A brain cancer "warrior" takes the trip of a lifetime

Michelle Beale and her Mass General care team at the Francis H. Burr Proton Therapy Center in 2009

When Michelle Beale began to experience debilitating headaches, she was volunteering to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. Her journal, meant to document her experiences, served as an important log for doctors to chart and eventually diagnose her brain cancer.

“I was on the phone once and the thoughts in my head came out of my mouth as nonsense,” Michelle said. “That’s when I knew something was wrong with me.”

When an MRI revealed the large tumor in her brain, she says “it was a relief to find out what was really going on.” By that point, the grade 2 oligoastrocytoma had intertwined itself with healthy tissue, causing problems with her speech as she struggled to find the right words in a “noisy” brain.

Michelle came to Mass General after discovering she was a perfect candidate for a clinical trial led by a physician in the Department of Radiation Oncology. She first met with Dr. Helen Shih, who referred her to Dr. Elizabeth Gerstner, a neuro-oncologist in the Department of Neurology.

I am a warrior, not a survivor.
I am not done yet.

Michelle Beale
Mass General patient

“She treated me like a person. She focused on me, and I was the only thing she was concerned about at that moment. No phone calls, nothing else,” she said.

Now, Michelle comes to Mass General for follow-up appointments every six months after having received proton radiation treatments in 2009 to stunt the growth of her tumor. She also visits the Department of Radiology for regular MRIs that doctors use to assess any changes in her tumor.

“We enjoy coming to Mass General because everyone works together so well to make my treatment successful,” says Michelle. “I feel as if they flipped a switch and turned me back on.”

Ed and Michelle Beale in Sydney at the start of their trip

Michelle reports that her tumor has finally stopped growing. After the clinical trial ends, she hopes for no tumor re-growth for five years.

Last month, Michelle and her husband Edward left to sail around the world, visiting 42 ports in 105 days, beginning and ending in Sydney.

“We decided this was the time to go on the trip of a lifetime…I have no idea how much longer I will have-no really one does-but we decided it was better to go now than to wait,” she says. 

The trip is a dream she used to think was impossible with her diagnosis, and she plans to write a book about her experience.

“I want to share my story to help other patients realize they are not alone,” says Michelle. “It is a devastating diagnosis but I hope to help others overcome.”

“I am a warrior, not a survivor. I am not done yet,” she says.

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