Together with three dedicated friends, Stage IV breast cancer survivor Michelle Nicastro puts her gratitude and her passion for motherhood to work in a company created to help busy moms spend time where it really counts.
By Diana Price
"I'm just so happy to be here," says Stage IV breast cancer survivor Michelle Nicastro, her joy apparent through the phone lines, "and I feel so grateful and so lucky."
Originally diagnosed with calcifications in her right breast after undergoing a baseline mammogram shortly before her fortieth birthday, Michelle underwent a lumpectomy at the time and was told she required no further treatment. "I was told that it would have taken two years for the calcification to even develop into a lump and that it was basically precancer," she says, "so I had my lumpectomy and went on my way." Still, Michelle didn't feel she was in the clear: "I felt a cloud hanging over me."
The storm hit in force three years later when she began experiencing back pain. "I had started playing tennis again, and I thought that's what had caused it—I hadn't played in about 15 years. I saw a couple of sports medicine doctors, and they thought that was probably it, also." But the pain became so severe that Michelle was finally sent for a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test, at which point her skeletal system was found to be riddled with cancer. "My spine, my shoulders, my hips—it was everywhere," she says of the discovery of the now Stage IV cancer.
Michelle and her husband, Steve, sought treatment with John Glaspy, MD, at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, but Michelle was worried about his prescribed treatment. "At the time," she says, "he was recommending chemo, radiation, and Herceptin® [trastuzumab]. I had just lost my mother to cancer, and I had seen a really bad side of it. I was beyond petrified about chemo after seeing what it had done to her."
Michelle had also recently lost her father to a heart attack, and the combined loss, she says, left her totally bereft. "I was empty, and I was so scared of chemo." For that reason, she says, she did not start chemo right away but instead began receiving infusions of the targeted therapy Herceptin while she tried to sort out her feelings about what the rest of her treatment would entail.
While she was making her decision, however, Michelle's condition deteriorated to the point that she became confined to a wheelchair. "I couldn't walk up the stairs in my own house," she says, remembering that scary time. Michelle is the mother of two daughters, who were eight and 11 at the time, and her feelings were intensified by their reaction to her condition. They were scared, she says, but she did her best to remain focused on a positive outcome. "I kept focusing on the fact that I was going to be alright."
More than anything, she wanted to show her girls that she could carry on and that so could they. "I think one of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is to be resilient," she says. "If I can teach them that we can go on, that life sure can throw curves at you—which they saw when they saw me lose my mother, my father, and then during my own illness—but that you can persevere, then I feel good."
Ultimately, it was the look in her girls' eyes that got Michelle back to Dr. Glaspy and into the chemo chair. "Finally, I couldn't see my kids looking at me anymore; I just had to go for the chemotherapy." Knowing that chemo would be a tough road, Michelle gave herself a powerful incentive: she told herself and her friends that she would be out of her wheelchair and walking on the first day of school so she could walk her kids through the door. As tough as the treatment was—and the nausea, hair loss, and other side effects did hit her hard—as she started to see results she knew it was all worth it. "I started at the end of June, and in August I was walking with a walker; in September I walked into school."
Despite the obvious improvement, Michelle's doctors needed to be sure that Herceptin would make a difference on its own. Several months after she finished chemo, her results remained positive, and her team felt confident that the treatment was successful.
Now, three years later, Michelle continues to receive Herceptin infusions every three weeks and the hormonal treatment Faslodex® (fulvestrant) every month. "I lead a really full, great life," she says. The side affects of her ongoing treatment, which have included allergic reactions that mimic asthmatic symptoms and a significant weight gain, are manageable, she says, because she's so aware of the gratitude she feels and the gifts she has received. "I appreciate things in such a different way. In some ways there are really positive things that have come out of this."
One of the really positive things to have emerged from Michelle's journey was the opportunity to focus on what really made her happy—to realize where the value in her life lay. And it was not, she soon discovered, her career (she had worked as a singer and a stage and television actress) or any of the many other areas of her busy life that she missed. What emerged instead was the singular importance of her role as a mom and of the little, everyday expressions of that role. "I didn't miss singing on a stage; I didn't miss getting a paycheck. I missed packing my daughters' lunch; I missed picking them up from school." Along with her sadness at not being able to spend time with her kids came the revelation of all the time wasted on things that were just not important.
It was this perspective that remained after treatment and which brought Michelle, together with good friends Maria Newton and Kim Arial and her sister, Kristin Nicastro, around to what would become an expression of Michelle's desire to give all moms a little more of what she learned was so precious: time. Maria, Kim, and Kristin had played invaluable roles during Michelle's treatment, offering friendship, support, and inspiration when she needed it most. As Michelle recovered and they continued to come together to support her and one another in their busy lives as moms, they reflected often on the lessons of Michelle's journey, always coming back to their desire to prioritize their time with their kids.
The four women's ongoing conversation eventually led to a decision that would transform their coffee chats into serious business. "We were at Starbucks one day, and we thought that because as women and moms we lead very different lives from men, we needed a way to focus our lives and blend our children's lives with ours. What our children do each day is very important—it's part of our lives." The idea, Michelle says, led to a prototype of a special kind of planner that would allow them to organize their busy days and highlight their kids' activities. It helped that the foursome was filled with artistic talent and overflowing with enthusiasm: "Maria is an artist and hadn't done anything with that in a while," Michelle says, describing the gifts they each brought to the table. "Kristin is a graphic artist; Kim had always wanted to be involved in something like this; it just came together." They distributed the prototypes to 25 of their friends over the busy holiday season, and the response was extremely positive. "One of our friends said it changed her life," Michelle says.
From there Truly Mom, LLC, was off and running—a business born not of entrepreneurial aspirations but of a desire to help other women achieve a little clarity and maybe a little extra time amidst the chaos of a busy mom's life. The company name, Michelle says, was inspired by the recurring theme of her cancer journey: think about what's truly important; be true to your beliefs. "If you're true to what's important to you, everything else falls into place," she says. And she hopes she can help other women with the same perspective she achieved without having to take the same rough road she did. "We talk about the little things a lot, but I saw it—I truly didn't know if I was going to live one more day, and I knew what was important to me. I thought if I could let people know, without their having to go to the edge like I did, maybe I could help them."
It's clear already, from the success the company is seeing, that Truly Mom is helping a lot of women. In addition to the planners, the company now also produces custom stationery, note cards, and a few clothing items. But the women's dreams for their company don't end there. "We have huge hopes for the company," says Michelle. "I want us to be that home base for moms. I want people to come to us for quick sanity, for healthy-living tips, for a sense of clarity. We hope to someday have a magazine and maybe a store stocked with things that would make you feel good and appreciate every second." And because Truly Mom remains focused on the original inspiration—and Michelle's gratitude for her health is never far from her mind—the company donates 10 percent of all proceeds across the board to UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.
As the company grows and thrives, Michelle says, she tries hard to keep the success of the business—and its growing demands on her time—in perspective. "This is getting really big, really fast for us," she says of the recent publicity Truly Mom has received and the growing demand for its products. "We all want to be able to practice what we preach and remain focused on why we did this in the first place."
For Michelle that reason remains the priority of her family and the emphasis on recognizing the value in the simple, true pleasures of life. Though her girls still get scared for her, she says, she continues to emphasize their inner strength as she shows them her own amazing fortitude. "They still say, 'I don't want you to die.' But I tell them, 'You can do anything; you can handle anything.'"
And it's clear: with a role model like Michelle, those girls will be able to handle any challenge that comes their way.