The Story Begins
From the moment Michelle Ann Gearhart-Pash was first diagnosed with breast cancer in April of 1988, there was never a doubt in her mind where she would go for her treatment: “I said from the start, ‘I’m going to City of Hope.’” Raised in nearby Montebello, CA, Michelle had heard friends and family praising City of Hope, grateful for the care they had received there during their own battles with cancer. “With all of their medical knowledge and the outstanding doctors, I knew City of Hope was where I wanted to be treated.”
Michelle approached her disease and treatment with a positive attitude. “I said, ‘I am going to beat this.’ I always felt like I was in control,” she remembers. “The doctors and nurses at City of Hope made me feel like a partner, not like a patient.”
The lumpectomy to remove her cancer was followed by seven weeks of radiation. After five cancer-free years, Michelle admitted, “I secretly breathed a sigh of relief.”
Trusting in City of Hope
In April of 1999, eleven years after her first diagnosis, Michelle found another lump, this time in her right breast. Just as she had the first time, Michelle stared down her disease with an unflinching attitude. “I did not let this get me down. I thought, I beat this once and I will beat it again,” she recalls.
Once again, Michelle knew City of Hope was the place she needed to be. No sooner had she completed her radiation when, in November of that same year, Michelle was told that the cancer had returned to her left breast. A double mastectomy, reconstructive surgery, chemotherapy and radiation all followed. “I thought, this can’t be happening to me,” she says. “But I never gave up. I had a good sense of humor and always had a smile on my face.” She even had her car’s license plate switched to “CHEMO QT.”
Photo of Michelle Ann Gearhart-Pash
Michelle’s sense of humor and survivor’s spirit certainly carried her through what she describes as the “grueling experience of high dose chemo” and a stem cell transplant when, in October of 2000, she was diagnosed with cancer in her lymph nodes. But she also credits City of Hope for helping her to feel confident and strong as she faced cancer for the fourth time.
City of Hope’s Unique Care
For Michelle, the City of Hope difference was and always has been about the level of care. “I tell people from the moment you walk in that front door, you are not lost. You are not alone. The staff, everyone there, becomes part of your family, and you become part of theirs.” Michelle points specifically to her relationships with Dr. Jeffrey Wong and Dr. Lucille Leong. “Dr. Leong was with me from the day I first stepped into City of Hope. I feel like we grew up together!”
Michelle says this emphasis on compassionate care at City of Hope helped her to keep her positive outlook during her multiple surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments — even when she was diagnosed with breast cancer two more times, in March and again in June of 2008.
Part of the City of Hope Family
Just as Michelle once took the advice of friends who had been cared for at City of Hope, she now finds that she is the one — 24 years and six bouts of cancer later — recommending City of Hope to others. “I sell City of Hope,” Michelle says. “As soon as I hear someone say that they have cancer, I ask, ‘Oh, are you going to City of Hope?’” She also encouraged her husband and father to seek treatment there when they were both diagnosed with cancer. In addition to the medical treatment, Michelle points to the survivors’ and support groups that have formed at the medical center in the years since her first treatment as essential to her recovery.
She is now part of City of Hope’s Hope Network peer support group, where survivors are paired one on one with new patients, and she is also very active with the Patient and Family Advisory Council — all of which were formed to enhance the extraordinary level of care at City of Hope after a patient’s initial treatment has been completed.
Michelle is very appreciative of her immediate family as well as her City of Hope family for the love, care and support that was given. She is also grateful to City of Hope’s “extended family” — the people whose generous support makes so many of the programs and medical research possible.
“I am here today because of you,” she says.