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The Pole Dancer With Breast Cancer
by Thea Wood, SheSpark Co-publisher (feature photo by Don Curry Photography)
Michelle Master first appeared on my Instagram feed upside down in a full-on split. It definitely catches the eye and is something that my family may initially be shocked to find on this 48 year-old, straight woman’s feed. You see, Michelle is a pole dancer by hobby, and the incredible body strength and concentration that goes into her poses translates beautifully to social media. Why not follow a 39 year-old entrepreneur who makes defying gravity look easy? (Instagram @MissMichelleMaster)
(We revisited Michelle in October 2018, you can read about her journey since this article was written by clicking here.)
The camera also captures the not-so-easy reality of breast cancer, which she’s been battling for the last two years and documents along the way. Michelle’s IG photos chronologically tell her story through diagnosis to her mastectomy and recovery. The change in hair length and color. The drainage ports and mastectomy bras. Her expressed desire to feel sensual in her personal lingerie collection with only one breast. The plan for a throw-down birthday celebration when she hits the big 4-0 next April.
Michelle is a Georgetown University alum, now in Los Angeles, who became a private chef almost five years ago, three years before her initial diagnosis. She specializes in recipe development and menu planning for specialty diets (gluten-free, vegan, raw vegan, paleo, low glycemic, etc.). Undoubtedly, Michelle’s healthy lifestyle is a major weapon in her personal war on cancer.
But there’s more to battling cancer than just diet and exercise. Like me, Michelle grew up in the Detroit metro area where locals rally behind the “Detroit vs. Everybody” motto coined by the clothing label of the same name. It takes that kind of defiant spirit to run your own business and face Stage 4 cancer in an unorthodox way with minimal support from insurance companies.
Michelle is doing both.
Here is her breast cancer story
THEA: You mentioned you were misdiagnosed. What did doctors originally think was wrong and why?
MICHELLE: The first time I felt the lump, I approached my naturopath at the time. She said not to worry— I’m young. And she felt it and said it was just fibrous breast tissue. But it seemed to be getting slowly bigger. So months later I found a primary care doctor (I had recently moved to LA and had no insurance so this took some time- don’t even get me started on the insurance nightmares). She suggested I get a biopsy…which I did. It came back benign/negative.
But I still had this growing lump in my breast so I scheduled an appointment with a breast surgeon just to see if there was something we could do. He was two hours late. I had fallen asleep in his office by the time he came in. I will never forget that moment…
He asked me why I was there and, still groggy from sleep, I explained that I had a lump in my breast and was curious about getting it removed. He didn’t even pause or gently transition to the next statement that was the most rude awakening I’ve ever received:
“I’m sorry, you have cancer.”
I was in shock and half wondered if I was still sleeping and this was just a nightmare.
But it was real. He said he could tell by looking at the ultrasound and ordered a second biopsy on my lump, along with the neighboring lymph nodes. This time it came back malignant…in both my breast and my lymph nodes. I was already Stage 3.
THEA: When did you have the mastectomy? Was it single/double and what was the hardest part about recovery?
MICHELLE: I had the mastectomy on August 19th (roughly 2 months ago). It was a single. So why was it a single instead of the double mastectomy with reconstruction that I was originally hoping for?
My diagnosis was in July 2015. I knew instantly that chemotherapy was not for me. As they were telling me that I would die if I didn’t start chemo right away, I felt the strongest sensation of “NO” in my body that I’ve ever felt. There was no question that I would not be going that route. I spent most of my life on drugs for an autoimmune condition that only got worse the more I was prescribed and ended in me being sicker than ever. I gave up Western medicine at the age of 30 and began the long process of detoxing from all of the toxic substances I had been putting in my body. I had been around the natural health world for years and dove head first into natural healing from then on.
The problem with treating oneself naturally is that there is very little to go on, very little resources, and you have to essentially go it alone. If you are trying to combine Western and Eastern it is nearly impossible (I would like to build a platform that makes that process easier).
I did try a few Western options (tamoxifen, Herceptin, etc) but they didn’t work. Without going into more detail about that process, it became clear that I would need a mastectomy after months of bleeding every morning and night (the tumor had essentially broken the skin and wouldn’t close up) and not being able to get medical help for that. Because I did not agree with the standard of care in the Western world (chemo/surgery/radiation… aka poison/cut/burn) and because they suspected that I was actually Stage 4, I was only able to receive a “paliative” mastectomy vs. a “curative” one and my only option was a single radical mastectomy with no reconstruction. I was devastated…but had to forge ahead with the only option I had.
The hardest part of recovery was waking up from surgery and feeling like something was off mentally. My speech was slurred, I was stuttering and my brain didn’t feel normal. I thought I’d had a stroke. Come to find out, I had been drugged twice with something that interacted with other drugs I was taking (all given to me by the same doctors). I didn’t start to feel normal again for weeks. Losing a breast was already an emotional struggle, but the mental struggle of dealing with brain chemistry that was off was a nightmare.
The greatest physical challenge was having my mastectomy drains removed. Typically only one or two are used (inserted into the side of your body so fluid can drain out). But for some reason, I was given three. I was not warned that having those removed would be the most painful, traumatic experience ever. For anyone going through this process: TAKE PAINKILLERS BEFORE YOUR FOLLOW UP APPOINTMENT (says someone who NEVER takes painkillers). It was like child birth: sweating, screaming, unending pain. To this day, I do not understand why I was given three drains instead of one. I still have pain and swelling from that.
THEA: Have you always been vegan or did the diagnosis influence your decision?
MICHELLE: I don’t consider myself vegan. I do not believe in labels, I listen to my body. I’m a vegan chef because I’m good at it…but I do occasionally eat wild salmon and organic dairy when my body is craving it. I do think it’s best to be as close to vegan as possible when battling cancer and have removed many things from my diet. The stress of being overly strict with oneself can be equally damaging. I think it’s more important to incorporate lots of green juices and fruits and veggies (especially veggies) and to stay away from refined/processed foods as much as possible, if not entirely. The most important thing is NO sugar (I can’t help but wonder why they still hand out candy and lollipops to chemo patients when sugar is proven to feed cancer). I have always been aware of what I eat but, yes, my diagnosis has made me even more aware.
A personalized cancer treatment strategy is tough
THEA: What treatments are you undergoing and what Eastern medicine did you integrate
MICHELLE: Currently I am using medical cannabis. I believe so strongly in the healing power of this plant. I am excited about all of the research into immunology but am not eligible for trials because I haven’t exhausted all of the traditional options on the Western side (i.e. chemo/radiation).
I do not have the resources to pursue the paths I would choose to on the Eastern side (honestly I would leave the U.S. and travel to Germany to cure my cancer if I was able) so I am buying time with the cannabis and taking steps to heal on the emotional/spiritual level, along with taking A LOT of superfoods and supplements. I was doing high dose Vitamin C infusions for a while as well but it became too costly to continue. I focus on staying alkaline, reducing stress (probably my greatest challenge) and I do incorporate exercise, as well as rest as much as possible.
What is the financial impact of your approach?
The lack of support for people in my situation enrages me. I would be dead if it wasn’t for that inheritance [from a grandmother who passed after Michelle’s diagnosis] and a GoFundMe I ran two years ago. Both of those are long gone but I would not have afforded treatment without them. No natural treatments are covered by insurance but I still need insurance for testing and other Western treatments (not to mention my surgery). In order to get assistance with insurance I have to pay thousands of dollars in taxes… In addition to paying thousands of dollars in taxes and $220/month, most financial assistance programs do not receive funding for Stage 4, only up to Stage 3. Not to mention, I do not have a job with vacation time or family or partner support. You are essentially left to die. Battling cancer is literally a full time job. And it robs you if all of your energy, not to mention your brain power. Having to work a physically demanding job during this time has been nearly impossible.
THEA: What’s changed in your morning routine— Getting dressed? Makeup? Hair?
MICHELLE: My sleep has really been compromised since surgery so I am sleeping in later than I used to and my morning routine has definitely changed. I try to sit in the sun for at least a few minutes, and I no longer spend time on hair or make-up. I spend time making my morning concoctions (matcha superfood lattes, green smoothies, etc) and making sure I have everything in order for the day. Getting dressed also takes a bit longer because I can’t wear some of the things I used to. My weight also changes rather drastically. I was losing a lot of weight at first, now I’m quickly gaining it back. So, certain things don’t fit like they used to. Every morning is an adventure (LOL).
How pole dancing gave strength
THEA: Of course, we all want to know about the pole dancing. When/why did you start? What’s the hardest part? What do others think about it and your sharing photos on social media?
MICHELLE: I have always been a dancer at heart. I wasn’t allowed to dance growing up but got into hip hop in college. I first tried pole dancing in NYC and instantly fell in love but it wasn’t until I moved to LA that I really got into it. I found my home at Secret Pole Dance Studio- there were women of all ages, shapes, sizes and cultural backgrounds and that was the environment I craved. I grew up in Detroit, MI, had a very diverse upbringing and instantly felt safe and accepted there. I struggled a lot with self image and the confidence I gained there was priceless.
Once I started, it wasn’t even a question of whether I would continue or not. It was like breathing to me (which is why NOT poling has been so devastating). Everything about pole is challenging…but I wouldn’t say “hard.” Yes, there are bruises and struggles. And yes, it can feel like a challenge when you’re 5’10”, not small, and some of your instructors are 100 pounds dripping wet (LOL). But pole is a reflection of life. You get through the challenges and you gain confidence from that— whether it’s facing stage fright or finally getting a nemesis move. I think the hardest thing for me was training to be an instructor and then having to stop to face the progression of my disease head on.
As far as what people think of me posting videos on social media, that doesn’t concern me. I always hope to inspire and make people feel alive. And yes, that can mean turning someone on or turning someone off. The pole community is a very supportive community and I have never had issue with any of my pole sisters (or brothers) judging me for posting. I find that those with issues are really just uncomfortable with their own power/sexuality/creativity. Which is sad for them but would never make me think twice about posting something. They are free to look away if it doesn’t resonate. I do not let the opinions of others govern what brings me joy.
The unfortunate reality of the society we live in is that I do feel I have to constantly prove my intelligence to those (outside of the pole community) who become aware that I pole. It’s a shame that society teaches us that a woman is either highly sexual OR intelligent (or that our sexuality is shameful or should be hidden). That is BS. I believe women are inherently both and trying to fit into one box vs. the other (or any box) can cause a myriad of problems health wise and otherwise. I went to Georgetown, worked at investment banks in NYC and am whip smart. I am also a sexual woman who is proud of her strength, vulnerability and beauty. I’ve worked hard for all of it and would never apologize for any of it. 😉
THEA: I know this may be a difficult question: When facing your mortality with Stage 4 cancer, what keeps you going? How do you find peace and joy?
MICHELLE: I find peace and joy the same way now that I did before— I try to stay present, to stay authentic, to express my emotions rather than holding them in or making myself feel wrong for having them. Some days are truly awful. Some days I want to give up. But when I have those days I reach out for help or I try to help someone else. That is the quickest way for me to reset and get back to my true essence.
I’m a healer by nature and having compassion for others reconnects me to my compassion for myself. I’m not afraid of death, I’m afraid of not fully living while I’m here. So I do as many things as possible to feel alive, to feel like myself. I write a lot. I don’t try to hide my “defect” as the doctors call it…I initially was concerned about not having a fake boob to wear around but find that the more I embrace the reality of my current situation and the more I find the beauty in it, the more at peace I feel. Finding the humor in the challenge also helps me a lot (and having some amazing friends to laugh with). Life is too short not to!
Rather than focusing on death or my mortality, I focus on life. I believe that where we direct our attention has a huge impact on what we manifest. I will always be someone who seeks the opportunity in the challenge, who turns grit into glitter. And I am careful about any victim stories that want to creep in. That is a dangerous place to get stuck! I am not religious but I have very strong faith and, despite this “challenge,” I am grateful for many things.
When my time comes, it will come…but I will fight to the end to stay alive. And this warrior has A LOT of life left in her. 😉