The Joy of Now

How Michelle Grinsel’s battle with cancer unlocked the door of abundance.

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Photo by One Way - Journey Film


ichelle Grinsel relandscaped her backyard this summer. Where once there was concrete and brick, she now has flagstone, succulents, a cozy patio, and a bench in the spot that gets the most shade—perfect for cooling off during happy hour. It’s not a project you’d expect from a cancer patient in the midst of treatment. But for Grinsel, it’s all about living in the now. The former setup just wasn’t working for her, and when you’re diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, “You get really clear on what you like and don’t like,” Grinsel says. For her, having a chronic cancer diagnosis is now just a part of life—a life she intends to continue living with passion, power, and purpose.

Raised in Traverse City, Michigan—known for cherries, vineyards, lush forests, and the beautiful beaches of Lake Michigan—Grinsel grew up with a love for the environment and a commitment to conservation. Her values led her to outdoor retailer and sustainability advocate Patagonia, where she and husband Mark both found employment in 2005. Moving to Ventura, they embraced all that the local area has to offer: an ocean to surf and kayak, trails to hike and bike, a forward-thinking community to embrace. Grinsel loved her job as director of merchandising, and her active, outdoorsy lifestyle full of love, family, and friends. Daughters River (now six) and Sea (four) made life even sweeter. By all accounts, Grinsel was living the dream.

When she was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in July 2013, it was a shock—not because she didn’t expect cancer to touch her life, but because she had a solid strategy to minimize her very real risk. Breast cancer runs in Grinsel’s family. Her grandmother and great-grandmother died of the disease; her mother is a 16-year breast cancer survivor. Testing positive for the BRCA-1 gene mutation in 2004, Grinsel had fastidiously kept up with the recommended monitoring: regular self-exams plus mammograms and/or MRIs every six months. “I really felt armed with that knowledge,” Grinsel recalls. A double mastectomy and ovary removal are generally recommended, but due to her young age (she was in her 20s) there seemed to be no pressing need for that just yet. Many women with the BRCA gene have children first and then proceed with the prophylactic surgeries once their family is complete. This was Grinsel’s plan as well, holding off while she and Mark contemplated having a third child.

Her game plan shifted radically when she found a lump in her lower armpit. Despite her youth, excellent health, and the most careful of monitoring, breast cancer had still caught up with her. “That was the hardest thing to make peace with,” Grinsel admits. What followed were months of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, radiation therapy, and the removal of ovaries and 16 lymph nodes. “I just decided to take this head on and do the most aggressive treatment available,” she says. “I had to be able to say that there was nothing more I could have done.”

Recalling the days of treatment and healing, she notes, “I was alone with my thoughts … a lot. For hours and days. At first it was sad, but now I’m in touch with who I am. That’s a gift.” And while Grinsel admits that she mourns her “carefree existence,” the wisdom she gained through her ordeal is precious beyond measure. “I would not go back to my old existence without my newfound sensibility,” she attests. She has become so thankful for the miracle of every moment—her children’s laughter, an afternoon spent with friends, the feel of the ocean breeze. “The spectrum of extraordinary has narrowed.”

Grinsel had stared cancer in the face—and lived to tell the tale, with a new perspective that allowed her to appreciate her life like never before. “I was healthy for a year. We dove back into life, and savored every drop of it,” Grinsel remembers. She and Mark biked around Provence. They bought a camper, traveling up and down the coast with the kids. “It was a really joyous time.”

Her renewed sense of purpose was sorely tested at the beginning of this summer, when doctors discovered that her breast cancer had spread to her left lung, and that it was at Stage 4. Like the first time, Grinsel chose to meet her diagnosis head on. But unlike the first time, she had what she describes as an “urgency” to do something more. “I don’t know how much time I have … and there’s a lot I have to say,” she explains. Despite weekly trips to UCLA for testing and a new treatment regime (thankfully, less debilitating than the first time around) she’s committed to seeing a very special project through: a documentary about her life with cancer, and what she has learned as a result.

The film got underway immediately. The first call she made was to her friend and former Patagonia co-worker Jessica Clayton, the co-founder of Wilder Public Relations. “I texted Jess, and by the end of the day she had a director and a cinematographer lined up,” Grinsel recalls. That would be Todd Hannigan, an Ojai-based filmmaker and musician, and cameraman Scott Soens. A crowd funding campaign raised over $36,000 this summer, and shooting was completed this fall.

“The film has taken me on a thrilling ride,” Grinsel says. It’s called One Way, and it’s only partly about Grinsel’s cancer. “The message of the documentary is basically witnessing my journey of learning that gratitude has been key to unlocking the door of abundance,” she explains, adding that what’s really amazing is that you don’t have to experience a life-threatening illness to discover it. Fighting cancer put her in touch with the wonders all around her, but she recognizes that feeling such grace was always available to her, and to everyone. “That abundance has been there the whole time,” she explains. She hopes others, regardless of their struggles, will be able to tap into that abundance too.

Grinsel isn’t certain what her future holds. Odds or statistics don’t serve her, so she steadfastly refuses to consider them in the equation that equals a happy, fulfilling life. Love. Laughter. Family. Health. Gratitude. These are the elements that inspire and sustain her, and Grinsel intends to indulge them at every opportunity. She’s looking forward to resuming her work at Patagonia, and having One Way presented at the Santa Barbara Film Festival next spring. For all that cancer has taken, her life continues to be overflowing. “It’s a struggle, but if I can practice gratitude, I can get back on track,” Grinsel says. “I refuse to live in any other space.”

Watch the trailer and read Michelle Grinsel’s blog:

Michelle’s love for nature and commitment to conservation led her to Ventura-based Patagonia, where she and her husband, Mark, have worked since 2005. Seen here, an outdoorsy crew of co-workers, friends, and family.

Michelle and Mark, mid-stroke during The Friendship Paddle, a local fundraiser that selected Grinsel as its 2015 beneficiary.

Surrounded by River (l.) and Sea (r.), mother Michelle absorbs the present moment.


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