real life

'Just 18 hours after the birth of my second child, I received a life changing diagnosis.'

There are three main relationships we experience in life that define us and change us, bend us or break us; friendships, romance, and most importantly, our relationship with ourselves.

I’ve never considered myself to be a relationship expert – far from it. I have always approached love with a fanciful notion, a head full of Disney-inspired romance with the appropriate yard-length of white picket fences and hallways filled happy smiling faces.

In hindsight, my over-enthusiasm for a notional romance, meant I missed the red flags or overlooked the warning signs when something was terribly amiss, or the puzzles pieces simply weren’t a good fit. I was so determined to find my place in this world as a wife and a mother, that I lost myself completely.

Each of my forays into love ended with a more spectacular combustion than the last. But this last time, I finally learnt the lesson the universe was sending – it just took a brutally aggressive cancer diagnosis and six years of stupidly shutting my mouth about toxic physical and controlling behaviours, for me to snap and it to sink in.

The diagnosis came just 18 hours after I gave birth to my second child. Stage 3B breast cancer.

After my diagnosis, I was connected by my breast care nurse with several support systems, including online forums, counsellors and groups of other young women and mothers who would meet to discuss their diagnoses and treatment and any plans they had for surgery.

What struck me most when listening to the many varied stories of hope and fear and survival, was how jealous I was of the women whose husbands or partners were so present in their recovery; taking care of children, going to chemotherapy and coordinating food deliveries from friends. Some men just seemed to elevate and do anything they could to reassure and rally.

But, for every warrior with a dedicated soldier at her side, I was brokenhearted to discover there were just as many warriors finding themselves alone in their fight – suddenly single, with or without children – and navigating unsteady waters in a sinking relation-ship.

My own was too far gone to be salvaged, yet still I clung on.

I stayed because, at first, I wasn’t confident to be on my own.
I stayed because we had children.
I stayed because I had cancer.

It was him who left.

The sad truth is that the first casualty of a cancer diagnosis is often a personal relationship. I have not met a warrior yet who hasn’t regaled me with stories of boyfriends that backed away, husbands who hid from harsh reality or friends that faded into the background – even disappearing all together; stories of once being invited to parties and parent gatherings, to all of a sudden be ostracised.

What baffles me most is how it’s not spoken about openly and why some women seemed so ashamed.

From my own experience and from watching the experiences of those in a similar position as myself, I feel perhaps the best reasoning for this that I can surmise, is that it’s just too difficult… for some it’s all too much to cope with or carry.

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Cancer forces us to face our own mortality and reassess our place and purpose in this world. It does this for the diagnosed and also for those to whom they are connected. Cancer makes it hard for people to find the right words to say.

Cancer cuts a clean line between someone else’s normal and a patient’s new reality. Problems that were once a priority, seem so ludicrous in comparison to the complications cancer causes. Sometimes, people just don’t know where they fit with you. They can’t relate to what you are experiencing or to see you suffer in such a way is far too painful.

And then, there are those ‘friendships’ that were only for a season – the “friends” formerly known as… the dead wood that drops off and drifts away. It didn’t take long for me to see which of my friends were truly there for me in my misery and mayhem, versus those who found it far too difficult and just wanted the distance.

Video by Mamamia

Despite the heartbreaking reality that you may not mean as much to someone in your sphere as you suspected, there is so much camaraderie and beauty to be found in the breast cancer treatment and support networks you are thrust into. I have befriended strangers in waiting rooms, received anonymous cards and gifts, accepted donations of dollars and dinners, cried on the shoulders of nurses and laughed with my chemo compadres during a six hour sit-in.

And as likely as you are to close a connection or lose a loved one, you are guaranteed an opportunity to find new footings to repair broken bridges or rekindle a friendship flame that has lost its light. Friends I had not seen for years reached out to let me know they were there.

I had an opportunity to repair ruptures and fly a white flag. In time I regained some stead and stance and reconnected with people I had lost in my past, largely due to a newfound clarity for redefining what was important to me – which came easily after a glimpse into an unfathomable future.

And although my children’s father left me and I no longer saw some faces that I thought I would, the relationship to suffer most was the one I had with myself.

I had never seen myself as ‘worthy’. Since childhood I’ve felt on the outer – geeky and awkward and wanting so badly to belong. Years of torment from the class bully, Christopher, put downs from d*ckhead boyfriends and the insecurity of toxic love had left me little affection for myself and my potential. Then cancer came and took the only parts of me I was proud of – first my hair, and then my breasts.

Image: Sharon Gerschwitz, ShaBo Studio.
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For any woman it’s a double whammy of “WTF” and its so, so, so unfair. As a woman your hair is a mask, a costume, a decoration, an opportunity to change and reinvent yourself or communicate who you are to the world. And breasts – well they have unique powers of nurture and persuasion.

Your décolletage can mesmerise and captivate, your nipples can prolong an orgasmic response or sustain human life. The possibilities of your mammaries are so mammoth that it is nothing short of agonising to imagine how you will forge forward without them.

Sometimes, you forget. You forget that you are scarred so deep, that pieces of what made you a woman are missing and there are scenarios and sensations that are over for you now. Remembering takes hold of you at your busiest, when you’re bustling around Big W buying Christmas presents or trying on clothes for an upcoming interview – when you’re alone in the change room, confronted in fluorescent full-length by the image of a body you no longer recognise as your own.

Out-weighted by steroids, in limbo with life expectancy, broken by the brutality of pumping poisons with side effects that can last for years into your body, taking tablets that trick you into menopause when you’re only in your prime. Avoiding change rooms and swimming costumes, tank tops and lingerie shops, no longer wearing strapless dresses or GHD-curling your tresses.

Recoiling from romance and genuinely panicking in moments of intimacy… switching from pride and exultation at your survival and coping mechanisms or finally being able to use hair wax and bobby pins, to downright deflation and depression for what has been taken or lost.

It is my genuine feeling that women who are fighting or have beaten breast cancer, need ongoing kindness and self-care, long after the treatment cycle is over. Perhaps, indefinitely. They will never ‘return to normal’, as there is no ‘normal’ anymore. Life for me – for them - will be an ongoing journey of growth and discovery, acceptance and appreciation.

No matter how steady your ‘ships’ or how long they have sailed, the onset of a storm as destructive as cancer has the power to toss you and turn you, demolish your mast, disperse your crew, run you aground or sink you like a stone. You can’t ever be fully prepared for the damage, but you can control the steps that you take and the actions you make in voyaging your reconstructed vessel to a new port of call.

All aboard…?

We’ll see.

Farrah Millar is a breast cancer survivor and advocate, and the Co-founder/Ambassador of social enterprise, Wellness 4 Women. She's also an ambassador, volunteer and community fundraiser for So Brave Young Women’s Breast Cancer Charity.

You can follow her on Facebook at FarrahsArmy.

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