On a golden autumn morning in March this year, Melissa King was bursting with excitement, sharing all the colour and grandeur of Melbourne’s International Flower & Garden Show with the audience of Seven’s Sunrise, when she began to feel an uncomfortable sensation spreading across her face.
Live on breakfast television, with the eyes of the nation upon her, the bubbly Better Homes and Gardens presenter’s worst fears were realised, as her face went into an uncontrollable spasm.
“It’s live television, I was hyped up, lots of adrenalin, the camera went on and I said, ‘Hi guys, we’re at the Flower & Garden Show …’ and suddenly it was like someone had placed a fishing hook in the corner of my lip and eye, and they were pulling hard,” she tells The Weekly.
“I could feel the stretching and tightening as the right side of my face contorted and I knew everyone watching at home could see it too.”
Thinking on her feet, Melissa did her best to subtly cover her face with her hand, using her strawberry blonde hair to disguise the spasm until it passed, but the very public episode has prompted the much-loved horticulturalist to open up about the very private health battle she’s faced for the past five years, since being diagnosed with a benign tumour on the lining of her brain.
“That morning was awful. I could hear the producers saying to me, ‘Melissa, are you okay?’ They were very worried I was having a major health issue live on national television, which was hard on everyone because they didn’t know what was going on.
“I realised that if the public knew about my situation, I could’ve just said, ‘Sorry guys, I’m having one of my face spasms,’ and moved on. So, it’s time people know what I’ve been going through behind the scenes, and I hope it helps and inspires others to take control of their health too.”
In 2017, almost by accident, doctors found a tumour near Melissa’s brain.
The busy mum of Noah, now 11, and Marlon, 9, who has built a reputation as one of Australia’s most loved gardening gurus, had been suffering headaches since she was a teen. But over time they’d become increasingly intense, developing into debilitating migraines.
Melissa’s battle with migraines
Melissa was particularly impacted by aura, an intense migraine early-warning sign that often causes stroke-like symptoms, such as tingling muscles, hallucinations and visual impairment before the onset of the migraine. For some migraine sufferers, aura can be just as enervating as the migraine itself.
Her doctors referred Melissa to a neurologist, and during a routine MRI to see what was happening in her brain, they discovered a meningioma, a tumour located on the brain lining near her ear.
“It’s terrifying being told you have a tumour, but my doctor explained the situation very well,” she says. “My meningioma is a benign, non-cancerous tumour which may or may not grow. Meningioma is common, and some people live with meningioma in their brain all their lives and never know they have it. My doctors’ advice was to monitor it closely and keep an eye on whether it grew or not.”
According to Brain Tumour Alliance Australia, meningiomas are the most common primary brain tumour in adults, and around 90 per cent of them are benign like Melissa’s. However, the word “benign” is misleading as the tumours can grow and affect the brain, impact the nervous system or cause disability.
Some can be life-threatening and, depending on the tumour’s location, they can reach a relatively large size before any symptoms present.
After the diagnosis, Melissa underwent six-monthly MRIs to keep a close eye on the tumour’s behaviour. “For four years we monitored it and it wasn’t growing, it looked stable,” Melissa says, “but in 2021 my doctor compared my most recent scan with my very first scan years earlier and noticed that it was growing, albeit very slowly.”
It may have been slow, but the risk was very real. “The tumour’s location meant it could impinge on my hearing nerves, my facial nerves and potentially have all sorts of impacts,” she explains. “I was faced with two options – brain surgery to remove the tumour or radiotherapy to shrink it and curtail its growth.”
The news, which came at the height of COVID-19 lockdowns, was devastating for the popular horticulturalist who’d landed her dream role on Better Homes and Gardens just a year earlier and had recently bought her “forever” home with husband Alex in Melbourne.
It was very frightening for Alex, too, as he’d lost an aunt to an aggressive meningioma.
“My first thoughts were of my aunt, and what had happened to her, and that phase of not really knowing what might happen with Melissa was quite hard,” he says. “The boys were very young and naturally we were worried about what the future would hold.”
Melissa first became known to garden lovers when she got her television break on the ABC’s iconic show Gardening Australia, alongside Peter Cundall. Her sunny segments caught the eye of producers at Channel Seven who snapped her up to present a segment on Melbourne Weekender and star in the series The Garden Gurus.
Off-air, she combined her love of gardening and the kitchen with her book, Garden Feast, and released two bespoke roses, “Mother and Daughter” and “Mother & Child”, to help raise funds for motor neurone disease.
With life riding high, while frightened at the news, she was determined her diagnosis wouldn’t slow down the career trajectory she’d worked hard to achieve.
Keeping the diagnosis a secret
“I weighed up my options and decided on radiotherapy treatment because it was the less invasive of the options and meant I had a back-up if the radiotherapy didn’t work, so that was some comfort,” she explains of her decision to avoid surgery.
“Surgery on your brain is not an easy thing to think about. There were fears about whether I was making the right treatment decision, but also fear of the unknown and how I’d get through it all with work and family. I was still new to Better Homes and Gardens and I was like, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do? How am I going to tell everyone? Am I going to tell the public what I’m going through?’”
And so, incredibly, Melissa kept her ordeal and the understandable fear and anguish that came with it under wraps. On set, she was cheerfully knee-deep in seeds and soil, and focused on filming her trademark heart-warming stories that the much-loved show’s audience lapped up during the gloom of COVID lockdowns.
The crew and her audience were none the wiser that off-camera she was about to undergo 15 gruelling sessions of radiotherapy treatment.
“I had a two-week winter break, so I decided to cram all of my treatment in then,” she says of how she’d kept her battle a secret. “The technology for the treatment is incredible and I was able to head off to the hospital each morning, have my treatment and be home in my bed at night.
“The most challenging part of it was that I had to be effectively locked into a special mask to keep my head perfectly still during the radiotherapy. I was unable to move an inch and it was a little claustrophobic, but other than that, I got through it well.”
Melissa was determined to keep things as normal as possible for soccer-loving Noah and Marlon, so with Alex’s support, the boys were largely unaware of their mum’s health battles.
She enlisted her dad to accompany her to hospital each day and her closest family and friends swept in to support the young family.
After two intense weeks of treatment, she returned to work and our screens as if nothing had happened.
“I decided to keep it secret for as long as I could, mostly because I felt talking about it publicly added a layer of stress to it that I didn’t need. I just wanted to be able to take each step quietly with my family around me. They wrapped me up in so much love and I felt very supported by them.
“I also wanted to protect the boys because the word ‘tumour’ has frightening connotations. I’m very lucky. I don’t have cancer and I didn’t have any outward symptoms – I wasn’t unwell, which made it quite manageable.”
Although it can take up to five years to see the full impact of the radiotherapy, scans earlier this year were positive and showed that the treatment had been successful.
However, in February – ironically on her birthday – Melissa was in the shower when she felt a strange sensation down the right side of her face. She screamed to Alex for help, believing she was having a stroke.
“All I could feel was my face contorting, I was screaming out to Alex to get an ambulance because I felt something was terribly wrong. It was like someone was grabbing the corner of my eye and the corner of my mouth and pulling them really hard, and you could see something happening to my face.”
An MRI showed no sign of stroke. But her neurologist believes Melissa’s facial spasms may be related to the meningioma and that the facial nerves may have been damaged along the way. These spasms, although sporadic, can appear at any time – a nightmare for someone who makes a living appearing on television.
“One specialist put it to me this way: He said, ‘If a tree falls through a house, you remove the tree and you’ve removed the problem, but it doesn’t mean the house wasn’t a little bit damaged.’ My doctors believe that the body will heal itself and the spasms will stop but nerve damage takes a long time to repair.
“The spasms are very random. I might get one a day, first thing in the morning for five days, then I might not get one for three days, then I might have a day where I have two. They seem to come on when I’m really heightened. My son won Student of the Week at school, and I shrieked with excitement and a spasm came on, but I also get them a lot in the shower, which is strange. I feel it coming on. It starts as a twitch in my lip or my eye, then the pulling begins. They last about 30 seconds, then my face goes completely back to normal.”
After the spasm that came on during that live cross from the Flower and Garden Show, Melissa decided it was time to open up about what had been going on, in the hope she could normalise the attacks.
“That’s when I let the Better Homes and Gardens crew know and they’ve been amazing,” she says. “Most of my segments are filmed so we can stop the camera if I need to wait until it passes. People have been incredibly understanding and supportive, and I’m so grateful.”
Interestingly, Melissa’s doctors – who believe she will eventually make a full recovery with her spasms easing – tell her the tumour was a coincidental finding and not the cause of her migraines. Subsequently, her ordeal has prompted her to delve deep into research about brain health and particularly her migraines, and she has discovered an intolerance to sulphites in food that may be the cause.
The impact of diet and lifestyle
Sulphites naturally occur in some foods but are widely used as a preservative and are commonly found in foods such as wine, vinegar, dried fruit and sausages. Since Melissa modified her diet to actively avoid sulphites, her migraines have eased.
“I knew I had a food trigger for migraines but it took me years to work out what it was. I always knew that foods like soy sauce, wine, vinegar, salt-and-vinegar chips were a problem for me, but I couldn’t work out what was in them that made me feel so unwell. I did all sorts of specialised diets to eliminate things and then we got into the COVID lockdowns and I really wanted to get to the bottom of it.
“At Easter one year I ate a chocolate hot cross bun and it was like, ‘Bam!’ Instant migraine. I cut chocolate out of my diet for a long time thinking that was it, only to discover it was the dried fruit in the bun causing problems. I’m fully on chocolate again,” she laughs.
“It was a lot of trial and error for me, working out what triggered the migraines and what didn’t, and I’m now very aware of what I eat. I still get them but I can manage them much better than I did. I’ve got good medication and I’ve incorporated a lot of natural measures to support my health, such as taking vitamin B2, which I’ve found very effective. I’m feeling really good and my health is great.”
Of course, the garden has offered Melissa a place of healing and retreat. With her positive prognosis, she has immersed herself in her garden at home, finding a sense of calm and serenity among Mother Nature.
“That’s my happy space and it’s my place away from all of the worries. I’m a naturally positive person but there have been times when I’ve had a migraine or my next MRI is due and I can feel the anxiety rising, and it can be hard to hold up the ‘happy, positive Mum vibe’, so I hit the weeds!” she smiles.
“I find solace in my garden. It’s the place I love to be, and getting out and doing the weeding – getting my hands in the dirt and all the stuff that is monotonous but familiar – is very healing and soothing, I know the calming benefits of being outside among the plants. There’s nothing better for you than being in a beautiful space.”