This is Michelle. ‘Mich’ to her loved ones.
She is mum to Finnigan, 4, and Eloise, almost 2, and last year she celebrated her 40th birthday.
An architect by trade, she is from the United States originally, and moved to Australia with her husband in 2009.
When she isn’t hanging out with her family, Mich loves visiting art museums and making handmade gifts for friends. She is in the process of, possibly, setting up her own business.
Despite knowing all of these things about Michelle, I’ve never met her.
But I know she is loved fiercely by her husband, my mate Matt.
Last November, Mich, Matt, Finn and Ellie were five days away from embarking on a six-week holiday to the USA when the unthinkable happened—Mich was diagnosed with an aggressive form of ovarian cancer.
Eight days after she visited her GP because ‘things didn’t feel right’, Mich was undergoing a full hysterectomy.
She now faces early menopause, but it beats the alternative—each year 1400 Australian women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and more than 1000 will die from the disease. That’s one woman every eight hours!
Even now, five months later, Mich still recalls the moment her GP called with the news that she may have ovarian cancer.
“I was sitting in the childcare parking lot with my son in the back seat. The doctor called me to say the ultrasound showed a compound cyst on my right ovary with blood flow to it. She said it could be ovarian cancer, but they would need to do some more tests and she booked me in to see a specialist,” Mich said.
“I went into a cold sweat.”
That night, Mich and Matt did what any other couple would do; they Googled.
“We were both looking up stuff and went back and forth. I didn’t know it was common to have cysts on your ovaries so we thought it was probably that and just disregarded the bit about the blood flow,” she said.
More tests followed and the couple convinced themselves the mass was most likely an ovarian cyst.
“That put our minds at ease until we saw the surgeon the following Monday,” Mich said.
“I was also tested for the C-125 protein—which helps in indicating a tumor marker—and it came back negative.
“Later we were told there the test for C-125 is only 50 per cent accurate, especially the first time but once you’ve had cancer it’s more accurate at giving you truer tumor marker.”
An insidious disease, ovarian cancer is rarely detected in the early stages due to the vagueness of its symptoms. The vast majority of women with ovarian cancer are already at Stage III or higher when diagnosed.
In fact, many of the symptoms of ovarian cancer are similar to those of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and include: abdominal or pelvic pain, increased abdominal size or persistent abdominal bloating, the need to urinate often or urgently, or feeling full after eating a small amount.
“In hindsight, I had quite a few of the symptoms, the biggest of which was probably fatigue for me,” Mich said.
“When the kids went down for their naps, I would have to go down too, I’d rush them through lunch just to have a nap. Then I would typically be asleep again by 8:30pm.
“I was also suffering from frequent urination, it was like being pregnant again, and I was losing weight, but that was more gradual because as the tumour grew it was pushing on my stomach and bladder, which made me feel full.”
Michelle also suffered from mild nausea—at one stage even wondering if she’d caught a gastro bug off a friend’s children.
Eight days after she visited her GP, Mich was scheduled for surgery.
“It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving so we call it (the tumour) the ‘Thanksgiving Turkey Stealer” she laughed.
Due to the aggressive nature of her tumour, which was up to 10cm wide, Mich’s surgeon performed a radical hysterectomy.
“We found out from the surgeon after that even though the cancer I had is known to be aggressive the symptoms for this specific type present sooner. In an odd way I was lucky, it could have been a whole lot worse. I was diagnosed as Stage I post surgery.
Although histology tests showed Mich’s cancer was confined to her right ovary, she underwent four rounds of chemotherapy to ensure that any microscopic cancer cells were stopped in their tracks.
With the chemotherapy, came the loss of her shoulder length hair.
“I had my hair cut short just before my first round of chemo. I didn’t want to have longer strands falling out.
“You typically loose your hair between the first & second rounds of chemo. I tried to hang on to it as long as I could, and made it to round 2. Then I just wanted it off.
“I didn’t want to freak the kids out by having hair one day and not the next, so I got them to help me pull it out. I explained to them it would be the only time in their lives they could pull someone’s hair,” Mich laughed.
“I guess losing my hair was like everything else; at first I thought ‘I can’t believe I’m going to not have hair’, then it became ‘Let’s get it off because I can’t deal with it falling out anymore. I’ll just start wearing scarves already.
“I miss it, although it’s slowly growing back and I really am a natural brunette.”
Despite being just six-weeks post chemo, Mich is already feeling more energetic than she had in the year prior to her diagnosis.
She is also scheduled for a check-up every three weeks.
Now on the road to recovery, Mich has turned her focus to raising awareness of ovarian cancer and its symptoms.
“I decided to put what I was going through on Facebook and I sent an email to all my friends, saying this is what’s happened, know your body and if something isn’t right, go and see your doctor and get your annual check-ups.
“In hindsight, my symptoms had been going on for a long time and while I knew there was a female cancer that couldn’t be detected with a pap smear, in the back of my mind I just thought that none of my relatives had it, so I didn’t need to worry and was never fully aware of the symptoms of ovarian cancer.
“I really wanted to know how I got it without a strong family history of ovarian cancer or related cancers and from the reading I’ve done on risk factors two really stood out to me—women who have children past the age of 30 are more prone and women who do not take birth control. I fit into both categories.
“The birth control one, I think, really throws you; as I think taking birth control for a long period of time is linked to breast cancer so you’re sort of, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
May 8 (next Thursday) is World Ovarian Cancer day.
You can donate to Michelle’s fundraising efforts for Ovarian Cancer Australia here.
Brooke Falvey is a former journalist, blogger and dreamer. She lives in Brisbane, is currently in-between boyfriends and survives mostly on grilled cheese sandwiches. Brooke can be found online here.
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