Former ITID President Damone Battling Stage 4 Cancer

Michelle Damone

Former Indian Trail Improvement District President Michelle Damone loves country music, her Miami Dolphins and a night out with the girls. She has found the “sexy man” of her dreams and is helping her daughter make wedding plans. She intends to be there in Las Vegas on Dec. 3 when Marissa ties the knot. Michelle Damone does not intend to die. Not now. Not at a very young 52.

Damone, who was elected to the ITID board four times between 1999 and 2016, was diagnosed in February with anal-rectal cancer. She had her political consulting business — Gamechanger Campaigns — humming along and was feeling in good health, Damone said. She was shocked by the unexpected finding and “life just suddenly halted” as a regime of chemotherapy began.

Damone’s doctors say the cancer is in Stage 4, which means the cancer cells have spread to other areas of the body.

“No one in the medical field thought I’d be living today,” she said recently. “You know a death sentence is hanging over you. But you don’t focus on it.”

One thing Damone does focus on is her social media, with nearly daily posts on Facebook @ Michelle Gurlides Damone chronicling her treatment. The good days and the bad.

On Sunday, Day 252 since her diagnosis, she wrote: “I’ve been in the hospital all week… I have eight more [radiation treatments] to go, and I really need encouragement to get past the finish line. I’ll admit there have been moments I’ve wanted to quit, but I CAN’T.”

Damone has reluctantly come to accept that that despite being “my own patient advocate” — and an aggressive one at times — she can’t do it all on her own.

Shannon Holl, a high school friend, set up a GoFundMe page and quickly raised more than $10,000 to pay for a rental unit in Jacksonville where Damone is staying during her radiation treatments at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay has been helping behind the scenes to untangle red tape regarding insurance and government benefits. Wellington Mayor Anne Gerwig and Greenacres Councilwoman Judith Dugo also have become vital members of the “tribe” supporting her, Damone said.

Damone grew up in Hollywood, Florida, but attended high school in Vermont before heading back south to attend Broward Community College from 1989 to 1991. In 1996, she moved to The Acreage with her then-husband, a Broward County sheriff’s deputy. The couple had two children — Marissa and Matthew — and Damone quickly became involved in local moms’ groups.

She was first elected to the ITID board in 1999. She lost in 2002, but regained a seat in 2004 and remained in office until 2016, when she was ousted following a notably unpleasant campaign versus current board member Betty Argue.

Asked then why she wanted to continue serving after more than 14 years on the board, she told the Town-Crier, “I’m still as passionate as I was when I was 29 years old and elected the first time as a parks advocate. I now have grandchildren, so there’s a second generation of Damones being raised right here in The Acreage… I bring a lot of historical value to the district.”

Voters did not agree, and Argue won that race.

“We were not good friends,” Argue said today with understatement. “[But] when I heard about the diagnosis, I sent her a message wishing her the best… I continue to hope it works out for her. No one should have to go through that.”

McKinlay met Damone, already a political force in the western communities, in the early 2000s while working as county legislative aide. She got to know her better a few years later after feeling her out as a possible rival in the 2014 county commission race.

The two single mothers ended up working together on such issues as the State Road 7 extension and became “strong friends,” McKinlay said. “I have a lot of respect for her as a leader, a woman, a mother and really good friend,” she added.

Now each call from Damone, each opportunity to spend time together, has taken on an added dimension. “She’s a priority,” McKinlay said. “I know what a fighter she is. She’s fierce.”

Yet there are times when you can’t help feeling scared for her, McKinlay said of Damone.

“As a single woman, you have to do a lot of fighting alone,” McKinlay said. “But Michelle has a strong village around her in this.”

Wellington’s Gerwig, who is the mother of three, said she first became aware of Damone when they were involved in area mothers’ groups in the late 1990s. Obviously, she was aware of Damone’s political influence north of Southern Blvd., but they did not really connect as friends until after the cancer diagnosis.

“I think we can all relate to how life-altering this kind of thing can be,” Gerwig said. “We run in the same circle of women in elective office. It’s kind of sisterhood… I reached out to her in the beginning to let her know that I thought she was on the right track with her treatment.”

Gerwig said she stands ready to help in whatever way she can, adding that she hopes everyone in the area who remembers Damone as “a willing public servant” will support her as well.

Despite all the support Damone is receiving, there are a lot of tough days. In a recent Facebook post she wrote: “The journey is not easy. It’s filled with pain and twists and turns. It’s not just about cancer, it’s surviving chemo, neuropathy, biopsies or other complications. You have to fight with the doctor’s office, medical staff, the health insurance company, and file for disability or other financial support and prove you are technically dying, need treatment, or that your body has earned passage to the next step. You must juggle the bills while trying to seek treatment. Your dreams and career are set aside. Your looks are stripped, lose hair, lose weight, while trying to keep a smile… Cancer is not pretty.”

Then there are good days, like the one this week when Damone’s cousin took her for a ride on Jacksonville Beach in a beach wheelchair. Meanwhile, Damone said, “the most wonderful man” has come into her life — Daniel Rodenberger, a facilities operations manager in Palm Beach Gardens. “He’s my rock, my angel,” she said.

Following the radiation treatments, “there’s a good chance I can lead a normal life,” Damone said. And as part of that life, she plans to become a patient advocate at the state and national level.

Perhaps Damone best summed up her attitude, her will, her spirit during her successful 2012 re-election run when she told the Town-Crier, “I’m a leader and a fighter, and a winner, and I will always prevail no matter which position I’m in. I’ve said this many times over the years, I’m Michelle Damone before I’m anything else. With or without a title, I can still make things happen.”