Experiencing a 12-hour brain surgery gives you perspective. … If there was ever something that goes without saying, it’s that.
It also goes without saying that it can take more than just one surgery to get to the other side of a devastating brain cancer diagnosis with a clean bill of health. Local real estate broker Michael J. Wills opted to take it all in stride.
Wills, associate broker of the Garibaldi Group, was told in May 2020 that the cause of his headaches and double vision was a tumor on his pituitary gland, a pea-sized part of the brain that produces and releases hormones.
It took almost two years, multiple surgeries, high radiation doses and a lot of time spent alone in hospitals that were in high alert early into the pandemic, but, eventually, Wills was declared cancer-free.
He doesn’t expect you’ll believe him when he says it … but he’s truly thankful to have gone through what he did.
“It helped me develop into the person I am today,” he said. “And I’m happy with the person I am today.”
Beginning with the way he interacts with clients in his commercial real estate work through to his more routine day-to-day priorities, Wills said his battle with cancer left nothing unchanged. His relationships with friends and family. His focus in life. His willingness to go skydiving. His taste in food. Everything.
The mindset the 27-year-old has — and the one he clung tightly to throughout his health journey — is a reminder of the perhaps underappreciated fortitude of young business professionals.
For him, there wasn’t a thought of his diagnosis and treatment being anything but a detour in life. It didn’t cross his mind to ask how bad it could get, he said, or whether death was a possibility.
He knew he had a tumor, and that they’d have to do work to remove it — that’s it.
“For my parents, of course, it was a lot different,” he said. “It was hard on them, on my mom. My sister had just gotten through cancer, too. Her journey was extremely difficult for them. Knowing my sister had issues in her journey, I just kept thinking, ‘Don’t make this round two for mom.’
“I kept repeating that to myself. And that motivated me.”
It was far from a welcome start to the commercial real estate career he had just gotten underway in the year leading up to the diagnosis. That was the professional path he was on after a couple of false starts following his graduation from University of Massachusetts – Amherst. He had internships in property management, then professional recruiting — neither clicked.
It was a circuitous connection made through an uncle while Wills cheered from the stands of his cousin’s final high school football game that led him to an opportunity in commercial real estate. It also led him to a run-in with a Jersey legend, a story Wills retold with a bursting excitement.
“My uncle said, ‘I can set up a meeting at halftime for you to talk with a buddy of mine in real estate,’” Wills said. “That led to getting a business card and making plans to grab lunch. Later, as I was pulling into the parking lot at that restaurant for lunch, I saw Bruce Springsteen. And, if the guy I was talking to meets at the same place as Springsteen, I thought, ‘I must be talking to the right guy.’”
The project Wills learned the ropes on was the new St. Joseph’s Health campus in Totowa. But, long before it reached completion, he learned he had a tumor. The necessary treatment meant he would have to take a long hiatus from work.
It actually took several surgeries to figure out that the tumor was cancerous, Wills said. All the while, COVID-19 was making headlines for the first time. And, although that meant Wills couldn’t bring in visitors during hospital stays, he also didn’t have as much traffic to deal with during the pandemic shutdowns when he went into Manhattan later for treatment. So, he calls it even.
Following surgeries and radiation was a lot of physical, speech and occupational therapy. As he explains in striking honesty: He needed help “learning to become a human again.”
It was indicated that, when he returned from his work hiatus, he “came back too soon.” So, he was let go. Because of all the work he had done to get back there, it came as a blow — and it made him feel like a failure, he said.
Wills went on to land an associate broker position at the Garibaldi Group, a Chatham-based real estate firm, soon after. The firm has been supportive and appreciative of the work he does to an incredible extent, he said.
At this point, Wills said he still deals with some double vision that makes reading small text difficult. But, he feels well-equipped to work. In fact, in his work sourcing and closing deals in the commercial real estate space, his journey helps him forge connections in a way he was never able to before.
“My willingness to share what I’ve gone through with people kind of makes them feel like they have the ability to share,” Wills said. “They may also relate to something they’re going through themselves.”
The battle with cancer, and its lingering effects, are not always easy to deal with, Wills admits.
But, he’s also quick to add he’s going to be able to deal with it — and he’s going to find some good in it, too.
“It’s just the cards I was dealt in life,” he said. “I’m still so grateful for the things it brought back into my life, (such as) religion and my focus on family, relationships and what I want to spend my time and energy on.”