Attention Metro Transit Passengers… by Michelle Shkolnick


I read this little blurb in a professional magazine I was reviewing last week for a work presentation. The author was using it as a metaphor to discuss interruptions at work and their impact on quality and productivity. My mind went instantly to cancer.


“BC” (before cancer) I rode the metaphorical train day in and day out and thought that cancer happened to other people. I am sure that there were people battling cancer on my train each day, but I really did not notice them, let alone ever really think much about what I could do to help them. After all, I was just a passenger on this train. Not the engineer or the dispatcher or the switch person. I was just a passenger. I didn’t have a job function here. I just rode the train day after day, assuming I would get to my destination as scheduled like I had hundreds of other times.


At 12:15 pm the first Friday in March 2001, I heard the words, “You have cancer,” and I was no longer just a passenger on that train. The train on which I had been riding all this time was now the disabled train. It was a feeling like no other when the train came to a grinding halt that day. It sounded ferociously loud, then oddly quiet in the aftermath…quiet enough to hear my own heart beating rhythmically in my chest and my own lungs steadily breathing in and out…although I sometimes wonder how I managed to do that when all the air had just been sucked out of the room. In that instant, I was thrown into the roles of engineer and dispatcher and switch person.

I was stuck. Stuck in panic. Stuck in fear. Stuck in the prospect of my own mortality. How the hell do I get this train moving again?


Less than eight hours after hearing those three dreaded words, I figured out a way to get that train moving. No one had given me any operating instructions, but as the engineer responsible for running the locomotive, it was my job to get things in motion. I did what I was so accustomed to doing…I went to the Internet…and I typed in “cancer.” And for reasons that still remain a mystery to me, I chose the American Cancer Society website ( from amongst the MILLIONS of results that popped up in a fraction of a second. What I needed to get unstuck was right there in front of me…

On that web page, there was a place to click to learn about cancer. If the dispatcher’s job is defined as being the person who is responsible for moving trains over a territory, I had found what I needed. I selected breast cancer from the menu and began reading. I researched the different types of breast cancer and the various treatment options. I found a list of questions that I should ask my doctor and different resources for support in putting my life back together. That night, into the wee hours of the next morning, I got my train unstuck.

Over the days and weeks and months that followed, I ran the rail yard like any good switch person would, managing other crew members along my tracks to ensure we were doing all the right things to handle the situation. Surgery…scans…chemo…radiation…more scans…keeping everything on schedule. The dispatcher part of me was in constant communications with my medical crew, ensuring “occupancy on the tracks” as needed. The train navigated all turns as planned each and every time.


Sometimes it sucked to be on the disabled train. In its wake were other trains that suffered collateral damage and I think it sucked worse to be on those trains. I think first and foremost of my parents and my sisters and my closest friends…their trains came to a grinding halt that day because of my disabled train. On that day in March, they all stopped being just passengers on their trains. They became stewards attending to this passenger…and cooks preparing my meals…and porters carrying my baggage and their own, including sometimes the emotional kind.

How can I ever really thank people for their patience during something like this? What kind of apology can I offer that would ever cover this kind of “service interruption?”

In 2012, over 1.6 MILLION new cases of cancer will be diagnosed. The good news is that 5-year cancer survival rates for “all cancers diagnosed between 2001 and 2007 is 67%, up from 49% in 1975-1977.” There are currently 12 MILLION survivors alive today, thanks in large part to the American Cancer Society. We ARE creating a world with LESS CANCER and MORE BIRTHDAYS!

I will never know what made me choose the American Cancer Society website that night. But I do know that I am eternally grateful for the information that I found there (and for the Relay family that I found three months later) that helped me get – and keep – my train unstuck.

Please know that the American Cancer Society provides valuable information, resources and HOPE if you or someone you love should ever hear the announcement: “ATTENTION METRO TRANSIT PASSENGERS…”

by Michelle Shkolnick – 2012 Hero of Hope

This is the second post of Michelle Shkolnick’s  series as a contributor for the site.  Shkolnick, who is an American Cancer Society Relay For Life Hero of Hope in 2012 will share her captivating writing ability with ACSNebraska readers every other week in May and June.  She will talk about her cancer journey, the American Cancer Society, Relay For Life, survivorship and the people she’s met along the way.  Michelle was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 and began Relaying in Omaha that summer.  This year, she travels across Nebraska talking to fellow Relayers and inspiring people to help the American Cancer Society make a difference by saving lives.  Please check back with or subscribe to the site because you won’t want to miss a word of Michelle’s stories.  Her next story is scheduled to be posted on Tuesday, June 5.


Lincoln Breast Cancer Survivor Fights Back Through Relay

Tracy with her Husband Daryl

When Tracy Poppe was just 34 years old, a month after she was married, she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer.  Although she was diagnosed on October 28, 2008, she had discovered her cancer more than a year and a half prior through a self breast exam.  Two doctors had told her that she was too young to have breast cancer and that the lump was only a cyst without even doing a biopsy. 

“It was when I became persistent that the doctor did a biopsy and this persistence saved my life because if I had waited, the cancer would have spread,” commented Poppe.  “I was lucky, it hadn’t gone to the lymph nodes yet.”

The week of Thanksgiving 2008, she began treatments and lost her hair before Christmas.  By July 4, 2009, she had six rounds of chemo, two lumpectomies and completed 35 rounds of radiation.  She also endured 12 shots of Herceptin during her treatment.

After diagnosis she had called her friend Tracy Harnly who had been fighting the same type of breast cancer and was diagnosed at Stage 4.  She referred Poppe to an oncologist and supported her during the wait and worry that comes with cancer. 

“I thank her for saving my life. Because of her, I was persistent.  When she learned of my finding the lump, her words were, “Get it out!”   And that is why I continue to tell my story.  I want young women to read my story, hear my story and protect themselves.  Cancer doesn’t care if you are young, have children, or just got married.”

It was Harnly who introduced Poppe to her first Relay For Life prior to being diagnosed.  She went to the Relay For Life at Haymarket Park in Lincoln in support of Tracy’s team and after being diagnosed, formed a team of her own.  Her team was aptly named “The Hair Raisers” because of her desire to get her hair back.  One of the reasons she chose the Relay For Life as her way to give back was because of her treatments of Herceptin, a drug that helped save her life.  Research for that drug became available through grants from the American Cancer Society with money raised through events like Relay For Life. 

“I wanted to give back, I wanted to fight for myself, I wanted to fight for everyone who has heard those awful words “You have cancer”,” said Poppe about her involvement in Relay.  “I still want those things but I also fight for the future of loved ones and those I don’t even know.  Those who I HOPE don’t hear those dreaded words that stop you in your tracks.”

This year’s Relay on July 29th at Haymarket Park will be the third year for “The Hair Raisers” team.  The team will host a basketball tournament, a party with a band and silent auction and they will sell luminaries.  This year, Poppe will walk in memory of her friend Tracy who lost her battle this past February.  She’ll walk for Tracy’s young boys who had to say goodbye to a wonderful mother.   

Anyone interested in joining the fight against cancer through Relay For Life can still form a team for the event.  For more information, log on to or call your local American Cancer Society office:

Omaha – 402-393-5801
Lincoln – 402-423-4893
Kearney – 308-237-1631

ACS Offers Support Groups in Omaha to Help People Cope with the Holidays

The American Cancer Society, in conjunction with Alegent Health, Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center and the Nebraska Medical Center, will offer a pair of support groups to help those going through a cancer diagnosis cope with the emotional stress of the Holidays.

On Thursday, November 19, a support group for colorectal cancer patients will focus on spirituality and coping with the Holidays.  Josh McDonald, staff chaplain from Alegent Health Pastoral Care will present the program from 5:30-7:00 p.m. at the American Cancer Society office at 9850 Nicholas Street in Omaha.  A light dinner will be provided at this meeting.

On Wednesday, December 9, a support group is open to caregivers caring for adult cancer patients.  The topic of this session will be surviving the Holidays presented by Holly Adams and Linda Dempsey of the Alegent Health Cancer Support Team.  The group will meet from 4:00-5:30 p.m. at the American Cancer Society office at 9850 Nicholas Street in Omaha.

“These support groups provide a great opportunity for those going through cancer to talk with experts as well as others going through similar circumstances,” commented Lisa Vignolo, Community Manager for the American Cancer Society.  “It is so very important for cancer patients and caregivers to not only focus on their physical health, but their emotional well-being as well.  That’s what these support groups are here to accomplish.”

Anyone wishing to reserve a spot in either of the two support groups needs to make a reservation by calling the American Cancer Society at 402-393-5801.  Reservations for the Nov. 19 session should be made by Monday, Nov. 16 and reservations for the Dec. 9 session should be made by Dec. 4.