From Alaska to Arkansas: A Cancer Survivor’s Journey

By Marty Trieschmann

Michelle’s harrowing experience began in 2010. She was a healthy, active mother living in Fairbanks who loved chasing after her four young children. Until one day, she had trouble breathing and ended up in the emergency room with a pulmonary embolism.

“I felt this pain in my chest like I had been running on a cold day. I thought if I rested, I would be okay, but my doctor told me to go to the emergency room,” said Michelle.

With no clear explanation for her symptoms, she returned home and resumed life as normally as possible. When her symptoms got worse, she went back to doctors in Fairbanks only to be told her symptoms were psychological.

“They told me it was all in my mind,” Michelle said.

That explanation didn’t convince Michelle. She suspected something more serious was going on that might be the result of pollution.

Alaska’s Pollution Problem

Due to Alaska’s subarctic climate and long winters, it was common practice for homeowners to save on fuel costs by burning firewood. This increased use of wood, particularly outdoor wood boilers, led to a rise in air pollution. In 2010 when Michelle’s symptoms started, a study by Sierra Research, Inc., estimated there were more than 9,000 fireplaces and wood stoves in use and 90 outdoor wood boilers in her borough alone.

While her health continued to decline, Michelle managed to gather with her neighbors to advocate for smoke-free schools and a ban on wood boilers. Her clean air advocacy later resulted in the banning of smoking and the use of tobacco products on all University of Alaska campuses. She worked as an intern for the American Lung Association to implement smoke-free workplaces and multi-unit housing projects.

“While Alaska was bad for my health, it became a beautiful start of my advocacy,” said Michelle.

In 2011, she suffered another pulmonary embolism that sent her to the emergency room, but doctors were unable to offer a clear diagnosis. There was no mention of cancer.

“The doctors hadn’t been educated enough, so they didn’t even consider cancer,” said Michelle.

At the recommendation of friends, Michelle consulted with doctors in Colorado. By this time, she could not walk without her oxygen dropping to dangerous levels. A bronchoscope revealed a cyst on the lower part of her lungs with an underlying aneurysm. She was transported to a Seattle hospital for emergency surgery and given a 50-50 chance of survival.

“I felt like I was dying,” said Michelle.

Alone in Seattle and away from her children who were being cared for by friends, Michelle took the advice of her Arkansas grandmother to return home to Little Rock where the air was cleaner.

“She promised me that if I went to UAMS, they would find out what was wrong with me,” said Michelle. “She was right.”

Coming Home

a patient poses for a photo with her nurses

The UAMS care team became an extended family for Shalonda during her treatment for stage 4 throat cancer.

Only days after her plane landed at Clinton National Airport, Michelle was undergoing tests at UAMS. Her care team included Ozlem Tulunay Ugur, M.D., otolaryngologist; Omar Atiq, M.D., medical oncologist; Sanjay Maraboyina, M.D., radiation oncologist; and Larry Johnson, M.D., chief of pulmonology.

Finally, she had an answer, but it wasn’t good news. A scope revealed a large growth on her vocal cords. “It was covering the whole left side of my throat.”

“I just told him to give it to me straight, and he said, ‘You have cancer, and it’s pretty advanced.’”

The diagnosis was stage IV throat cancer, which has a five-year survival rate of 39.1%.

“I had given upon doctors at that time, but I had the best in Dr. Johnson,” said Michelle.  “He was just everything to me. He wouldn’t let me wait in the waiting room when I had appointments. He drew me pictures so I would understand everything.”

Michelle’s treatment included surgery and 33 radiation treatments to her head and neck. To complicate matters, she contracted fibromyalgia during treatment, a condition that caused more pain and tenderness throughout her body.

“I was always in a lot of pain. I finally said to God, ‘I’m not afraid of this journey, but whatever you can do to relieve some of this pain, please do it.’”

On a feeding tube, Michelle was moved to hospice and given three to six months to live.

“I remember the hospice nurses would cry. They showed my daughter how to do CPR, just in case.”

Amazingly, Michelle started to feel better after about a year. She received her last cancer treatment in 2016 and was declared cancer free in 2021.

Cancer Patient Turned Student

Today, Michelle is an honor student working on her master’s degree in applied communications at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She and her four children are safe and healthy living in Little Rock. Sadly, Nelson’s grandmother died of COVID-19.

two people pose with a photo at a football stadium

Shalonda and UAMS’ Jenny Roe at the 2021 Be A Part of the Cure Walk.

Michelle is a familiar face around UAMS, but not as a patient these days. She regularly attends fundraising events to support UAMS, including the Dec. 6 Be A Part of the Cure Telethon and last year’s Be a Part of the Cure Walk, where she reunited with one of her nurses. She’s looking forward to the 3rd Annual Be a Part of the Cure Walk on May 6. To register and join her, visit

Though Michelle has moved on, she still carries the physical and emotional scars of cancer. Her sense of taste and smell is mostly gone, and she has some hearing loss.  Even though she’s never smoked a day in her life, she sounds like it.

“The most I have to deal with is my voice going out and feeling out of breath,” she said.

The emotional impact of the experience is also still with her. She describes feeling like she had post-traumatic stress disorder and sought therapy at UAMS.

“A lot of cancer patients go through PTSD and don’t even know it. I ranked as high as a war veteran for PTSD. I was just not myself.”

Michelle says she would never have made it without the support of so many amazing friends, including Alaska state Sen. Scott Kawasaki, who donated his airline miles for her trip to Seattle. Mary Shields, the first woman to compete in the Iditarod International Sled Dog Race in Alaska, heard about Michelle’s story and reached out to help.

“I’ve just been blessed with miracles,” said Michelle. “I’ve seen God really keep me through this. My personality has changed a lot. I used to only stand up for other people and avoided fighting for myself. I’ve learned how to advocate.

“When I finish my degree, I’d like to be a news reporter. It would be so dope to advocate for people with health issues.”