The Air Force Sustainment Center’s Michele Robertson is hardly the shy and retiring type. Consistent workouts keep her slender frame strong; while her sense of humor, mixed with an educator’s heart, make her as engaging as her big blue eyes.
As a branch chief in training and development for the Directorate of Personnel for the AFSC, headquartered at Tinker Air Force Base, Robertson said she was surprised after a physician wanted to do a biopsy the same day as her annual mammogram.
“Historically, I’m fit; I work out, lift weights and I haven’t had any previous health issues,” Robertson said. “On August 7, I am nervously waiting for my name to be called and I soon walk back with a physician who is not in scrubs and she does not have the mandatory stethoscope.
“I thought, ‘Hmm, this doesn’t look like good news.’ ”
It wasn’t. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, infiltrating ductal carcinoma, which meant cancer has spread into the surrounding tissue. Concerned for her 12-year-old daughter, Riley, Robertson went through genetic testing that ruled out that it was a hereditary condition.
Today, Robertson is responding well to a variety of treatments that could go on as long as 14-16 months until she returns to full health. She said she’s processing the experience in phases and she’s also taking the opportunity to educate Team Tinker about breast cancer, especially since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Robertson is a leader and educator who has worked for the federal government since 2002, both at Tinker AFB and abroad. She supervises her staff as they provide policy oversight, training and leadership development to employees at the three AFSC installations.
“There are many different types and subtypes of cancer,” Robertson said. “The oncologist called and told me it was triple negative and that means it doesn’t have a targeted treatment, therefore my treatment plan is more extensive. Triple negative is typically responsive to chemotherapy, but can be particularly aggressive and is more likely to recur.
“I saw the breast surgeon and recently had surgery to remove nine lymph nodes, all of them came back negative for cancer, and they put in a port for my chemotherapy treatments.”
One of the many blessings that greatly benefits Robertson, she said, is that a co-worker goes with her during her medical visits and procedures, and her co-workers, team and leadership are all very supportive.
“Everyone is different and everyone reacts to having breast cancer differently,” she said. “It can be very overwhelming and hard to process. There are different chemotherapies and many variables to breast cancer and I don’t think people know that.”
Robertson said mammograms are very important and she feels a responsibility to her co-workers to make them feel included so they don’t avoid her.
“People sometimes ask questions and feel stupid and I don’t mind telling people what they said was stupid,” she said, laughing.
Before she had her first surgery, 40 to 50 of Robertson’s friends put together an “encouragement gathering” and she provided a “Top 10 List of Things not to say to someone with Breast Cancer.”
“Please don’t tell me about your auntie who had pancreatic cancer and died, I don’t want to hear that,” she said. “Instead, ask me about my treatment plan and where I am at in my treatment. Please don’t tell me, ‘if you need anything, just let me know.’ That’s so overwhelming to me.”
Instead, friends and co-workers who want updates are welcome to read her blog on Caringbridges.org.
“I’m going to try to keep you informed on the good and positive stuff. Also, keep in mind that text messages can get overwhelming; it is exhausting, but please understand that I believe the more prayers, cheerleaders and positive vibes I have, the better.
“Fortunately, I’m a strong enough personality that I am comfortable asking for help or addressing comments that are not helpful. Simply be mindful of what you’re saying to someone who has cancer. This is what being a wingman is all about; it’s knowing and caring about the people around you and it’s about fighting the war together,” Robertson said.
“Educate yourself and do not be afraid to say the word cancer, it doesn’t mean death, not to me. That’s not how I’m thinking about it. Owning it and recognizing that gives you a lot of empowerment, too.”
She said friends and neighbors have provided various gifts in the form of house cleaning, moving heavy equipment, baked goods and her beauty salon, Edmond’s Premier Beauty Bar and its owner, Laura Hickenboth, provided a “Brave and Shave” event on a Saturday evening when Robertson had her beautiful tresses cut and head shaved prior to her first chemotherapy treatment.
The event featured fancy cakes, cookies and champagne and Robertson’s daughter even helped shave her mother’s head.
“It was a very vulnerable experience, but I got to share that with everybody and thank them for the different roles they play in my life,” Robertson said. “My daughter’s best friends were all there and that’s another message I wanted to share, the message that your true friends are loyal and present, regardless of the turmoil you face.”
She said sometimes it is the little things that lift her spirit, including a recent day when a close friend made her a caramel cake, another grabbed an extra coffee for her and someone left a little note on her computer that stated, “It’s not your hair that makes you beautiful.”
“I love all the pretty girly things like being tan, make up, hair extensions and more, but for the people who really care for and love you, it is not about the aesthetics.”