Living in Pink
When it comes to illnesses, especially with, but not limited to, cancer, we live in a time of high and keen awareness, a time of activism, and pro-activism, of an urgency working toward finding a cure, of gathering and distributing information and reaching out. This is the age of ribbons, runs and research. The first time Michele Conley was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was 35, a mother of four young children with a career as a State Farm Insurance Agent living in Chevy Chase. She was a self-described fanatic when it came to athletics, running, physical fitness and exercise.
That was in 1995, and back then, there wasn’t a ribbon or a run for every illness, and what you could call medical activism of the kind started by Susan G. Komen for the Cure non-profit was not as all-pervasive as it is today. Many of the options now open to cancer-diagnosed patients were not yet available.
“I was shocked, but went through the chemotherapy, the radiation and the surgery,” she said. She had reason to be optimistic afterward—the cancer seemed to have gone into a long remission. In the interim, her mother was also diagnosed with breast cancer and then, five years after her own bout with breast cancer, it came back.
“I had a much harder time with that,” she said. “It was a tough, very tough. But this time, I thought, let’s go get it done with. And I thought, I’m going to do everything I can to not just fight this but end it in some way.”
This time she opted for radical surgery — double mastectomy and hysterectomy — which meant a hospital stay and a lengthy recovery period.
We visited Conley in her State Farm Office on upper Wisconsin Avenue, and found an outgoing, straight-talking, attractive blonde woman who gave no appearance of having gone through such a life-changing ordeal, even if it was in the somewhat distant past. When she talked about her experience, she was blunt, direct, animated.
There was no complaint, no whisper of long suffering. There was talk about running marathons, her four children, about the hope and need to find a cure for cancer, which had made long and wrenching visitations in her life and that of her family.
She’s a doer, pro-active, purely active. “I’ve always been like that, and I think I get that from my mother, who is amazing, really amazing,” she said. “When we found out that mom, Annette, was diagnosed, we went to the doctor together, and we were told about options and plans, and what was required, starting in her case with chemotherapy. And she listened, and she said, “Well, okay, let’s do that. When do we start?”
That “let’s do it” attitude comes natural to her. Because she did more than just take on the cancer and all it entailed. In 2004, she decided to do something a little more involving. She started the “Living In Pink” Foundation, with a core committee of ten women, which sponsors a yearly fundraising luncheon (It’s Nov. 2 this year) as well as the awarding of a grant, which supports innovative research toward breast cancer research. Or, as the mission statement reads, Living in Pink was created to “help find a cure for breast cancer so that the next generation of women will not have to endure the emotional and physical pain of breast cancer and treatment.”
Conley is president of the foundation, her good friend Dr. Pamela Peeke, a Bethesda physician and diet and fitness specialist, is Chief Medical Advisor and Laurie Zorc is Director of Operations. “Things have changed over the years, all sorts of cancer foundations and treatment centers are have emerged,” she said. “We’re all working toward the same thing, and I want to help. I met through Dr. Peeke a lot of people who went through similar things and that’s one of the other things that results from all this, the knowledge that we’re not alone. You can’t feel like you’re handling this alone.”
“For me, I have to say that my children, twins Brooke and Denver, 22, Brendan Riley, 19 and Forrest 17 have been just a tremendous source of support for me,” she said. “They’re the reason you want to fight so hard, but they were also there for me, especially the second time. Not fighting back was not an option.”
“We’re looking toward the future,” she said. “We’re talking about the future of our children. Recipients of Living in Pink Research Funding have included Dr. Eliot Rosen from the Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown University; Dr. Koji Itahana from the University of North Carolina; Dr. Sandra M. Swain of the Washington Cancer Institute at the Washington Hospital Center; Dr. Robert Strange of the University of Colorado; Dr. Ehsan Samei of the Duke University Medical Center and Ann-Marie Simeone of the University of Texas-M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. “It’s a lot different today,” she said. “More and more people and groups are involved.
Married for a second time to mortgage banker Mark Eigerbrode, Conley is in some ways much the same woman as she was before she encountered the disease that looms so large in the minds of women. She is still a runner, a doer, a straightforward, plain speaker with style and verve. Except you think that everything she does now has a dollop of urgency in it. “Cancer,” she said, “is not for the faint of heart.”