IU Health Simon Cancer Center

Mom, Nurse, Author, Breast Cancer Survivor – Ambassador Extraordinaire

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April 24, 2018

She’s only been a nurse for a short time, but Michelle McGovern’s life experiences have given her the backbone of bedside care. She was recently named a Daisy Award recipient and serves as an ambassador for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure that takes place April 28 in Historic Military Park at White River State Park.

There were two things she needed to do – just two.

The first was she needed to write a book to let her son and daughter know exactly who she was before cancer and how cancer pushed her to strive to become the person she is. She didn’t want them to ever doubt or ever forget.

The second was she needed to become a nurse.

In 2011, Michelle McGovern was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 37. She was a wife to Matt, and a stay-at-home mom to Tyler and Kailyn. The diagnosis wasn’t her first round with cancer. At the age of 11 McGovern was diagnosed with leukemia. Years later she still remembers the off-putting smells associated with her hospital stay.

“I had two years of aggressive chemotherapy and while the experience sparked my curiosity about the medical profession, it also made me shy away from this career path,” said McGovern, who grew up in New Jersey. Both of her parents were graduates of Indiana University so when it was time to pursue college, she packed her bags and headed to Bloomington where she majored in criminal justice and psychology and met her future husband. She went on to get a masters degree in criminal justice, all the while toying with the idea of a degree in medicine – nursing, premed, or radiology.

“I was a teaching assistant through college and my plan was to get my doctorate and teach at the college level. Instead, I got married, got a job in the IT field and then became a stay-at-home mom.”

But just as her kids were getting older and more independent, McGovern began to think about what she really wanted to do in life.

“In my past jobs I didn’t feel like I was making a difference. I wanted a more meaningful career. There were many times over the years I would go to orientation sessions about nursing but I always felt there was never enough time or enough money to go back to school.”

That was until she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Everything changed.

“I didn’t see it coming. I was in a state of shock. On the outside I seemed fine but on the inside I was so anxious. Here I was 37 and this was my second cancer.” She completed a treatment plan that included a bilateral mastectomy, lymph node dissection, and radiation, and continues on a drug that blocks the actions of estrogen.

“Through all treatment you power through because what are the alternatives? And I did a lot of soul searching.” The soul searching resulted in writing and the writing resulted in a self-published book: “I Didn’t See This Coming: Breast Cancer at Age 37.” McGovern describes the book as documentation of some very raw feelings – feelings she wanted to share with her kids to show them that tough times can make you a better person.

Then came the plan – the notion that she could pursue her dream career, an occupation that would help others. “After my breast cancer treatment ended, I felt deep sorrow when I thought about how precious and short life can be and that I could have missed fulfilling one of my life’s greatest purposes, becoming a nurse,” said McGovern. So she signed up for nursing classes. She didn’t just want to get by; she wanted to be the best nurse she could be. She completed her classes with straight A’s and graduated with distinction in 2016.

“The connection I feel with my patients is indescribable and allows me to care for and understand them from a unique perspective,” said McGovern, who is an oncology certified nurse. She was recently recognized with a Daisy Award for excellence in nursing. In her nomination a patient wrote:

“Michelle went out of her way and beyond for me. She made sure I was out of pain and there was a smile on her face every time she entered the room to help me. I was told that I was going to die and given only two weeks to live. Michelle spent as much of the day with me as she could and by the end of the day she had lifted my spirits and had me smiling. She is an excellent nurse. Thank you Michelle.”

As she recently sat by the bedside of another patient, Nancy Martin, diagnosed with liver cancer, McGovern held Martin’s hand and talked to her about the family farm. “Michelle noticed my mother needed spiritual assistance and brought a chaplain in,” said Martin’s daughter, Connie Lemler. “She cares for the mind, body and soul of her patients. She is compassionate and caring.”

McGovern says she has learned from experience.

“I truly believe I’m meant to be a nurse. I’ve been in their shoes. Every day I drive home I’m in awe of my patients and how they inspire me. I feel thankful I’m here,” said McGovern. “It could just as easily be me in that bed. I understand their triumphs and disappointments, their hopes and fears, their silence and their anger on a deep level. I am humbled to understand so much of what they go through.”

More about McGovern:

  • She is chair and a team member for the Dragon Boat Racing Team, Indy SurviveOars.
  • She is a volunteer with the Megan S. Ott Foundation providing immediate assistance to local recipients fighting breast cancer and The Young Survival Coalition.
  • She serves as a camp nurse for Camp Kesem, a week- long free camp for children who have a parent who has/had cancer.
  • As an ambassador for the April 28 Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, McGovern will walk with “Team Daisy.” The name she uses as a camp volunteer.

-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at
T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.

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