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A Healing Journey: Michael Bischoff’s Story

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Michael Bischoff

Michael Bischoff and Jenny Larson, with their children Isaiah and Grace

Michael Bischoff started having headaches at the end of August 2015, right when summer turned into autumn. As the weather cooled, the headaches grew more intense and were joined by spells of nausea. Probably migraines, he thought, and went in for an MRI, where he noticed a concerned look in the tech’s eye. On September 24, his neurologist called with the difficult news: buried in the right side of Michael’s brain was a tumor the size of a golf ball.

Life Took on a New Shape

Michael and Jenny

Very quickly, Michael’s life took on a new shape, and he faced the new unknown with an energy not unusual for the 45-year-old community organizer and father of two. Just four days after that first MRI, Michael rode his bicycle through the dark morning to Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, where he checked in for major brain surgery.

Diagnosis: Glioblastoma

His surgeons removed most of the tumor, and praised him for bouncing back more quickly than most. Michael had none of the cognitive or physical side effects that he and his family had feared. Within days, Michael was posting updates and snapshots on his CaringBridge website in his typical style—tender, honest, and a little goofy. (His first post, penned the day after the MRI, was titled “The Adventure Begins”).

Within a week, the biopsy results were in: glioblastoma, an aggressive cancer that spreads quickly. Michael would need radiation and chemo to prevent what was left of the tumor from spreading, and even then the prognosis looked grim. His oncologist drew a chart with a large curve in the middle to represent the median survival rate: 18 months.

New Kind of Wellbeing

The emotional reaction to a serious diagnosis can be crippling. People exhibit a “broad spectrum of responses, depending on the person and their circumstances, but surprise and shock are usually prevalent,” says Frank Bennett, founder and program leader of the Living Well/Dying Well initiative at the Center for Spirituality & Healing, at the University of Minnesota. “Most of us assume that a life-altering diagnosis will only come up late in our life.”

This assumption arises from commonly connecting wellbeing and physical vitality. For many, wellbeing simply means freedom from physical ailments, the promise of a long life with minimal pain. But what happens when that basic idea is challenged? Is wellbeing possible when physical health is not guaranteed?

‘Flourishing’ Despite Challenges

“We all know that there are people with excellent health that would not describe ‘wellbeing’ in their lives—and we also know people who have profound physical challenges, yet they demonstrate wellbeing and human flourishing,” says Mary Jo Kreitzer, director of the Center for Spirituality & Healing.

Each Little Step

Michael Bischoff during prayer

Michael falls into the latter category. While his reaction to his diagnosis certainly included fear, grief, and shock—he still sounds genuinely surprised when he talks about it—the news also opened up a wellspring of gratitude. “Each little step I take in recovering from surgery and radiation is even sweeter now,” he says. “At first I wasn’t able to bike, but when I started again, it was so pleasurable knowing that it’s not a given. And speaking and remembering—things that were very possible to lose in the surgery—I can still do. So there are so many different kinds of wellbeing that I’ve experienced since the diagnosis that I didn’t appreciate before.”

Thin Place Between Joy and Grief

For Michael, the journey toward wellbeing is an ongoing process that’s physical, spiritual, emotional, and relational. He hopes for a cure, and for a long life, but his main focus is on finding wholeness in each moment. The things he loves most—biking through the snow, cuddling with his family, taking long walks along the Mississippi River—he considers just as important as radiation and chemotherapy in his healing process.

“I’m in a thin place between life and death, between receiving and giving, between right now and the eternal, between joy and grief,” Michael wrote in his CaringBridge Journal. “My vocation now is receiving love, acknowledging that, and allowing it to keep moving.”

Facing and Embracing Fear

And part of finding wholeness is facing—and embracing—the grief and fear that comes with a serious health crisis. Michael, who had spent years cultivating relationships as a facilitator for community sustainability and had several large projects lined up, deeply lamented the loss of his career after being put on Social Security Disability. His work was intertwined with his sense of purpose; without it, he feared a loss of the meaningfulness that had once made his life so rich.

His CaringBridge Journal became a conduit for these explorations, allowing him to receive community support as well as talk openly about despair, which he allows to move as freely as joy. Michael writes frankly about the sadness that accompanies the realization he is no longer the person he used to be—an active community organizer, an international traveler with a head full of hair, a husband and father who knew for certain he would grow old with his wife, Jenny, and see his children become adults.

Listen and Respond With Kindness

Michael Bischoff during a healing session

Michael’s ability to handle the intensity of his diagnosis can be partly attributed to his dedicated spiritual practice. His longtime involvement in a Quaker community, as well as his mindfulness meditation practice, have deepened his ability to listen and respond with kindness to whatever arises over the years—a coping skill that can gently shape the way that illness affects life.

Bennett, a chaplain with years of experience with people living with life-threatening illnesses, describes the 360-degree healing role of spirituality: providing clarity to look ahead with hope, a mirror to reflect upon the past and find reconciliation, and an anchor to help stay present and savor the moment. Spiritual practice can be empowering, too, “reminding us that we are still driving our life and choosing our route for the rest of the journey, no matter what happens.”

Staying Calm in the Middle of Pain

And Michael has had plenty of opportunities to put that philosophy to the test. After just two days of chemo and radiation, the incision from his first brain surgery began to leak spinal fluid, and he was sent back to the hospital for a week, where he lay with a lumbar drain in his spine. The insertion of the tube was an extremely painful procedure, during which he found solace by focusing on the love and prayers of support he knew his friends were sending.

Over the course of the following week, as fluid drained from him, Michael noticed the small moments of wellbeing that kept popping up—the trust that developed between him and the nurse practitioners, his wife’s hands on his feet as they removed the tube from his spine, his own ability to stay calm in the middle of physical pain.

‘Not My Previous Picture of Wellbeing’

“Being on my back for a week in the hospital wasn’t my previous picture of wellbeing,” he laughs. “I love to move around and be active, and be with my kids, and it was sad not to be able to do those things. Yet that week in a hospital included some of the highlights of my life so far—the connection with other people, the creativity, the spiritual experiences I had. Even though it was miserable, I felt a lot of wellbeing at the same time.”

This kind of positivity in the middle of a painful medical event isn’t typical in American healthcare, where a grim focus is placed on the removal of physical disease and the lengthening of life. “Many healthcare providers have historically been taught to treat a body part or symptom, and have not always considered the whole person,” notes Kreitzer. They simply diagnose and administer treatment—and the patient is left to figure out how the rest of his or her life fits in.

A More Empowered Patient

A project manager at heart, Michael is by nature a more empowered patient than most, and with the urgency of a glioblastoma diagnosis he felt especially called to create his own healthcare experience. He incorporated integrative therapies into his treatment, including qigong, Healing Touch, naturopathy, imagery, and prayer—which didn’t always land well with a few of his western doctors, some of whom reacted to non-medical interventions with hostility.

Powerful Connection With Dr. Lund

Michael found unwavering support from his primary care doctor, Peter Lund, who was careful to balance his own preference for western-evidence-based treatment with respect for Michael’s own path to healing. In fact, Michael credits Dr. Lund, a longtime neighbor, as one of the most important relationships in his healing journey. The two have developed a powerful connection not often seen in primary care—Dr. Lund rushed to that first appointment with the neurosurgeon to help advise a bewildered Michael and Jenny, called colleagues to get second opinions on Michael’s case, and doesn’t shy away from the raw vulnerability that comes with talking about death.

Don’t Postpone Joy

Michael grows emotional when he talks about how important this relationship has been to him. The gratitude Michael has for the deep care he’s received, he says, has contributed to his healing as much as any medicine. “The first thing Peter said when he learned about my diagnosis was: ‘Don’t postpone joy. Savor every moment,’” says Michael. “That’s been really meaningful for me.”

Making Difficult Choices Quickly

Michael Bischoff wearing the Optune Cap

In January 2016, Michael was fitted with a skullcap called Optune, an experimental treatment that treats brain tumors by emitting electro-magnetic waves. Deciding to try the cap wasn’t an easy decision, but making difficult choices quickly with limited information is something that people with serious diagnoses learn to do. With glioblastoma, there is limited data about what treatments will be successful. It was either Optune or enrolling in a clinical trial with a new vaccine—both options which carry risk, and Michael found “confusing and horrible.” Dr. Lund helped him navigate the choice, and together with his family, Michael chose the cap.

His family even made a celebration out of it: Michael sat down in his kitchen as his wife shaved his head, while his son, a budding videographer, mixed footage of the event with music and turned it into an upbeat music video. The cap is like something out of a science fiction movie—transducer arrays adhere to Michael’s skull, with long trailing wires that lead to a bag he carries everywhere. The contraption is clunky and awkward, and sometimes his head heats up while he’s sleeping, causing the machine to beep and wake him up.

Intentional Focus of Energy

But Michael continues to intentionally focus his energy on the things that bring meaning to his life—sharing his story of healing with other patients and healthcare providers, developing a photography book and show with his wife, preaching, and, most importantly, curling up with his family on the couch, listening to Jenny read while their rescue dog, Bella, sleeps nearby. He is a ceaseless advocate for finding the beauty in the small stuff—like filing his family’s taxes, something he wished, shortly after the diagnosis, to be alive and healthy enough to do. In this way, the small things in Michael’s life have grown to become one enormous celebration.

That’s not to say he doesn’t feel anxiety and sadness about what lies ahead, nor is he immune to the side effects that come with chemotherapy and radiation. Some days the treatment exhausts him physically. Throughout the spring and summer of 2016, he spent multiple hospital stays trying to manage severe pain, high fevers, and meningitis. He cries sometimes when he is talking about fear and also when he describes the gratitude he feels for the healthcare providers who have shown such compassion—from the steadfast support of his primary care doctor to the small comforts the radiation technicians offered when they asked him, as his head was bolted down to the table, what else he had planned for the day.

Let’s See What Love Can Do

In those first confusing days after Michael’s diagnosis with glioblastoma, his friend Emily, a cancer survivor herself, hosted an event for him called “Let’s See What Love Can Do.” More than a hundred friends and community members poured into a rented church and held what they dubbed a “healing extravaganza”— singing, dancing, and other displays of love and talent. “It was transformative for all of us,” Emily says.

“There are people like Michael, who, in the midst of a profound health challenge, continue to search for meaning and a way to give back,” Kreitzer says. “I have been deeply moved as I witness how Michael invites others to journey with him. It becomes deep learning for all.”

Wellbeing as a Flowing Gift

After the event, Michael shared a powerful image from the event on his CaringBridge site: a crowd of a hundred people all reaching in toward the center, where Michael stands, his head bowed in gratitude, a small smile on his face. Everyone has a hand on someone else’s shoulder.

It’s hard to tell who is actually receiving the gift in this picture—whether healing is something that moves from the community to the sick person, or whether it’s the other way around. Or perhaps it’s a combination of the two—wellbeing as a flowing gift that emerges and moves freely where it’s given room to thrive, offering itself to anyone who stops to listen.

What’s Your Story?

CaringBridge is the sum of every patient and caregiver’s experience. Tell us YOUR story.

 

This article first appeared in Mandala, a publication of the Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota. The article and video of Michael Bischoff’s health journey, are republished with the permission of the Center for Spirituality & Healing.

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Tom White Feb 17, 2017 12:37pm
Micheal, You are a wonderful model of acceptance and your positive attitude is so inspirational to us as we live with a son, Bob, and his ALS which was diagnosed almost 5 yrs. ago and has brought out the very best of him. Thanks for your spirit. Hope to see you at the meeting! Love and prayers! Tom and Darlene White
Jill Baker Feb 22, 2017 10:37pm
Thank you Michael for your bravery and for your wisdom. I hope you continue to do well with your treatment. CaringBridge is a wonderful way for people to stay connected with friends and family during illness. It enables them to receive love and support during their treatment. It is valuable to both the patient and to their support network.
Delia Gray Feb 23, 2017 4:46pm
Michael, I have just read your story on The Caring Bridge Website. What an inspiration you are to me, especially as I have just finished preparing my 2016 taxes for my CPA. I have dreaded doing it for days and this week have completed it. To think that you looked forward to being able to complete your family taxes made me very humble and I will try to NEVER complain about it again.! You are the "Apple of God's eye, and He has your name written on the palm of His hand." God Bless you and your family in your journey. You will constantly be in my prayers. Delia
Sarah Holder Feb 23, 2017 7:20pm
Praying for you michael🙏🏻❤️🙏🏻What a beautiful story of love and courage. In the Bible, the book of Joshua says, be strong and courageous. I see your strength through your love and the love of friends, old and new. God says in psalms 103, I will heal all your disease. What an incredible promise. I pray that you continue to put your trust in God Michael. He has the perfect plan for your life. Perfect love casts out all fear! Meditate on Gods words and his truth and his promises. I am praying for you and your beautiful family and your beautiful loving friends. Please add me to your friends list. I'm sending my love, hugs and prayers to you. I'm specifically praying for complete healing and that you would "be still and know that I am God" psalms 46. Prayers and love. In Jesus name, amen🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻❤️🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻
Judy Hu Feb 23, 2017 8:46pm
Praying for you and your family! This is beautiful . Thanks for sharing.
Diane Feb 23, 2017 9:17pm
Thank you for sharing this amazing story. You are an inspiration. I will keep you and your beautiful family in my prayers, as well as your doctors and caregivers and friends. God bless and keep you. He holds you in the Palm of His Hand.
Barb Mollberg Feb 23, 2017 9:38pm
Michael. Prayers of healing and strength for you and your family. One of our favorite Bible verses says "I can do all things with him who gives me strength." You are in my prayers. Bless you in this journey. You are not alone. Our Dear Lord walks with you and we pray for you. 🙏💕
Nora James Feb 23, 2017 11:09pm
Thank you for sharing your story. You are inspirational as is your family and community. It is great to hear that family cuddle time is as important as radiation. You are blessed to have such a caring community. May God bless you, your family and community as you continue to walk this healing journey.
Martha Schaffrath -- 1719 W. Rascher - Chicago, IL 60640 Feb 24, 2017 1:24am
Michael I read your story. You are a very brave, inspirational man to believe in all the wonderful people that are helping to heal you with prayer, songs, celebrations, and mostly LOVE. Your wife and children are the MOST IMPORTANT to you. It shows in your story. I enjoyed reading how you are healing and how you believe in the waterfall to take away the cancer. What a beautiful way to believe in healing. Keep up your faith and the good job that you are doing for yourself. Keep CUDDLING with your family and your rewards will be very plentiful. I am praying for you. I loved hearing your story. May the good Lord always keep his eye on you and heal you every day.
Martha Schaffrath -- 1719 W. Rascher - Chicago, IL 60640 Feb 24, 2017 1:26am
I have written you a comment at the end of all these people that wrote and commented.
lynn gartzke 1:00A M Feb 24, 2017 1:34am
Michael I admire your courage and the support of your family and friends. Keep it up.
Barbara Giyer Feb 24, 2017 6:22am
Praise The Lord! Hearing your story Makes us cry and makes us smile because we know who holds our hand. Praying for you.
Linda Pittman Feb 24, 2017 7:33am
What an inspiration you are to everyone out there that reads this. God love you!! My prayers go out to you and your family in hopes that your journey will be a positive one.
Laurie Feb 24, 2017 9:20am
I don't understand how the below comments are dated Feb 28, 2017, when it is only Feb 24th!!
Donna Peppel Feb 24, 2017 11:35am
I happened to see this posting this morning. Michael's journey is interesting hopefully he will continue to access not only available medicine and techniques but continue with spiritual opportunities. I am also curious about Michael because we knew a Michael Bishoff in the 50's possibly a father or grandfather.
Jackie Lee Feb 24, 2017 2:01pm
Thanks for sharing! You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers !
Janet Spo Feb 24, 2017 5:55pm
Wonderful message. Thank you
joan amend Feb 25, 2017 1:44am
Just read your story and actually feel your pain. I have a dear friend named Jack that went through a serious brain surgery from cancer. He was doing okay; now he has to wear an apparatus from inside his brain that hangs down his side. After being told he has the type of cancer that comes back, he's depressed. Was able to go to church only twice and now I think the depression holds him back. He's such a neat guy and we'd love to visit him and do things with him but he has to be so careful about germs from others. I put you on my prayer list and thanks for sharing your story. God Bless, joan
DIANA COFIELD Feb 25, 2017 9:55am
WHAT AN AMAZING TESTIMONY. GOD BLESS ALL OF YOU. WHAT CAUGHT MY ATTENTION WAS THE WORD JOURNEY. I MINISTER TO CHILDREN FIGHTING CANCER SINCE 2008. OUR FOCUS HAS ALWAYS BEEN TO REMEMBER THEY ARE ON A JOURNEY THEY NEVER WOULD HAVE CHOSEN TO BE ON BUT THEY DISPLAY A COURAGE AND STRENGTH BEYOND THEIR YEARS. THIS IS HOW I CAME TO NAME OUR MINISTRY " JOURNEY OF THE HEART". WE MAKE QUILTED BACKPACKS AND TOTES FOR THEM AS GIFTS. WE HAVE MAILED MANY TO DIFFERENT PEDIATRIC CANCER FACILITIES AND WE DELIVER TO LOCAL HOSPITALS AND GET TO VISIT WITH SOME OF THE CHILDREN. THE LORD HAS TRULY BLESS US WITH SEEING THE AMAZING COURAGE THESE LITTLE WARRIORS HAVE. THEY ARE IN N FOR THE BATTLE OF THEIR LIVES AND FIGHT IT WITH, STRENGTH, DIGNITY, WEAKNESS, HAPPY TIMES SAD TIMES JUST AS YOU DESCRIBED IN YOU AMAZING JOURNEY.
Louise Fillmann Feb 25, 2017 12:01pm
God Bless You Michael. We know and feel the anguish and your family are feeling. We lost our wonderful daughter Cathy 3 yrs ago this April 27th. Cathy was like you, someone who could always see a bright side regardless of the pain. Best wishes to you and your family and know we will keep you in our prayers.
Cindy Eder Feb 27, 2017 7:34pm
Thanks for sharing such a personal story, our prayers will be with you and your family.
Patricia Coburn Feb 28, 2017 6:25pm
Michael, thank you for your inspiration. I was diagnosed with Glioblastoma Stage IV June 2016. I had the craniotomy within 3 days. Then I followed up at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale AZ . I had radiation and chemo and then chemo alone for six months. I just finished my final dose of chemo last week. I still have extreme fatigue, my MRIs show no progression of the tumor. I am also have spinal stenosis and pinched disc which causes pain when I walk, and all of this is affecting my balance. BUT, Michael you story lifts my spirits. I will be 79 years old next month and I am hoping to complete our taxes on line by the end of March. My prayers are with you and please remember me in yours. I am on CaringBridge also
debbie banahan Mar 07, 2017 12:40pm
Michael YOU ARE TRULY A WONDERFUL EXAMPLE FOR US ALL. Your strength and courage are remarkable .I admire your ability to persevere and in spite of your illness to continuously help others. May God Bless you and your family. I wish you the best! I sincerely hope you live on and continue Gods work .I respect you so very much Your story touched my heart As I am writing this I have 2 dear friends who also have glioblastoma and they need healing and prayer , as well. With Sincere Appreciation for all that you've done and continue to do Debbie Banahan in Oceanside NY 516 312 5804
susan goldstein Mar 10, 2017 1:11pm
I am in total awe of your incredible spirit, the love of your family and your friends. Life is a river of love and tears and joy and all the hard things too. I can only wish you the deepest love and care in your journey. I can tell that you have already mastered so much in this life and may all the light and beauty of being alive surround you every moment. Thank you for who you are and all that you are giving to humanity. Blessings and prayers, blessings and prayers to you dear soul.
ELY JUNKER Apr 02, 2017 12:14pm
This is the first time i joined this website because of Pastor Howard, pastor of the Downers Grove Community Church. Love and care and compassion are so important in our lives, rich or poor, sick of healthy. Strong faith and belief in God make us strong and continue living. Michael, you are an inspiration to all of us. We are all together in prayers and faith in Jesus Christ. He is our LIfe and therefore we give our life to him in return. MIchael, we keep praying for you and Jesus and his Holy angels watching you always and your families.In Jesus name, we pray, Amen
Hannah Catherine Munro Apr 11, 2017 1:35pm
Michael--I happened to be on the site for another friend and noticed that you were one of my featured stories! I hope you're all doing well. Very inspiring! Hi to Jenny!