Michael and Missy Skaggs have shared many miles together, running as a couple for about a decade. The husband and wife duo from Fenton, Michigan are both nurses at the same hospital. The two are teammates in running, work, and life. They ran in the 2018 Detroit Marathon confidently, with no concerns about the status of their health. Unfortunately, they would soon find out that it would be the last race they would run together for quite some time when Michael received a pancreatic cancer diagnosis.
Along with their dedication to running, Michael and Missy Skaggs live healthy lifestyles by eating right and not smoking. For that reason, it was unusual when Michael began experiencing symptoms such as abdominal pain, cramping, and tiredness following their race in October of 2018.
Missy wanted him to go see a doctor and get checked out, but he resisted. The Skaggs family had a vacation to Mexico scheduled for January 2019, and Michael was determined to not let what he thought was a minor illness interfere with their trip.
Unfortunately, Michael did not have a say in whether or not his symptoms would affect their plans. When they arrived in Mexico, he was in immense pain and described the trip as miserable. Missy had Michael promise that when they returned home he would get medically examined.
Michael saw multiple specialists that conducted blood tests and imaging studies on him over the course of several months. However, the doctors could not find what was wrong with him.
Frustratingly, his condition continued to worsen. He experienced issues with digestion, along with pain in his abdomen and back. He also began to suffer from rapid, unexpected weight loss. In the span of a few months, Michael lost almost 50 pounds.
“The pain was unbearable,” Michael said on the Project Purple Podcast. “I knew at that point, I’m dying. There’s something wrong. I don’t know what’s going on. Nobody is giving me any answers.”
One of Missy and Michael’s coworkers knew of a surgeon from the University of Michigan that had a strong reputation and previously helped a neighbor of theirs. After getting a referral from their primary care doctor, the Skaggs family set up an appointment to seek out a second opinion there.
Michael and Missy got a consultation with the surgeon that May. After reviewing Michael’s previous tests and allowing him the opportunity to tell his story, the surgeon informed them that he suspected pancreatic cancer. They scheduled an endoscopic ultrasound with a biopsy to confirm his suspicions.
“As soon as I woke up from the procedure, the performing physician was standing next to me at the bedside,” Michael said. “She knelt down next to me, looked me in the eyes, with tears of her own, and said ‘we found cancer’. I already knew, but hearing it made it real.”
Despite being diagnosed with one of the most deadly forms of cancer, Michael felt relief.
“I was relieved because we finally knew for sure what was causing us so much misery,” he said. “Now we could develop a plan on what to do next.”
Caregiving and Treatment
As difficult as it was for Missy to come to terms with her husband’s diagnosis, she had to embrace her new role as a caregiver. She wanted to do everything she could to make Michael’s life easier. However, she quickly learned that there is nothing easy about pancreatic cancer.
“The hardest part of the process was simply being a witness and not being able to do more, not having more control of the situation,” Missy said. “It’s so hard to see someone you love in pain and not be able to do anything to take it away. I felt very helpless at times playing the role of caregiver, trying to maintain some normalcy in our lives, and letting Michael stay as independent as he could possibly be.”
It was tough for Missy to understand that more than anything Michael just needed love and support from her.
Michael began treatment right away, and considering his great physical shape, the doctors believed that the best way to treat his diagnosis was to be aggressive. He commenced rounds of chemotherapy and radiation as soon as possible.
As demanding as the treatment was for Michael, he understood how challenging the process was for Missy as well.
“She didn’t get diagnosed with cancer, but it was her diagnosis too…” Michael explained. “Once I did get the diagnosis, she was there every step of the way. That’s where my strength came from. They don’t go through the chemo, but to me, I think it would be harder for me to watch her go through it; I would rather go through it myself. I don’t know how she did it.”
Michael struggled physically and emotionally during his first few weeks of treatment. He had a hard time using his legs even to navigate his house. When leaving the house he
was forced to use a wheelchair. However, thanks to his own determination and Missy’s support, he pushed himself to start walking again.
Eventually, Michael felt that he reached a point where he could attempt running again in July. He started slowly, as one would expect to while undergoing chemotherapy. But for an avid runner such as Michael, allowing himself the time to work back up was difficult.
“It wasn’t like it was before,” he said. “I struggled so much physically. I couldn’t run far or fast. I couldn’t run very long without stopping to walk. My mind knew I had to temper my expectations, but my heart wasn’t having it. I was more depressed about not being able to run like my old self than I was dealing with chemo and a terminal prognosis.”
Michael was finally able to receive distal pancreatectomy surgery in December. He thought that after rounds of chemotherapy and radiation that his operation would be light work in comparison. However, due to complications at the surgical site, he needed to stay in the hospital for follow-up procedures. He remained in the hospital for nine days before being discharged.
When he got home, he had a buildup of dead tissue that pressed against his stomach which caused him extreme discomfort. As a result, he struggled to eat or be active. By March 2020, he ended up losing even more weight than he did prior to his surgery.
It was not until May that Michael was able to regularly walk and run again. The recovery process exhausted him, and his passion wavered at times, but he continued to push himself. Over time, he began to run farther and faster once again. He worked up to running a 5k, and then a half marathon.
He decided to sign up for his first marathon since being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January of 2022. Committing to the race reignited his motivation to run.
One cold day in early February, he attempted to run 18 miles through the elements. Half an hour into the run, his hydration packs froze and dehydration set in. He made it 14 miles before having to stop and call Missy to come pick him up.
“I was so cold I could barely move,” Michael said. “I ended up getting pretty sick for about a week after that with a kidney or bladder infection, and my hopes of completing my first marathon post-diagnosis faded away.”
Although the run put Michael’s marathon goals on hold, it taught him an important lesson about how he needs to be extra cautious with his body now.
Running with Project Purple
Over a year later, Michael and Missy are in much better health and are ramping up to officially complete their first marathon together since the diagnosis. The two are running with Project Purple for the 2023 Berlin Marathon in September.
“I’m as committed as ever to get another one completed and using this to bring more awareness to pancreatic cancer,” Michael wrote on social media in an update on his status.
During the months leading up to the race, Project Purple teams will be raising awareness and money for pancreatic cancer to help patients and families affected by the disease. If you would like to donate to support Michael and Missy’s fundraising efforts, visit their team page here.
Missy is grateful for their shared love of running, and the role it has played in helping the two of them throughout Michael’s recovery process.
“From the start of his symptoms to the frustration of finding a dismal diagnosis, to starting treatment, a very slow and bumpy recovery, and now celebrating cancer-free milestones – we’ve been together through it all together,” Missy said. “We’ve also been lucky enough to be able to run together throughout his entire treatment and recovery and I think that has been a huge help for both of us.”
If you would like to run a race in support of Project Purple, you can register here.