Together with three dedicated friends, Stage IV breast cancer survivor Michelle Nicastro puts her gratitude and her passion for motherhood to work in a company created to help busy moms spend time where it really counts.
By Diana Price
âIâm just so happy to be here,â says Stage IV breast cancer survivor Michelle Nicastro, her joy apparent through the phone lines, âand I feel so grateful and so lucky.â
Originally diagnosed with calcifications in her right breast after undergoing a baseline mammogram shortly before her fortieth birthday, Michelle underwent a lumpectomy at the time and was told she required no further treatment. âI was told that it would have taken two years for the calcification to even develop into a lump and that it was basically precancer,â she says, âso I had my lumpectomy and went on my way.â Still, Michelle didnât feel she was in the clear: âI felt a cloud hanging over me.â
The storm hit in force three years later when she began experiencing back pain. âI had started playing tennis again, and I thought thatâs what had caused itâI hadnât played in about 15 years. I saw a couple of sports medicine doctors, and they thought that was probably it, also.â But the pain became so severe that Michelle was finally sent for a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test, at which point her skeletal system was found to be riddled with cancer. âMy spine, my shoulders, my hipsâit was everywhere,â she says of the discovery of the now Stage IV cancer.
Michelle and her husband, Steve, sought treatment with John Glaspy, MD, at UCLAâs Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, but Michelle was worried about his prescribed treatment. âAt the time,â she says, âhe was recommending chemo, radiation, and HerceptinÂź [trastuzumab]. I had just lost my mother to cancer, and I had seen a really bad side of it. I was beyond petrified about chemo after seeing what it had done to her.â
Michelle had also recently lost her father to a heart attack, and the combined loss, she says, left her totally bereft. âI was empty, and I was so scared of chemo.â For that reason, she says, she did not start chemo right away but instead began receiving infusions of the targeted therapy Herceptin while she tried to sort out her feelings about what the rest of her treatment would entail.
While she was making her decision, however, Michelleâs condition deteriorated to the point that she became confined to a wheelchair. âI couldnât walk up the stairs in my own house,â she says, remembering that scary time. Michelle is the mother of two daughters, who were eight and 11 at the time, and her feelings were intensified by their reaction to her condition. They were scared, she says, but she did her best to remain focused on a positive outcome. âI kept focusing on the fact that I was going to be alright.â
More than anything, she wanted to show her girls that she could carry on and that so could they. âI think one of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is to be resilient,â she says. âIf I can teach them that we can go on, that life sure can throw curves at youâwhich they saw when they saw me lose my mother, my father, and then during my own illnessâbut that you can persevere, then I feel good.â
Ultimately, it was the look in her girlsâ eyes that got Michelle back to Dr. Glaspy and into the chemo chair. âFinally, I couldnât see my kids looking at me anymore; I just had to go for the chemotherapy.â Knowing that chemo would be a tough road, Michelle gave herself a powerful incentive: she told herself and her friends that she would be out of her wheelchair and walking on the first day of school so she could walk her kids through the door. As tough as the treatment wasâand the nausea, hair loss, and other side effects did hit her hardâas she started to see results she knew it was all worth it. âI started at the end of June, and in August I was walking with a walker; in September I walked into school.â
Despite the obvious improvement, Michelleâs doctors needed to be sure that Herceptin would make a difference on its own. Several months after she finished chemo, her results remained positive, and her team felt confident that the treatment was successful.
Now, three years later, Michelle continues to receive Herceptin infusions every three weeks and the hormonal treatment FaslodexÂź (fulvestrant) every month. âI lead a really full, great life,â she says. The side affects of her ongoing treatment, which have included allergic reactions that mimic asthmatic symptoms and a significant weight gain, are manageable, she says, because sheâs so aware of the gratitude she feels and the gifts she has received. âI appreciate things in such a different way. In some ways there are really positive things that have come out of this.â
One of the really positive things to have emerged from Michelleâs journey was the opportunity to focus on what really made her happyâto realize where the value in her life lay. And it was not, she soon discovered, her career (she had worked as a singer and a stage and television actress) or any of the many other areas of her busy life that she missed. What emerged instead was the singular importance of her role as a mom and of the little, everyday expressions of that role. âI didnât miss singing on a stage; I didnât miss getting a paycheck. I missed packing my daughtersâ lunch; I missed picking them up from school.â Along with her sadness at not being able to spend time with her kids came the revelation of all the time wasted on things that were just not important.
It was this perspective that remained after treatment and which brought Michelle, together with good friends Maria Newton and Kim Arial and her sister, Kristin Nicastro, around to what would become an expression of Michelleâs desire to give all moms a little more of what she learned was so precious: time. Maria, Kim, and Kristin had played invaluable roles during Michelleâs treatment, offering friendship, support, and inspiration when she needed it most. As Michelle recovered and they continued to come together to support her and one another in their busy lives as moms, they reflected often on the lessons of Michelleâs journey, always coming back to their desire to prioritize their time with their kids.
The four womenâs ongoing conversation eventually led to a decision that would transform their coffee chats into serious business. âWe were at Starbucks one day, and we thought that because as women and moms we lead very different lives from men, we needed a way to focus our lives and blend our childrenâs lives with ours. What our children do each day is very importantâitâs part of our lives.â The idea, Michelle says, led to a prototype of a special kind of planner that would allow them to organize their busy days and highlight their kidsâ activities. It helped that the foursome was filled with artistic talent and overflowing with enthusiasm: âMaria is an artist and hadnât done anything with that in a while,â Michelle says, describing the gifts they each brought to the table. âKristin is a graphic artist; Kim had always wanted to be involved in something like this; it just came together.â They distributed the prototypes to 25 of their friends over the busy holiday season, and the response was extremely positive. âOne of our friends said it changed her life,â Michelle says.
From there Truly Mom, LLC, was off and runningâa business born not of entrepreneurial aspirations but of a desire to help other women achieve a little clarity and maybe a little extra time amidst the chaos of a busy momâs life. The company name, Michelle says, was inspired by the recurring theme of her cancer journey: think about whatâs truly important; be true to your beliefs. âIf youâre true to whatâs important to you, everything else falls into place,â she says. And she hopes she can help other women with the same perspective she achieved without having to take the same rough road she did. âWe talk about the little things a lot, but I saw itâI truly didnât know if I was going to live one more day, and I knew what was important to me. I thought if I could let people know, without their having to go to the edge like I did, maybe I could help them.â
Itâs clear already, from the success the company is seeing, that Truly Mom is helping a lot of women. In addition to the planners, the company now also produces custom stationery, note cards, and a few clothing items. But the womenâs dreams for their company donât end there. âWe have huge hopes for the company,â says Michelle. âI want us to be that home base for moms. I want people to come to us for quick sanity, for healthy-living tips, for a sense of clarity. We hope to someday have a magazine and maybe a store stocked with things that would make you feel good and appreciate every second.â And because Truly Mom remains focused on the original inspirationâand Michelleâs gratitude for her health is never far from her mindâthe company donates 10 percent of all proceeds across the board to UCLAâs Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.
As the company grows and thrives, Michelle says, she tries hard to keep the success of the businessâand its growing demands on her timeâin perspective. âThis is getting really big, really fast for us,â she says of the recent publicity Truly Mom has received and the growing demand for its products. âWe all want to be able to practice what we preach and remain focused on why we did this in the first place.â
For Michelle that reason remains the priority of her family and the emphasis on recognizing the value in the simple, true pleasures of life. Though her girls still get scared for her, she says, she continues to emphasize their inner strength as she shows them her own amazing fortitude. âThey still say, âI donât want you to die.â But I tell them, âYou can do anything; you can handle anything.'â
And itâs clear: with a role model like Michelle, those girls will be able to handle any challenge that comes their way.
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