Four years ago, Michelle Morey of Orono pulled a muscle while working out at the gym. A lump in her chest stood out. But she didn't worry. It was just a knot in the muscle, she was sure.

A month later, Morey went shopping with a friend. In the dressing room, her friend -- a breast cancer survivor -- noticed the lump. "Why haven't you had that checked?" she demanded.

Sobered, Morey saw her doctor. At age 37, she had Stage II breast cancer.

So began an 18-month ordeal that included four surgeries.

Morey battled back. But the chemotherapy made her so ill she couldn't drag herself to work.

Fortunately, Morey was able to stay home for three months to recuperate. As co-owner of a family business, she could take time off without serious financial sacrifice. Her husband, Scott Bissen, a former police officer, was a stay-at-home dad who cared for their two young sons, then ages 3 and 5. Friends brought dinner to her door three days a week.

She also got top-notch medical care at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, she says, where Jean Pupkes, the nurse who coordinated her care, "knew exactly what I was going through."

As Morey neared the end of her treatment, she began to wonder how women without a support system like hers could get through the ordeal of cancer.

But she wasn't content to wonder. Morey is one of those women who turn questions into answers.

In October 2005, she and her husband decided to write a check for $500, and to add another $500 every month. At her next appointment, she asked if Pupkes and the North Memorial Foundation could distribute the money to patients who needed a financial lifeline.

Pupkes was overjoyed. "We see so many hard-working, self-sufficient people who struggle with the unplanned expenses of cancer," she explains.

That day, Morey overheard a nurse trying to arrange help for a patient who was losing weight because she had cut back on food to pay her medical bills. "For me, it was like a sign that we were doing the right thing," she says.

Then, on the day that first check cleared, recalls Pupkes, "a social worker called and said, 'I know there's nothing we can do to help, but I've got a patient here, a single mother who can't work. Her water has just been shut off, so she may lose her children.'

"I told her, 'Oh my gosh, I think we can help.'"

"When I heard this story, I could see that $500 wasn't going to be enough," Morey says. "I had wanted to back away from breast cancer and never talk about it again." Instead, she and her husband threw themselves into fundraising.

That was the genesis of the Pay It Forward Fund, which serves women suffering from breast and reproductive system cancers at three hospitals affiliated with the Humphrey Cancer Center in Robbinsdale.

At her first fundraiser, Morey expected only family and friends. Pupkes invited the people on her Christmas card list. They were floored when 300 people showed up.

After hearing Morey talk about the fund on the radio, a video store manager called to offer a $250 basket of video items for her next silent auction. An author donated the proceeds from his book. A lawyer pitched in funds from her firm's "casual Friday," which required employees to contribute $5 to wear jeans.

As Pay It Forward grew, so did the moving stories of help. The fund paid one woman's heating bill and covered car repairs for another so she could drive to treatment. It helped others with their mortgage payments after illness required them to quit their jobs.

"These gifts say so much more than just, 'Here's some money,'" Pupkes said. "They say, 'We know you're a good person, and you're working hard. Someone else understands what you're going through. You're not alone.'"

In 2 1/2 years, Pay It Forward has raised $330,000 and helped about 150 women with "essential living expenses." Those who get help are asked to consider doing something for another cancer sufferer when that becomes possible.

Some recipients give money. Most give time: They cook for a fundraiser, baby sit, or just encourage someone else who needs it. Often, a relative "pays it forward" for a mother or sister.

This summer, Morey found herself in the national spotlight when Reader's Digest selected her for its "Make It Matter" award. The magazine published her story in its September issue and donated $100,000 to a national cancer organization in her name.

"It's like Michelle has pushed this big boulder up a hill," marvels Pupkes. "Now it's rolling down."

That boulder has triggered an avalanche of good works.

Morey may be the biggest beneficiary of all, she says. "I used to cry every time I went in for treatment," she explains. "But things changed when I began thinking about other people.

"Then, I got the wonderful feeling that I was helping someone else, and it overtook the 'poor me' feeling."

For more about the Pay It Forward Fund, visit

Katherine Kersten • 612-673-1774

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