Meet Michelle, who really is “So Brave”

By Millie Looker

Image Credit :: So Brave | Body Paint Artist :: Wendy Fantasia | Photography :: Leanne King

I first met Michelle in one of the best ways possible — she reached out to us just before our first Longest Table dinner in 2017 and donated a beautiful indoor plant from her business, Vintage Earth.

We got chatting and Michelle started telling me a little bit about herself (more on that to come…) and ever since, we’ve stayed in touch. When I heard that Michelle had been named as Adelaide’s FIRST EVER So Brave Model Ambassador, it made absolute sense that she would be one of our Inspirational Adeladies… keep being amazing, Michelle!

To get your hands on one of the amazing calendars, HEAD HERE.

Millie x

Q :: Tell us a little bit about your story…

A :: I am a single mum to 4 beautiful kids — Jake 15, Ella 13, Keira 7 and Harper 5 — who are my world. I am the owner and creative behind my concrete homewares and plant styling business Vintage Earth. I love everything rustic, vintage and I have a slight obsession with succulents and indoor plants. I love the colour blue, indie rock, painting, blueberries and mulberry jam. I love walking in the rain and my favourite people (apart from my kids) are my 92 yr old Grandmother Olive and my bestest and dearest friends (you know who you are). I am a breast cancer survivor.

Michelle’s “wig party” for her 40th birthday, with two of her children, Ella + Jake. 

On July 15th, 2015, I was faced with any woman’s greatest fear…. Breast Cancer. I was diagnosed with Invasive Lobular Breast Cancer. I was 39 years old, with 4 healthy and happy kids, a partner, and a new business. I had no history of breast cancer in my family and yet it found me.

After having breast fed 4 babies, my breasts had more than lost their elasticity… they were not the dense breasts they once were. During my pregnancy of my youngest daughter I had constant trouble with my milk letting down, my right breast would constantly feel firm and I often had mastitis. I was recommended to apply heat packs, warm compress, hot showers and express whenever possible. No one suggested scans.

18 months after I finished breast feeding, I noticed my right breast sitting slightly higher in my bra compared to my left. Fuller in shape like it did prior to breastfeeding. My regular GP dismissed my concerns for hormonal changes, ensuring me I had no concerns at my age — no puckering, no visible signs of a lump or anything sinister. She told me I was wasting my time and money on unnecessary scans. But I needed to know for sure and I insisted on a mammogram and an ultrasound to set my mind at ease. While I had no definite lump, something told me my breast didn’t feel quite right.

The mammogram showed nothing more than what appeared to be dense breast tissue, apparently common in women my age. The scan showed dense tissue and a few very small spots of interest.

The doctor came in and instructed me they needed to do a fine needle biopsy on the smaller spots. They did approx 6 biopsies and then he asked me “have you ever had children?” I told him I had 4 and he then asked… “but you never breast fed them?”

I then informed him I had breast fed all 4 of my kids, to which he replied “Ohhh… well you have the breast tissue of a woman that has never breast fed. I am 99% sure you have a large malignant cancer in your breast and even if these tests come back negative I am writing in my report that I recommend whatever is in there is to be removed.”

Hearing those words without test results seemed ludicrous to me. But he seemed so sure.

3 days later, a different GP confirmed my tests were in fact all negative. But as instructed I was referred on to a breast surgeon who immediately organised for me to have a core biopsy (larger needle biospsy) and an MRI. After almost 2 weeks of tests and poking and prodding… my worst fears were confirmed. I needed an immediate mastectomy to remove a large malignant tumour. I was diagnosed as having Invasive Lobular Breast Cancer. A rare slow growing cancer that typically is in older woman over 70-80 and only affects approx 5% of breast cancer patients. It was likely I had this for 3-4 years prior without any knowledge.

July 15th is the day it was removed and I remember it all so clearly… I had so much fear that it had spread, and so much fear that my 4 young children would not see me grow old. So scared for what would happen next.

Michelle’s four children, Harper, Keira, Jake + Ella (left to right). 

I had my cancer infected breast removed as well as 5 lymph nodes. Fortunately for me they got it all. One large 5cm x 7cm lobular breast cancer and two smaller 8mm tubular breast cancers. The dense tissue they could see was in fact one large mass. But my margins were clear… it hadn’t spread.

What happened next was nothing short of hard. At the time, I had 4 kids aged 12, 11, 4 & 2.5… one income, bills, and no clue what lay ahead. My mastectomy surgery meant my parents had to move in with us until I was able to drive again and resume being a mum and everyone I knew had to help with dinners, school runs, kids sports and extracurricular activities.

On top of everything else… chemo made it harder. After my first round I was struck down with influenza and admitted to hospital. Subsequent chemo rounds had me back in and out of hospital with shingles, respiratory troubles and allergic reactions to meds. I felt like I was always away from my family and most importantly my kids.

Our children give us unconditional love…. they love us regardless of whether we have no hair from chemo, or if we are pale and overweight from steroids, or unwell and lay up in bed sick as a dog — but they worry just like we do about the ones they love.

Jake shaved his head with Michelle. This is the moment he told her he was proud of her. 

Thankfully for us Canteen helped lessen that burden for my eldest 2, giving them hope and a lifeline of new friends. I cannot thank them enough for their ongoing support even today.

Radiation burnt my skin. It gave me endless days of anxiety, and made me cry. But I put on a brave face and pretended I was ok to everyone around me… I went back to working in my business Vintage Earth and tried to find my normal again.

Throughout my breast cancer journey, I have denied myself the title of being BRAVE. Although I cherish the sentiment… bravery to me is not a choice. Breast cancer doesn’t allow you to choose bravery… it chooses YOU.

In 2017, I became a single parent and I decided I had to make a choice… after all, we only have “one life… one chance”. I made a clear decision to take control of my life… and I chose to be So Brave.

Image Credit :: So Brave | Body Paint Artist :: Wendy Fantasia | Photography :: Leanne King

I feel entirely blessed that I have been selected as a 2018 SO BRAVE Model Ambassador to help promote breast cancer awareness in young women; highlighting their core message that young women under 40 get breast cancer too.

This SO BRAVE journey has been FOR ME. I have pretended I’m ok to my 4 kids and my family; and I’ve pretended that everything in my reconstruction was ok when it wasn’t. And I’ve pretended that I was ok with cancer (even though it was so shit) when I wasn’t! This year is all about doing what I want to do… because I’m soooo important and I CAN be braver than I ever want to be.

So Brave enforces that message, and my paint day made me realise that the most important person in my life is ME!!!

Image Credit :: So Brave | Body Paint Artist :: Wendy Fantasia | Photography :: Leanne King

I’m not a good mother without being a good me, I’m not a good friend, I’m not a good partner… I’m not a good anything… without being the best version of myself!

Q :: What’s your daily mantra?

A :: One life… One Chance. You will never have a new beginning, so suck it up and create a better ending.

I believe we can choose any path we desire and I want to teach my kids to make this one life count.

Q :: What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever been given? 

A :: “To always look for the silver linings in every situation”. Breast cancer has thrown me some awful days but in all honesty; I am much stronger for having gone through it and now thanks to the amazing support of family and friends I appreciate every day for what it is.

Q :: Whose the person that you look up to the most? 

A :: My dear friend Jenni Eyles from Styling Curvy. Having been just diagnosed with breast cancer I knew no one that had been through what I was about to endure. Jenni was a wealth of information and the most amazing support for me just when I needed it. I am sure she has touched many women over the years with her blog and social media platforms… but for me she saved my life. Her courage and determination to be a breast cancer thriver inspired me to be a So Brave Model Ambassador.

Q :: What’s your favourite place in SA? 

A :: My favourite place is always the beach… it clears my mind and soothes my soul. But my favourite beach in SA would have to be Southport at Port Noarlunga. This has always been my go to beach as a kid growing up… from my younger years with aquatics at Port Noarlunga Primary School through to my teenage years kayaking from the river mouth…. And years later watching my (then) teenage boyfriend catch a wave for hours while I lay on the sand. It is somewhere I stop every time I travel south of Adelaide with my kids just to take in the sea air… plus the view from the stairs leading down to the beach makes for an incredible photo.

Q :: When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up? 

A :: A hairdresser… I coloured my hair as soon as my mum said I was allowed to. I loved to cut it off. Grow it… only to have it cut it off again. Maybe that’s why I didn’t mind losing my hair after chemo. Lol!

Q :: We love to celebrate the little wins – what has been one of your most celebrated moments? 

A :: Without a doubt it would be beating breast cancer. But most importantly throughout my breast cancer journey I have learnt to believe in myself. Do what feels good. Take risks and make myself proud. I have so got this!

Q :: What’s something that you’ve got coming up that you’re really excited about? 

On Saturday October the 20th with the help of my major sponsor, Morphettville Racecourse, I am hosting the 2019 So Brave Calendar Launch as Adelaide’s FIRST EVER Model Ambassador.

Event :: SO BRAVE – “A day at the races”

Where :: Morphettville Racecourse

When :: 12pm-5pm on Caulfield Cup Race Day (Saturday, 20th October 2018)

What :: Raising vital funds for breast cancer research to help promote breast cancer awareness in young women; highlighting their core message that young women under 40 get breast cancer too.

Tickets include:

– Entrance into Morphettville Racecourse

– Two course luncheon in the Leilani Room

– Morphettville + Interstate in-room betting

– Outdoor area with grandstand seating

– Winning Post + Mounting yard views

– Private bar and 5 hour beverage package

– Door prizes

– Raffles & Auction prizes

– Guest speakers

So Brave 2019 Calendar Launch presentation

Tickets are limited so grab your or get a table of 10 friends together and come along…

Available at sobrave.com.au/adelaideraces.

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