Career

The driving force behind Nanogirl Michelle Dickinson

The New Zealand-based science educator explains why time is precious to her.

Michelle Dickinson is a very busy woman. With her alter-ego and social enterprise Nanogirl, she travels the country teaching children about science and the possibilities it brings. The engineer and nanotechnologist has also written best-selling cookbook Kitchen Science, and she travels the world speaking about technology and science.

As Michelle (39) sits down to chat to the NZ Woman's Weekly, it seems she has a lot on her plate, but there's a very personal reason why she lives her life to the full.

"People ask me, 'Why are you always in a rush?' And I say because time is so precious! I think when you have a parent who dies relatively young, you don't think you'll live until 80. For me, I've said if I live to 53, that's a bonus, so I focus on how much I can do between now and then."

Michelle's father Ian was 53 when he died a few months after being diagnosed with oesophagus cancer, which is part of the gut cancer family that also includes bowel, stomach and pancreatic cancer. That's why Michelle is throwing her weight behind the Gut Cancer Foundation's National Crunch Day on May 31.

The concerning thing, she says, is that the number of people developing these cancers is on the rise.

"Gut cancer kills the most Kiwis and it's a silent one no-one seems to talk about.

"We could save so many lives if people were aware of some of the symptoms and the risk factors."

It's those risk factors Michelle wishes she knew about 10 years ago, before her father's death.

Ian, she says smiling, was a great dad. "He was my hero. He is the reason why I'm an engineer. As an eight-year-old, he gave me a soldering iron and taught me how to solder.

"And he was a big service person," she continues. "He was always volunteering and giving his time, even though we didn't have much money. He drove the disability bus for people who couldn't get to places. That's probably where my service nature has come from. It reminds me, even if you don't have much, you always have time, so how can you donate that?"

Originally from the UK, Michelle moved abroad to study and travel, but would look forward to a daily email from her "practical joker dad" with some funny joke or video.

"I have thousands of these emails," she laughs fondly. "But one day, those emails stopped and that's when he got sick."

While on a kitesurfing holiday in Aitutaki, Michelle received an email from home saying results from a doctor's visit indicated something was amiss with her dad, but "not to worry" as he only had the hiccups.

But the next news that arrived was a cause for worry. Ian had stage four oesophagus cancer, which had spread to his liver and he was given 18 months to live.

The cancer accelerated so quickly, Michelle moved from New Zealand to the UK to care for him. But four weeks after she arrived, Ian passed away at home barely six months after his diagnosis.

"It was quick, but not so quick that it wasn't painless," Michelle recalls. "He wasn't able to swallow and ended up dying from not being able to take anything in as his body wasn't getting any nutrients.

"He was unable to speak for the last two or three weeks of his life. But when I was a kid, Dad taught me Morse code and even after he lost his voice, we were still able to communicate. That was special."

The experience was traumatic for Michelle and her family, but she wants to warn of the simple symptom that can't be ignored.

"It started with the hiccups and that was pretty much the only symptoms he got. We thought it was funny at first! You don't think hiccups means you will die."

But further research also provided clearer indications. "Hindsight can be a wonderful thing," Michelle sighs.

"Dad suffered from heartburn and as I found out afterwards, a pre-symptom is heartburn. You can actually create cancerous cells from acid burning inside the oesophagus all the time – it's a condition called Barrett's oesophagus."

Armed with this knowledge, Michelle made immediate changes to her life, including quitting alcohol and her beloved hot curries, upping her exercise and consuming more vegetables and fibre. Paying more attention to diet and exercise is something she wants others to do as well.

"We have to talk about poop," she says bluntly.

"Women are the worst because our bowels are quite sensitive to our hormones and we tend to dismiss things as being hormonal and putting it down to womanly things. But we need to take note of these things. Because it's simple – early diagnosis will save your life."

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