A voyage of discovery: Portland woman shares breast cancer journey

You may have heard the saying - life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans. For one Portland woman, it's proven to be true.
Published: May. 2, 2022 at 7:05 AM PDT
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PORTLAND, Ore. (KPTV) - You may have heard the saying - life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. For one Portland woman, it’s proven to be true.

With every splash, synchronized swimmer Michele Bennett shines.

“I have been a swimmer since I was 11. I saw it in the Olympics in 1996 on TV and thought, ‘Ah, I have to do that,’” Bennett said. “I just think it’s so fun to be in the water upside down. It’s like dancing in the water.”

A joy driven by swimming, but mostly for living and loving those around her. Bennett and her husband, Mike, are newlyweds, a time of life filled with plans for the future. But for Bennett, also a time to look back at something she’s long carried with her after a DNA test kit changed her life.

“I got ‘23andMe’ on a whim to see if I was 100% Ashkenazi Jewish, and then to find out that I had this major predictor of my future health was difficult for sure,” she said.

In 2013, Bennett found out she has a mutation of her BRCA gene, which means she’s at high risk of developing breast cancer.

“Mike and I started talking about a family and having kids, and I just sort of had this nagging feeling that I wasn’t up for the risk to be pregnant with my mutation and elevated breast cancer risk,” she said.

To reduce that risk, she made the brave decision to undergo a double mastectomy, removing both breasts. She took to social media to share her story, including a road trip to celebrate the parts of her she would soon tell goodbye.

“Every time we would be somewhere that was exceptionally beautiful and we were alone, we went to a lot of places really early. My husband would go, ‘Have your boobs ever seen a view that beautiful?’ So I’d be like, ‘No,’” laughed Bennett.

From the wilderness of Joshua Tree National Park to the sands of Death Valley, Bennett shared her love for adventure, but also her fragility.

“I get emotional, not thinking about surgery, but thinking about my community with how people came out of the woodwork and were just so incredibly supportive and kind the entire time,” she said.

During surgery a few months later, another unexpected twist. The doctor found a small cyst in one of her breasts. Five days later, she’d hear the words she hoped to never hear - she had cancer.

“That one was pretty shocking. I had no inkling I had breast cancer until five days later when the doctor called,” Bennett said.

Despite her diagnosis, Bennett said she feels lucky she had the surgery and was surrounded by love.

“People are going to think these are sad tears, but they’re not, they’re happy tears,” she said. “I feel really lucky to be who I am and to have family and my husband, and I think that - I had known I was a high risk for so long, so I felt really prepared in so many ways.”

Bennett is now in the next stage of her battle - undergoing chemotherapy. Sharing her process with thousands of followers and facing whatever challenges come her way, including those in the water.

“My duets partners idea. She was like, ‘There’s a meet in Palm Springs, should we go?’ I was like, ‘I can’t go to that, I’m in chemo!”

But her body had other plans. In the middle of treatment, she performed at a swim meet in Palm Springs.

“It was fabulous, it was so fun. It was in the sun, palm trees on one side and mountain on the others,” she described. “I think it’s amazing. I’m so proud of myself for challenging myself to do that.”

It’s an example, she said, that we are stronger than we think, and that challenges are worth taking whether in water, in love or living every day.

Bennett told FOX 12 she has a 1-in-10 chance that the cancer will reoccur. Her odds are better because it was found so early. She and her doctors said her story is a reminder of the importance of knowing your family history when it comes to your own health and having regular visits with your doctor.