How one woman overcame ovarian cancer and discovered a new path in life
By Elizabeth Carter
When workaholic Michelle Mekky beat the odds and survived ovarian cancer, she realized she wasn’t living a life that allowed her to be her full, authentic self. Overcoming her fears and self-doubt, Michelle opened her own public relations company–now an award-winning firm located in Chicago’s Wrigley Building–at her dining room table.
Workaholic and now a cancer survivor
I’ve always worked hard, and I’ve always wanted to be successful. I was working at a public relations firm, I had international clients, and I was raising young kids. I had a very full, packed life. Because I was so busy, I had been putting off my annual exam. When my gynecologist found a growth on my ovary, I didn’t think it could be cancer, because I had no recognizable symptoms. Even going into my surgery, I thought the tumor was going to be benign. It wasn’t.
My recovery after surgery was difficult. I was in so much pain, I told my nurses I wanted to die. But I got the call from my oncologist telling me all 39 biopsies of my abdomen came back negative. I was at stage I and may not even need chemo. My emotions shifted drastically when I learned that I was going to live after all of the pain and uncertainty, and all I could feel was shock.
The new me did not fit with my old life
During recovery, I spent time reflecting and thinking about what my survival meant. I felt conflicted, and as I eased back into my career, I quickly realized that my pre-cancer life was no longer the life for me. I was under so much pressure to snap back to the way things had been, but the truth was that I had changed, and my old career and old life did not fit with the new me. Right around that time, I was let go from my job. That’s when I first asked myself, is this what I want the rest of my life to be?
The one perspective that changed my mind
After losing the job that basically defined me and consumed all my time and energy, I did not know what to do. However, my husband had a solution: I should start my own business. He told me, “You know more than anybody you have worked for. You have to do this.” Despite his confidence in me, I was terrified. I had grappled with insecurities my entire life, and I did not believe I had the talent to own my own business. And, even though I had just survived ovarian cancer, I was feeling very low. Since I was so uncertain, I reached out to a family friend who is also a mentor. When I went to her for advice, seeking answers about what to do with my life, she looked at me and said, “What is wrong with you? Why do you not believe in yourself the way everybody does? Michelle, you have to just do it.” But I remained unconvinced and unhappy.
It was not just my friends and family who witnessed my misery. I saw my oncologist, Dr. Ernst Lengyel, every three months for follow-up appointments, and at every appointment, I broke down and cried. After several such appointments, the doctor asked me why I was so upset and pointed out that I was fortunate to have survived one of the deadliest cancers. I broke down and explained to him that I was under so much pressure to gratefully accept my miraculous recovery and quietly slip back into my old life, a life that seemed so unfulfilling on the other side of a cancer diagnosis. Then Dr. Lengyel said something that he probably shouldn’t have, but he did anyway: “Michelle, I think you should quit your job. I really think you need to quit and work somewhere else, or start your own business, or do something that makes you happy.”
A lot of people who survive cancer have those revelations, and I had heard it from my husband, family, and my friends. But when my oncologist, who had an outside perspective, looked at me and told me to quit my job, to start my own business–well, that got through to me. I took his words to heart, accepted a start-up loan from my mentor, and Mekky Media was born.
Facing my fears and taking the leap
I started the company from scratch in my dining room. I like to say that I had to rub two sticks together. I didn’t have a business plan or any grand ideas; I just took the time to write out what I wanted to be and what I wanted my company to be. It’s not easy to start a business, and I constantly doubted myself. The terrifying moment for me was when I went public with Mekky Media on LinkedIn for the first time. It was the moment that I had to face all my fears and just decide I was good enough to do this. I needed a lot of coaching and support from my mentor, but once I clicked that button, I never looked back.
I think it took that moment of being told I had cancer to change everything for me. I had been faced with my own mortality and I didn’t think I was going to live. But that moment wasn’t as grand as it sounds. Instead, it felt frantic, very much like, “Oh my God, how am I going to support my family? Are my kids going to be okay with just a dad? Is this what I want my legacy to be?” That was a turning point in my life, and all of those scary, drastic thoughts led me to start a business that I’m so proud of. Sometimes I can’t believe I’m in charge of Mekky Media. And sometimes I can’t even believe I started my own business. But I did, and it’s extremely rewarding.
How working with nonprofits has given me peace and gratitude
Helping others has become my calling, and to be able to do that via my own business feels amazing. I didn’t have many opportunities to do much non-profit work in the three agencies I worked at previously, and now I get so much joy out of it. Non-profits are about 70% of our client base, and that’s not even trying. The work just comes to us, and we are really, really good at it.
In order to work with a client, I have to believe in them. I need to feel a connection with the organization to feel like we can have a successful partnership. Mekky Media’s first few clients were non-profits, including the Chicago chapter of Susan G. Komen. Then, the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC) came into my professional life. I had reached out to the NOCC for personal support, and when they found out I was in PR, they asked me to do some promotional work for them. The fact that my work with Susan G. Komen and the NOCC potentially saved lives gave me the peace and joy in my work that I had been looking for. I felt like I was healing myself.
Photos: Courtesy of Michelle Mekky
Michelle Mekky is the CEO and Founder of Mekky Media Relations located in Chicago, Illinois, and has led the company to great success. Some of her accomplishments include the 2018 Stevie Award for Women in Business, and two Publicity Club of Chicago Trumpet Awards in the categories of Advocacy and Media Relations. Michelle, an ovarian cancer survivor, enjoys yoga, exercising, spending time with her family, and traveling, especially to the beach.
Elizabeth Carter has a Bachelor’s degree in Professional Writing from Michigan State University as well as an Associate’s degree in American Sign Language Interpreting. She enjoys creative writing, journalism, grant writing, and social media management. Elizabeth is also a passionate activist and hopes to use her writing to help people and bring about positive change in the world. When she is not reading, writing, or cross-stitching, she is spending time with her husband, two-year-old son, and their cats and dog.
Every year in the United States, more than 22,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and about 1 in 78 women will be diagnosed in her lifetime. Even though early detection and treatment are key to survival, there is currently no early detection test for ovarian cancer. The National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC) is committed to the advancement of ovarian cancer research and aims to educate communities and raise awareness of ovarian cancer symptoms . The NOCC also provides information to newly-diagnosed patients, hope to survivors, and support to caregivers.
“The NOCC works towards the day when we live in a world where no woman ever loses a life to ovarian cancer.”