to remove the affected tissue], it was three lumps that they saw. When they tested them, two out of those three lumps were malignant.”
Though they had removed all three lumps, Ashwood-Stewart was not at ease.
“I had a little panic moment at that point, and I thought that if the mammogram and ultrasounds had only picked up one lump out of three, then what about the other breast that we thought was OK?”
It was recommended that she have the right breast removed because two of the lumps had been malignant. But reasoning that if the scans had missed two lumps in that breast, it could have also missed abnormalities in the other, Ashwood-Stewart was now leaning towards the idea of having them both removed.
“I wanted to remove both breasts, because I certainly was not going to look at this ever again if I could help it,” she remembered thinking.
She laughed as she recalled seeking her husband Roger's opinion on having them both removed.
“He shrugged, and I asked him if he didn't have anything to say, and he replied, 'But I didn't marry your breasts'. And I thought that was exactly what a wife needed to hear at a point like that.”
But seeing that cancer was only officially diagnosed in one breast, her health insurance would only take on a fraction of the costs associated with that breast. She was on her own with the other one.
“More than that, I also decided that I wanted to do reconstruction, because I didn't like the idea of the prosthesis. So it means that we had to take on the cost of the reconstruction, as well. I wasn't sure how I was going to pay for it, but God came through.”
A spiritual journey
Beyond the changes that a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction had on her body, she believed that her experience took her on a faith-led spiritual journey that she would not have otherwise encountered.
“I can only say it was God-orchestrated,” she said. “I had my own faith crisis in the process.”
She speaks about her visit to church following her diagnosis in chapter seven of Through the Valley.
“I took my usual seat in church and prayed and prayed. But if I were to suggest that the prayers helped, I would be lying. The fear sat on me and around me, enveloping me like a dark, heavy shroud that I could not dislodge. Again, the tears came unbidden. People glanced at me questioningly, but I could not answer. The icy fingers of fear had a choke-hold grip on my heart. My blood felt like ice chips clogging up my veins. My hands and feet were chattering, and my brows wet with sweat as my body tried to heat up to counteract the cold that seemed to permeate my soul.”
But in the last chapter of her book, she expressed that she was much stronger in her faith than before, as God had taken her through the valley.
“I came to realise that God truly moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform. I came to understand that those mysterious ways were just as wonderful and miraculous as the biblical healings were…As I journeyed through the diagnosis, the surgery and all that came with it; the changes occurred and were eventually visible to those close to me.”
Making time for what's important
Though her battle with cancer culminated in 2008, Ashwood-Stewart didn't decide in earnest to publish her book until nearly a decade later in 2017, when her son Nyle was diagnosed with a germ cell tumour.
“That is when I sat down and did the last chapter. And then his thing took a turn that we didn't expect…”
Unlike her breast cancer that was caught at stage one, Nyle's tumour was not picked up until it was at stage four, when there was little help that doctors could provide locally, or in Mexico, where the family sought treatment. He was 21 years old.
She ends her book by mentioning her son's diagnosis, but telling the reader that “…that journey, through the fire, is another story for another time…”
Losing her son to the illness that threatened her has taught the Spanish Town, St Catherine native to value the time that she has here with those she loves. She serves as the senior assistant registrar in the Secretariat at The University of the West Indies, and loves to travel with her husband whenever the opportunity presents itself.
She also enjoys the company of youth, and mentors students from St Jago High School, of which she is a graduate. Her striking blonde buzz cut is testament of her youthful spirit, which she says reflects her new outlook on life.
“You learn not to sweat the small stuff; you learn to seize life as it comes, make the best of it when you have it. Don't take things for granted. You do have enough time when you're in the hospital bed to sit and contemplate the fact that this could have gone so much differently. Especially having lost my son, I realised that time is precious. And I find that in life that though we may not admit it, we make time for what is important. So if it's important, you make time for it,” she said.