This article was supported by the Grant or Cooperative Agreement Number 1 U58DP006672, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Department of Health and Human Services.
Discovering fearlessness within: Michelle Anderson-Benjamin
“Speak up for yourself. And don’t be afraid to have a bad day.”
Michelle Anderson-Benjamin offers that advice and more to people with cancer. Such guidance is drawn from her work, her training as a certified mental health advocate and coach, and her personal experiences since the morning in September 2020 when she found blood leaking from her right breast. Days later, Michelle, then 36 years old, was diagnosed with stage I triple-negative breast cancer.
Treatment didn’t go easily. She had a mastectomy, but the tissue expander needed to be removed due to an infection. It was reinserted, then removed again. That process meant two additional surgeries. Chemotherapy was delayed by three months. Complications during reconstruction meant more surgery.
Michelle had spent the previous 20 years working and going to school, both full-time. She switched fields from banking to health care, landed a job in a New York cancer hospital, and achieved a master’s degree in health administration. Her career switch was because “I wanted to live my life with a purpose,” she says. That change gave her room for her interests and more time to be with her husband, daughter, and son.
When diagnosed, Michelle knew she would lose her breast and her hair would fall out from chemotherapy. Those realities worried her, but her main concern was about how her children, then ages 3 and 11, would adjust to her having cancer. “I’ve always been a person of resilience,” she says. “It wasn’t about my fight. It was about me making sure they were prepared.”
She talked with the children about what would happen during treatment, answered their questions, arranged homework and music tutors for her eighth-grade son, and shared a coloring book about breast cancer with her preschooler. “I used that tool to have conversations with my daughter and show her my changes,” she says.
To reassure her little girl, they started a play routine that continues now, two years later. “We check our ‘buttons’ [nipples] together every night before she goes to bed,” Michelle says. Teaching her daughter to do breast self-exams, she believes, may ready her for starting mammograms early, as currently advised for young women with a close family history of breast cancer. That will happen when her daughter is in her mid-20s, since Michelle was diagnosed in her mid-30s.
An advocate emerges
From diagnosis on, Michelle wanted to handle her breast cancer experience her way—to summon her internal strength, draw courage from it, and convey that spirit to her children. There were days, of course, when she felt pain, worry, and sorrow about the challenges that came with the disease. To lessen the impact of those difficult times, she focused on projecting an attitude that conveyed confidence.
“Every time I went into treatment, I had music playing in my ears to mentally prepare myself,” she says. During chemotherapy sessions, she and her husband posted TikTok videos of her dancing to musical artists such as Lil’ Kim and Jay-Z. She also used music to relax for surgery.
“You set the tone,” Michelle tells other patients, adding that advocating for yourself with medical professionals “reminds them that you’re human.” While at office visits and treatments, she wrapped herself in a blanket printed with a photo collage of her family and friends. “That lets them know you have people that care about you, that you belong to somebody,” she says.
Michelle credits her dad, who she describes as “very assertive but a big teddy bear” with modeling fearlessness for her. “I had those seeds planted in me,” she says, “but it took being put in a position where I didn’t have a choice for me to take that mindset because this is my survival.”
As a patient, she gained a closer, more personal view of how being a young African American woman left gaps in her breast cancer care. She found few resources that equitably related to her age group, racial or ethnic background, and disease type.
“There wasn’t much that represented me or connected with my journey,” she says. “I decided to make that an opportunity to be a voice, instead of being unsatisfied or feeling isolated.”
To provide that voice and improve care, especially for people of color, Michelle launched The Fearless Warrior Project, LLC, for her services such as coaching, workshops, and speaking engagements. She volunteers support to patients at the cancer center where she works. She has written hospital articles about the importance of representation in treatment and is working with staff to build cancer resources for all ages, races, and ethnicities.
Michelle participates in public panels and programs and is a patient reviewer for breast cancer clinical trials funded by the Department of Defense. As a reviewer, she questions researchers on issues from what proposed trials seek to achieve, to how communities of color and underrepresented people might access and benefit from the studies.
“In order to make change, you have to be about change. You can’t just complain,” she says. “You have to be willing to force yourself to the table. And you have to be willing to prepare your own table.”
In spring 2022, Michelle’s doctors found she had breast cancer again, this time in her left breast. It was DCIS, or stage 0 breast cancer, and hormone-positive this time, not triple-negative. There was no recurrence on the original side. Because of the new finding, she would have a second mastectomy and reconstruction.
Michelle felt a rush of emotions. “Having to go back to that warrior mindset was hard. You feel like you were given time to breathe and now it’s something else. This is what cancer patients deal with all the time.” She admits to feeling “defeated” and asking, “why me?” as she had before. “I had to remind myself, ‘Why not you?’”
When she told her children about the new breast cancer, she could tell they were scared. But they also were informed by two years of seeing what would happen in treatment and having many supportive talks with their parents. According to Michelle, the children’s fear soon changed into a “We-got-you” attitude.
Even her young daughter, now five years old, wanted to help. “The first thing she said to me was, ‘Is your hair gonna fall out again? Because if it is, we can order this wig from the Moana movie that’s sold on Amazon!”
Michelle laughs as she tells this story. Such moments helped. With music in her ears, she went through her second mastectomy and returned to work in August.
Building for others
For more than a year, Michelle has been shaping her newest endeavor, the Fearless Warrior Organization. The nonprofit’s name reflects the spirit she hopes it encourages. Its goals are to use coaching and other methods to empower people with cancer, so they can regain their mental and emotional strengths. The community-based group will provide free workshops, advocacy, financial assistance, and more, especially for people of color and underrepresented communities. Plans include partnering with organizations such as LBBC and For the Breast of Us to increase impact. “The need is there,” Michelle says.
Her commitment began long ago. For eight years, she and her family have participated in a fundraising walk for Shades of a Cure, a cancer group helping communities of color. Team members wear t-shirts bearing the names of loved ones affected by cancer. “For the last two years,” she says, “my name was an honoree on my t-shirt.”
Describing herself as “very spiritual,” Michelle has thought about her cancer experiences and life. Looking ahead, she asks, “How do I use this time wisely?” Starting the Fearless Warrior Organization is part of the legacy she hopes to leave for her children.
“I’m not afraid of dying, but I also want to embrace the life that I’m given,” she says. “In order to do that, I have to be consistent and focus on my purpose.”