San Diego Executive Shares What She Learned From Breast Cancer

Kris Michell looks back on a diagnosis that changed her life and outlook

Breast cancer survivor Kris Michelle, a San Diego civic leader, smiles.

Kris Michell, chief operating officer for the City of San Diego and breast cancer survivor.

Kris Michell looks back on a diagnosis that changed her life and outlook

Kris Michell didn’t have time for cancer. A typical type A personality, Michell was president and CEO of the Downtown San Diego Partnership at the time and way too busy to worry about her own health.

“I wasn’t one to go to the doctor a lot,” she says. “I did what I needed to do, but I was always late on mammograms. I did it when work slowed down or the family wasn’t busy. It just wasn’t at the top of the list.”

When she started to feel lumps on the side of her right breast, it didn’t cause immediate concern; she’d had benign cysts before. But she began taking notice. Her primary care physician William Land, MD, thought she needed further testing and referred her for a sonogram. Soon after, surgeon Mary Wilde, MD, was telling her she had breast cancer, specifically stage 2 invasive carcinoma.

“It was kind of a lightning bolt from the sky,” says Michell. “How can I have cancer? I’m not sick; I feel great. I just couldn’t get my mind around it.”

Michell’s mother, husband and best friend had accompanied her to the appointment. They were stunned. But Dr. Wilde, who is the medical director for the Scripps Polster Breast Care Center at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, turned all her attention to Kris. “‘We’ve got this,’ she told me.”

The new reality

The new reality

"Giving up control and just putting it in my doctors’ hands at Scripps was a gift,” Michell says.

Michell knows something about overcoming obstacles.Ten years earlier she had worked for the Padres, helping shepherd Petco Park through its highly contentious construction. But cancer can be an uncompromising foe, and she knew there had to be adjustments.

“Dr. Wilde said, ‘I think you believe you’re going to fit this in between Pilates and a meeting. I want you to take it seriously,’” she recalls. “I thought, I’m not going to control this process. I need to give up some of that control to the doctors and let them do what they do best. That was hard for me.”

Michell was scared, but her Scripps caregivers gave her great confidence. Each step of the way, from the appointments with Drs. Land and Wilde, through her meetings with Melissa Torrey, MD, a medical oncologist at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines, and Glynn Bolitho, MD, a reconstructive surgeon at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, she came away feeling she was in good hands. “Giving up control and just putting it in my doctors’ hands at Scripps was a gift,” she says.

Michell refocused her project management skills on getting better. Despite her early reluctance to seek care, she handled the process well and was fully engaged. “For a patient who is used to being in charge of their own life, this can be a disconcerting experience,” says Dr. Wilde. “She dealt with everything with extraordinary poise and had the ability to process a lot of difficult information in a meaningful way.”

Michell also benefited from an early generation of genomic testing, which indicated that she did not need follow-up radiation or chemotherapy. “I’m doing great,” she says now. “The doctors say I have no evidence of cancer. I say I’m cancer-free. I’m happy, I’m good, I’m blessed.”

Lessons learned after breast cancer treatment

Six years later, Michell is now chief operating officer for the city of San Diego. She looks back on cancer as an unanticipated education, and she often shares what she has learned. When she was first diagnosed, a number of women in her network thought it would be a good idea to get mammograms. One of them found a tumor.

“If I get a call saying, ‘I have a friend who was just diagnosed with cancer, will you talk to her?’ I will stop whatever I’m doing to have that conversation,” Michell says.

For Dr. Wilde, Michell’s informal efforts to educate friends and associates are most welcome. When she meets cancer patients for the first time, she can see their distress about the disease and potential treatments. Some of these fears are based on old information — a parent’s or grandparent’s treatment 20 years ago. Dr. Wilde is always eager to tell them that modern breast cancer treatments are both safer and more effective: “With early detection and early diagnosis, it’s a very treatable disease.”

That outlook is even brighter now thanks to Scripps’ partnership with MD Anderson. “In addition to sharing our mission to end cancer, MD Anderson and Scripps have common values and a culture that always puts patients first. We partner with like-minded organizations like Scripps because they have demonstrated a commitment to outstanding care, innovation and compassionate support,” says Michael Kupferman, MD, senior vice president for clinical and academic network development, MD Anderson. “Kris Michell's story exemplifies this commitment.”

Cancer has also taught Michell to take a broader view of life. During this time, her husband and mother were incredibly supportive.

“The things that I used to feel were super critical, the work stuff, just aren’t that important,” she says. “Being around family and friends and doing things you love — that’s what’s important.”

San Diego city leader Kris Michell is featured on the cover of the June 2018 issue of San Diego Health Magazine.

This content appeared in San Diego Health, a publication in partnership between Scripps and San Diego Magazine that celebrates the healthy spirit of San Diego.