By Wendy Holdren
Michelle McKinney was a daughter, a mother, a nurse, a hunter, a costume maker and more.
She lost her life to breast cancer, but before she passed away, she asked her mother to share her story in an effort to keep young women proactive in their health care options.
She was only 28 when she received her breast cancer diagnosis. Her mother, Nancy Anderson, said Michelle didn’t get regular mammograms, because her doctors didn’t recommend them until a woman turned 40.
“She had a car wreck and the next couple of days she was really sore in her breast, so she went to our family doctor and the doctor said it was probably from the wreck,” Anderson said.
Michelle was actually a nurse in oncology at Raleigh General Hospital and she asked her doctor if they would do an ultrasound just to make sure.
Her intuition was on target — the ultrasound showed a lump on her breast.
Anderson said after taking a biopsy, the doctors recommended that she have both breasts removed.
“We are at high risk, my family is. I’ve had two sisters that have had it. Thank goodness they’re survivors. My mother had it, and then Michelle.”
Michelle opted to have a double mastectomy because of the family history of breast cancer.
She followed up with chemo and radiation treatments and her mother said a few months later, she seemed to be doing well.
“She already had a 3-year-old daughter, Tearson, and after her chemo and radiation, she elected to have another baby.”
Michelle’s pregnancy went great, Anderson said, and she delivered a healthy baby girl named Shea.
“Before she got pregnant, she had already started reconstruction, but she had to put that on hold until she had the baby.”
After Shea was born, their family went back to Virginia for Michelle to finish her reconstruction.
“She was at the point of the inserts and they went to put them in, and her tumors had grown back.”
Michelle opted for another round of chemo and radiation and she underwent a number of surgeries.
The cancer took hold just a few months later, and Michelle passed away when her daughter Shea was only 11 months old.
Her babies are growing quickly, though — Shea is now 9 and Tearson is 14.
“Tearson remembers her to a degree, but Shea has no memory of her.”
Anderson said Shea’s dad, Dan Tacchia, keeps her mother’s memory very much alive.
Shea and her father live in Wisconsin, so Anderson doesn’t get to see her very often, but she said the two stay in touch on the phone and send each other pictures.
“Shea looks like her mom and Tearson has her mannerisms.”
She said Tearson is taking after her father, Danny McKinney, for her physical appearance, though — she’s already 5 feet 7 inches and she’s only 14.
Michelle left behind two beautiful daughters, but Anderson said losing her is something she’ll never get over.
“She was our only child. She had gone through college and was a registered nurse, and a very good one. Her doctors just loved her. Of course she was our world. It was devastating. It’s something we’ll never get over.”
She said her daughter wore many hats — she was a seamstress, a nurse, a hunter and a mother.
“She was in the Society of Creative Anachronism and she made all her costumes from scratch. She made belly dancing and period dresses. She was very talented and very crafty. She also loved to make dream-catchers.”
Anderson said when Michelle received her nursing degree from WVU Tech, her father, Bruce, was so proud.
“Of course I was, too. She just excelled in the program. She was excellent in it.”
She said her daughter worked at several hospitals, as well as Gentiva, a home health care service.
“Word got around about how passionate she was and people would request Michelle,” Anderson said. “Doctors would hunt her down in the hospital, especially if they had to talk to a cancer patient they had to give the news to, after she had gone through her difficulties.”
Even in her off time while she was in Virginia receiving her cancer treatments, her mother said she was constantly talking to the other patients there, especially the young women, encouraging them to stay strong.
Michelle always stayed positive and she never really accepted the fact that she was going to pass away, Anderson said.
“We never really talked about it. It’s hard to believe that, but she went so fast. We never really accepted it. The closest we ever came to it was when she was in the hospital at Raleigh General. I think it was the Tuesday before she died. The cancer had gone to her lungs and she had to have two chest tubes in to breathe. She wanted to take a shower and I had to get in with her and she cried and told me that it was such a shame that we weren’t going to be together.”
Her mother wiped a tear from her eye and said, “I told her we’re going to be together forever.”
Although Michelle lost her battle with cancer, she wanted young women to take charge of their own health, starting at a young age.
“She wanted young women to be very vocal, especially if they have any cancer history.”
She explained that some people have a gene that will show doctors their risk of developing cancer and she encouraged people to get tested if they have any family history.
“Some people go radical and have both breasts or ovaries removed. The gene isn’t a death sentence. Some people say they wouldn’t want to know if they had the gene, but it’s just a tool for you to use to govern how you handle your life.”
She said she hopes people get out of the frame of mind that you have to go through radical surgeries if you have the gene, simply keep a close eye on your health and stay up to date on your screenings.
“We haven’t done the test, but my doctor treats me as if I have the gene. I have mammograms and MRIs regularly.”
Her daughter’s message was to be aggressive and take charge of your own life.
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