Michelle's obituary is now online at the Santa Barbara Independent, and will be in this week's print issue.
I wanted to share here an earlier draft, which proved to be too long for the paper, but has some extra details that I think you'll appreciate.
Michelle Elyse McCutchan Kendall died at her home in Santa Barbara, surrounded by family and friends, on September 26th, 2021. She was 48.
Michelle was born in Santa Barbara, and lived there most of her life. She lived large, bringing enthusiasm and intention, compassion and generosity, to everything that she did. She was happiest in the outdoors, whether under the waves or on top of a mountain, and had an irrepressible spirit of adventure. She studied biology and geography, and brought a scientific, evidence-based perspective to bear on all aspects of her life, from building environmental sustainability to pursuing happiness to combating the disease that eventually overcame her. Yet at the same time she was warm, funny, gracious and loving, and cultivated a broad network of friendships just as assiduously as she cultivated the salvias and tomatoes in her garden.
Michelle’s love of adventure, the ocean, and the outdoors was built on experiences from a very young age. Her parents took her on overnight trips to the Channel Islands on their 44’ sailboat starting when she was a baby, and when she was 4, the three of them sailed the same boat from Santa Barbara to Tahiti. Subsequently, her dad took her on many backpacking trips in Wyoming and Idaho, and in her teens, Michelle rambled through much of Colorado’s high country. She continued to travel as an adult, and when she met her husband the two of them began traveling together. They went on a wide variety of adventures, but their favorites were immersive experiences in remote or poorly known (at least to Americans) destinations. Some of their favorite journeys were traveling through the Okavango Delta by dugout canoe, trekking through Australia’s Simpson Desert with camels, and walking the Shikoku Buddhist pilgrimage route in rural Japan.
Awarded a “Certificate of Unsinkability” by her junior high school when she was 12, and crowned “Most Likely to Drown for a Greenpeace Cause” by her AP English teacher, Michelle’s passionate commitment to the environment began early. By her senior year, she had successfully organized to bring, for the first time, an Earth Day celebration to Santa Barbara High School. “Everything we do, everything we throw away, drastically affects our planet,” she said at the time. “Eventually, it will get through that recycling is not just a hippie thing” (Santa Barbara Independent, 19 April 1990). Her first job was at the Santa Barbara Sea Center, where she taught school groups and tourists alike about the wonders of the marine world, and dove under the pier to collect live animals for the touch tank. She continued this passion in her further work for the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and The Nature Conservancy. Michelle also strove to minimize resource consumption in her personal life, fulfilling the promise of her other high school award for “Most Likely to Get Upset over People not Using Both Sides of the Paper.”
Wherever she went, Michelle touched people, often more deeply than she realized—she was astounded by the heartfelt stories of appreciation that arrived during her final days. She cultivated relationships with great intention, sending thank-you cards and bringing hostess gifts, but also frequently reached out with spontaneous gestures of friendship and generosity. Michelle’s joy and pluck brought out the best in people, and many of her friends have said that she inspired them to live up to their hopes and aspirations. She also brought kindness into casual interactions, acknowledging the humanity of store clerks and call center operators by addressing them by name and asking simple but meaningful questions about their lives. Ever since reading Bowling Alone, Michelle recognized the value of community and the tragedy of its decline in our society, and sought community wherever she could. For example, three days into moving into her home in the Samarkand neighborhood, she hosted a bagels-and-coffee open house for everyone on the block. Not only did she meet everyone and create a map linking names to homes, the gathering rekindled interactions between neighbors. That year saw a renaissance of block parties, an old neighborhood tradition that had fallen away as kids grew up and moved away. She never stopped doing this. Well into her disease progression, when it was clear that her days were numbered, she remodeled the house she shared with her husband, making it more pleasant and functional. She would enjoy the fruits of that work for a couple of more years, but she really did it for her husband to enjoy in the time after she was gone. And she was still writing emails to distant friends on the morning that she died.
In February 2016, while Michelle and her husband Bruce were spending a sabbatical year in England, Michelle was diagnosed with stage 3C ovarian cancer. The long-term prognosis from such an advanced-stage diagnosis is usually poor, but Michelle was young and healthy, and was treated at the best cancer facility in the UK. So upon completion of the treatment and return to Santa Barbara, she hoped that she might be cured. Nevertheless, she threw herself into adventures and friendships, and well that she did, for the cancer recurred in fall 2017. More treatment led to another year of remission, and then the pattern repeated. Her third remission coincided with the onset of the Covid pandemic, and global lockdowns and social distancing frustrated her desire to live large. The final recurrence, at the beginning of 2021, initially seemed to respond to treatment. But then the chemo failed, and the tumors spread, eventually leading to liver failure and blocking her intestines. She entered hospice on September 20, and died six days later.
Throughout this journey Michelle kept a blog, sharing her triumphs and setbacks, hope and anger, adventures in the world and in the cancer ward. Her authentic writing and brave spirit (she described herself as a “plucky little f**ker,” and it was true) touched the hearts of many, rekindling old friendships, transforming acquaintances into partners in pain, and building new relationships with people whom she’d never met in person.
In 2019, Michelle wrote, “If I die of this disease, don’t say I died of cancer. I died of the suppression of science.” Partway through her cancer journey, a friend had encouraged Michelle to try cannabis. She was getting frequent medical testing at the time, and found that certain cannabis strains slowed the rise, or even lowered, her cancer blood marker. Excited, she dove into both the peer-reviewed literature and the testimonials on the “crazy” parts of the internet—being uniquely placed to have both the scientific knowledge to read the former and the time to explore the latter. And she found that, yes, people were claiming that cannabis cured their cancer; and yes, there were plausible biochemical mechanisms for this to happen. But it was complicated: many people were not cured, or had the benefit suddenly end; and early scientific research was showing tremendous variability in outcomes. Why was there not more science?
In the US research on cannabis has been nearly impossible since marijuana was added to the Controlled Substances Act as a “Schedule 1” drug. The little research that was permitted focused on identifying harmful effects of the drug; when the first study of cannabis and cancer, published in 1972, showed that cannabis shrank tumors rather than enlarging them, no further studies on the topic were allowed. For 50 years, research on this potentially life-saving drug was suppressed by the federal government. Even today, US scientists must complete an onerous and byzantine mountain of paperwork to get permits to work with the smallest quantities of cannabis, and little or no research examines its role in treating life-threatening diseases.
So Michelle teamed up with a local filmmaker to tell her story, in an attempt to shift the national conversation about cannabis. Her short film (Schedule 1: Unlocking the Anti-Tumor Properties of Cannabis) was released just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit California, so didn’t get the public exposure that she had hoped for. But through the film she connected with scientists, clinicians, and journalists, giving a human face to a largely overlooked facet of US drug policy.
While most other countries followed the US lead in drug regulation, a few have recently embraced research on medical cannabis. But so far, nobody had studied cannabis with ovarian cancer—and cancers differ tremendously from one another. Furthermore, cannabis contains hundreds of bioactive molecules, with concentrations varying between strains, growing conditions, and processing techniques. In 2020, Michelle established a partnership with an Israeli scientist who had studied cannabis with other cancers; with Michelle’s funding and inspiration, the scientist and her team set out to identify cannabinoid compounds that might kill ovarian cancer cells. The results from the first round of experiments, to be published later in 2022, were very promising, and before she died, Michelle and her husband committed to continuing to fund this research, with the goal of identifying new classes of lifesaving medicines. Sadly, these results came too late to save Michelle, but she hoped that her work would create a lasting legacy of lifesaving treatments for other women afflicted with this terrible disease.
Michelle died as she had lived the best moments of her life: intentionally, outdoors, and embedded in a web of love and community that she had fostered. And her dying was one more opportunity for her to shatter taboos and stereotypes. Once it became clear that the final recurrence of the cancer could not be controlled, and her body was rapidly failing, Michelle elected to make use of California’s End of Life Option, which allows terminally ill patients to end their suffering, under medical supervision, at the time of their choosing. Most people do this in their bedrooms with just a few family members present. Not Michelle! She threw a farewell party, gathering dozens of close friends and family members in her back yard. We all got to visit with her, share joyful memories of our times together, describe how she had touched our lives, and say farewell. She gave a short speech, including an exhortation to carry on the work to normalize and develop cannabis medicine, and then took the medication. She laid down on a comfortable mattress under the blue sky, and her last words were calling us all to “come closer” and gather around her. She easily slipped away, holding her husband’s hand and bathed in an ocean of love. All who were present were transformed by the experience, and will carry Michelle in their hearts forever.
Michelle is survived by her husband, Bruce Kendall; her mother and stepfather, Evelyn and Jim Cavins; her brother, JJ Cavins; and a large network of friends and fellow advocates.
A celebration of Michelle’s life will be planned for the spring, Covid permitting. Michelle requested that you honor her legacy by fighting to normalize cannabis medicine, whether by advocating for an end to the restrictions on cannabis research in the US or by supporting the ongoing research into cannabis as a treatment for ovarian cancer. Visit schedule1movie.com and CannaOncResearch.com for more information.