Only six months after a normal mammogram, Michelle Caplan was diagnosed with breast cancer. Soon, she underwent a double mastectomy followed by reconstructive surgery. With support from her husband, parents, siblings, children, the Portland Jewish community, and her colleagues at Nike, Michelle recovered and went on to take an active role in spreading breast cancer awareness. In our conversation with Michelle, she shared how MOMentum contributed to her healing, as well as her advice for supporting friends with breast cancer.
What inspired you to travel to Israel with the JWRP?
When I was 18, I spent a year traveling from North America to Europe to Israel. I knew that I definitely wanted to return to Israel at some point. When I learned about MOMentum, I knew that I wanted to apply for it, but then I was diagnosed with cancer. After my recovery, I decided that it was the right time to go. I needed to give myself space to heal. It was such a therapeutic experience!
How did MOMentum impact you?
One of the greatest highlights from my MOMentum Trip to Israel was floating in the Dead Sea. With the beautiful scenery and serenity surrounding us, I remember thinking, ‘I’m okay. I’ve made it. I’ve survived this terrible disease and I’m going to be fine.’ Our City Leader, Eve Levy, and our Trip Leader, Chaya Kaplan Lester, knew what I’d experienced and Chaya asked if she could say a prayer for me. She prayed for my continued health and for the opportunity to embrace all of my future experiences. It was incredibly powerful.
As women, we have a tendency to take care of everyone except for ourselves. Being able to focus on myself and explore Israel alongside 23 women who became some of my closest friends was an incredible gift. Since experiencing MOMentum, I am much more aware of my needs and have begun making time for myself — whether that means getting a massage, going to a therapy session, or seeing my JWRP sisters every month.
How have you taken action to raise breast cancer awareness?
Sharing my story helped me so much during my journey with breast cancer. Also, connecting to the breast cancer awareness community helped me create a great plan of action for myself.
I help run a weekend women’s retreat at our local B’nai Brith Camp, and it often takes place on the same day as the Susan G. Komen’s Race for the Cure. So, we decided to host our own Susan G. Komen walk and to raise funds toward breast cancer research at the retreat. One month after my double mastectomy, I did the walk surrounded by friends.
I’m involved with Breast Friends, a local organization that supports women with breast cancer, and I’m part of Meet Cancer, a networking group for cancer patients, survivors, and family members on the Nike campus, where I work. I am also currently working with Sharsheret, a Jewish breast cancer organization, to plan an event with them in Portland that will focus on supporting individuals and families with breast cancer. It’s so important for us be proactive in our mammograms and breast exams. There are many women who are too scared to get checked or who don’t have insurance to do so, and we need to support them in identifying the avenues that work best for them.
What advice would you give to other women who want to support their friends with breast cancer?
Offer to go to medical appointments with your friends. Be there for them in whatever capacity is most helpful to them. If you can, be a resource for them too. Often, we’ll want to tell our friends exactly what to do. But it’s more helpful to share different options — letting them know that some may work for them while some may work better for other people. Instead of saying, “How are you doing today?” ask your friends, “How are you really feeling? What do you need today that will help you get through the day?” If you saw me when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, you’d never know what I was experiencing. Our outsides can be so different than our insides.
Breast cancer is a big club that none of us ever wanted to join. But if you’re a part of it, consider sharing your experiences with others. Be there for friends who are battling the disease and help them stay positive.