Profile in Courage
This Thanksgiving, Michelle Rohloff will be thankful for more than her family and friends. She’ll also be raising a glass in celebration of her life. The holiday will fall on Nov. 24, the day she found out she had breast cancer two years ago.
“I literally stopped right where I was,” Rohloff says, recalling the moment she got the call from her doctor while shopping at Publix. “I remember exactly where I was. I was right by the meats in that last aisle. And I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to walk to the front, check out, drive home. And then I immediately sat down on my couch, and I could not move. I was frozen—just beside myself.”
At the time, the Coconut Creek resident was 40. Breast cancer wasn’t anywhere on her radar. Her biggest concerns were taking care of her teenage daughter, Ashley, who had recently been diagnosed with diabetes, and receiving hormone treatments to relieve the effects of a hysterectomy she had in 2013. Though Rohloff had no plans to get a mammogram, her doctor insisted she have one before starting hormonal treatment.
Looking back, she realizes the mammogram at the Women’s Health & Wellness Institute at Boca Raton Regional Hospital was “the best thing that ever happened.”
“Someone was definitely watching over me, because if the doctor did not send me for the mammogram that November, I would not be here today,” says Rohloff, who has lived in the Winston Park area for 18 years. “I know in my heart it was my mom, who passed away in 2011.”
After the mammogram and an ultrasound, a radiologist told Rohloff she had a tumor and needed to have a biopsy done. That’s when her heart stopped. Over the next few days, Rohloff tried not to think about the impending results. But the call she received at the grocery store confirmed she had breast cancer.
Two months later, Rohloff had a double mastectomy and had lymph nodes removed from her left arm. She learned she had triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease in which the tumor cells test negative for estrogen, progesterone and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (known as HER2). Her tumor was grade 3, meaning the cells were growing rapidly; the proliferation rate (known as Ki-67) was 70 percent (more than 20 percent is considered high, according to Breastcancer.org). She also learned she had an abnormal PALB2 gene, which is linked to breast cancer (see sidebar below).
Rohloff had a chemotherapy port surgically implanted to receive weekly treatments from January 2015 to June 2015. She also received medicine to help her body produce the white blood cells the treatment was destroying, leaving her with extreme pain and consistent exhaustion. During treatment and after reconstructive surgery, she also dealt with the emotional frustration of being forced to put herself first, which wasn’t easy for the former teacher and homemaker of 10 years.
“I struggled with that because I couldn’t do the things that I normally did for my kids. … You get a little bit angry and frustrated,” she says.
Despite the struggles, her children’s support kept her going: her oldest son, Andy, who attends the University of Central Florida and hopes to be drafted by a professional baseball team; Ashley, who attends Palm Beach State College; and Colby, a student at Lyons Creek Middle School, who Rohloff says is “very independent but still needs me.”
She also had the support of husband Keith, a police officer, who helped at home when she couldn’t, and her father and stepmother, who drove her to doctor’s appointments. Her close friends gave her emotional support, and she had the comfort of her dog, Bella, a Morkie who never left her side.
Beyond her family, Rohloff received invaluable encouragement from the staff at the Center for Breast Care at Boca Raton Regional Hospital, and others, such as a social worker, nurses and Facebook friends. The assistant coach of Ashley’s softball team at Monarch High School had shirts made with three pink ribbons, to represent triple-negative breast cancer, and the words “Michelle Strong.”
In August 2015, Rohloff faced the new struggle of adjusting to life after cancer.
“The good thing is that you stop and you look at [life] and you appreciate things. … You walk down the streets, and you’ll notice the birds or the beautiful flowers where you never did before,” Rohloff says. “You try to spend more time with your friends and your family and not worry about things getting done. You laugh more.
“But at the same time, things affect you. Your feelings get hurt more. I guess you just expect, after you go through something like that, that everyone’s going to understand. But everyone doesn’t necessarily understand what you’re going through. You try to love more but at the same time, you hurt more too. And that’s hard.”
Knowing that triple-negative breast cancer has a high recurrence rate, Rohloff suffered from depression and anxiety. She also missed running, her favorite form of exercise. The effects of having healthy cells killed by chemotherapy included numbness and pain in her feet, digestive distress, bone loss and vitamin deficiencies. She also dealt with what is commonly called “chemo brain.”
“You just feel like you’re in a fog, and it’s literally hard to process things,” she says. “It’s hard to remember things. … It’s hard for you to articulate words, and sometimes you’ll just be thinking of something—it could be something you’ve said a million times—and you can’t remember the name of it. … It’s very frustrating.”
To manage her stress, she decided to go to real estate school in November 2015 at Gold Coast Schools. Rohloff eventually joined Keller Williams Realty in 2016; she works for the firm part-time. She also diligently maintained her health. But after a year, the stress of life forced her to reassess her priorities. Again, Rohloff reminded herself of the strength she had found during treatment and in other difficult moments of her life and decided to start doing a better job of monitoring her well-being.
“I thought, ‘Well, with the statistics of recurrence for this, what am I doing here? I need to be taking care of myself.’ ”
Rohloff has started swimming and running on a treadmill and has recommitted to eating healthy. She’s also practicing yoga for stress management. She admits that putting herself first is something she’s “still working on.”
“I’ve always been taking care of my kids and never really put myself first in my life, so that was a real challenge, because it was never in my nature,” Rohloff says. “So I challenged myself to improve my overall health and well-being through exercise, stress management and a healthy diet to decrease my chance of the breast cancer recurrence.”
On days she doesn’t feel well, Rohloff looks to her children for strength. Her endurance has inspired her two oldest children get tattoos in her honor. Andy got a tattoo of praying hands and a breast cancer ribbon and the words “la force” (French for “strength,” a nod to Rohloff’s heritage). Ashley has a tattoo of ribbons and the words “Mom” and “la vie est belle” (“life is beautiful”).
“I want to be there for them,” she says. “I want to be a grandma one day. I want to see Andy on that mound with a major-league team. I want to be there. That’s my strength.”
And that strength is getting her through one day at a time.
“I’m doing everything possible that I can to live,” she says. “I will fight to the end. … If you have something to live for, you have to.”
Make It Pink: Breast Cancer Awareness Month Events
9Round Fitness Kick Event
When: Oct. 13
Where: 3350 NW 62nd Ave., Margate
What: Guests and members of 9Round are invited to a special workout where each kick will equal one penny donation to the Lisa Boccard Breast Cancer Fund. Participants can buy workout shirts and write the name of someone they know who has been affected by breast cancer.
Not My Daughter, Find A Cure Now!
When: Oct. 24; 10 a.m.
Where: Marriott Coral Springs Hotel, 11775 Heron Bay Blvd., Coral Springs
What: This event includes a shopping boutique and luncheon. Cost is $75 or $100 for a VIPink ticket, which comes with a special gift. RSVP by Oct. 7. Proceeds will be donated to the Miami-Fort Lauderdale affiliate of Susan G. Komen.
Throughout the month
During Brighton Collectibles’ Power of the Pink Campaign, the jewelry store will offer an exclusive piece. A portion of the sales benefit the Lisa Boccard Breast Cancer Fund, which assists women who cannot afford mammograms. 4425 Lyons Road, Coconut Creek; 954.968.2383
Ciao Cucina & Bar (4443 Lyons Road, Suite D104, Coconut Creek) and Ethos Greek Bistro (4437 Lyons Road, Coconut Creek) will donate a portion of their sales this month to the Lisa Boccard Breast Cancer Fund.