Since December 2020, Michelle Wilson has given birth to a beautiful baby girl, been diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), gone through multiple rounds of chemotherapy and total body irradiation, received a bone marrow transplant, developed chronic graft versus host disease (GvHD) as a result of the transplant, and been declared cancer free. That’s a lot.
While Michelle has numerous reasons to feel cynical about her experiences, she continues to be a force of positivity. She describes the last two years as both a whirlwind and a blessing.
“Before all of this, I would waste time thinking about the silliest things,” she said. “Now, though, I have this hyperfocus and can see so clearly what the most important things are in my life. My priorities are my health, mom life, and wife life. I’m focused on getting myself healthy again.”
MDS is a rare disease where immature blood cells – found in the bone marrow – do not mature or become healthy blood cells. This diagnosis was particularly unexpected for Michelle because MDS is almost exclusively found in patients that are at least 70 years old. The day she was diagnosed, Michelle was only 29.
“I was completely shocked. I’d never heard of MDS, and I didn’t even know what a bone marrow transplant was,” she said. “I’m still searching online for other young people that have MDS, but I’m struggling. The MDS Foundation is trying to do more outreach to younger populations, but there are just very few of us out here.”
The Importance of Community
Especially as a young mother, Michelle has both her own and her daughter’s futures to consider.
“I often think about how I’ll talk to my daughter about this, but I don’t have a complete picture of what that will look like,” she said. “I think a big thing will be emphasizing what a miracle baby she was for us. I think God said, ‘You need to have this baby right now because things are going to happen to you next year and, after that, you might not be able to have kids.’”
In addition to Michelle’s daughter and husband, the rest of her family and her church community have been instrumental over the past two years. In fact, Michelle’s brother was her bone marrow donor, while her sister – a trained nurse – has provided round-the-clock at-home care.
While she describes her post-diagnosis life as an entirely new world that she’s still learning to navigate, Michelle’s faith continues to play a key role in her daily decisions.
“Spending time with scripture has been huge,” she said. “I believe that you have to renew your mind with positive words every day. If you’re a Christian, renew your mind in the Bible. If you find encouragement elsewhere, renew your mind by focusing on positive thinking.”
Before her diagnosis, Michelle worked in education. While she can’t yet return to work, she still has an educator’s heart and is using her blog, Whirlwind and Wonder, to create a resource for other MDS patients.
In especially challenging times, Michelle reminds herself that this is a temporary season resulting in numerous big changes. This nuanced experience can be hard to explain to others.
“I think that, when you announce you’re cancer free, there’s an idea that goes out into the world that you’re all better and you can move on now,” Michelle said. “That’s the furthest thing from the truth.”
Today, Michelle is still contending with the complications that come with chronic GvHD. She is still in treatment for this debilitating condition and deals with numerous side effects, from osteopenia to high blood pressure to avascular necrosis of her hips, which will require a double hip replacement. Through every hardship, Michelle continues to be in awe of her own resilience.
“Sometimes, I pause, look back, and think, ‘How has my body gone through so much, but I’m still here?’” she said. “I find that the biggest things in life are typically unplanned or unexpected, but I’m still here. I appreciate my body so much and I feel very lucky and blessed to be alive.”