Bald. Sallow skin. Dark circles under the eyes. Swollen cheeks. That’s what most of us see when we picture someone with cancer.
But Mamamia‘s Head of Video Briony Benjamin is trying to disrupt that image.
The 32-year-old has – as she likes to put it – just “kicked cancer’s butt”. She’s officially in remission nine months after being diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin Lymphoma – a cancer of lymphatic system.
But in depths of her chemotherapy treatment, enduring waves of nausea, her long, blonde hair gone, she turned the lights and the camera on herself for a fabulous Hollywood-inspired Instagram series.
“I was keen to put some other imagery out there around lymphoma and cancer. So that it’s not all just doom and gloom,” she said. “Because, actually, you’re still you. Your personality doesn’t just go away.”
Finding out you have cancer can make you a little Furiosa. ⚡️ Did you know a common sign of cancer can be a change in mood? Looking back it’s easy to connect the dots but at the time it was confusing. ✨ I’d stopped looking forward to events, activities and even holidays because the thought of them was exhausting! Usually an avid goal setter I was struggling to make personal goals or think of anything outside of getting through work then wanting to rest, do yoga and eat well. It was my bodies way of saying – all is not well. ???? It’s exciting to be getting my energy back day by day and feeling pumped about the next chapter. Channeling my inner #charlizetheron @charlizeafrica ???? As always thanks to my art director/stylist/makeup artist/mum. And thanks to Luke Bowra for your skillz! #madmax #madmaxfuryroad #georgemiller #furyroad #cancerawareness #lymphoma #lymphomaawareness #fierce #cancersurvivor #hodgkinslymphomaAdvertisement
The series was inspired by the aspect of her treatment Briony dreaded most.
“Losing my hair was the hardest part of the whole process, and I know it is for a lot of women. It’s just a really big part of your look and identity. And once it’s gone you really look sick,” she said.
“So my mum and I thought, ‘How can we make this fun? So I was thinking of famous women who had short hair that had rocked it.”
Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta. Sigourney Weaver in Alien. Demi Moore in G.I. Jane. Stranger Things‘ Eleven.
“It was literally me and mum in the garage or the garden,” Briony said. “She was in charge of costume, props and lighting; she’s super creative, so she was really enjoying putting it all together. We had a lot of fun.”
L for Lymphoma… @natalieportman Did you know that constant fatigue and getting sick all the time can be a warning sign of Lymphoma? Many people experience a visible lump but I didn’t have that instead I just felt off for a long time. Then came the night sweats the itchy skin and always feeling like I had a low grade fever or virus. Listen to that body of yours it knows when something is not right. Thankyou to the amazing @kyliesprofessional for the pic xx #cancerawareness #cancersurvivor #lymphoma #lymphomaawareness #listentoyourbody #knowyourbody #natalieportman #vforvendetta #baldhead #girlswithshavedheads
G-up for the weekend everybody! @demi.moore Thanks to my team (Ie mum) for styling this look. . To complete this look: . Makeup/styling: Mum Outfit: Dads old surgery scrubs Glove: old gardening glove chopped up Backpack: Camel pack found in back of cupboard. Phone: Old laptop charger . Did you know a symptom of Lymphoma is itchy skin? I had no idea! #cancerawareness #lymphoma #gijane #celebrityheads #shavedhead #demimoore
The images, which have attracted attention in Australia and abroad, were a vehicle for Briony to get her message beyond those who had been affected by lymphoma. After all, before she was diagnosed on November 30, she rarely read or saw anything about the disease.
Why would she? Just 31 years old, healthy, she never anticipated becoming one of the more than 6000 Australians predicted to be diagnosed this year. Yet there she was, hearing the doctor utter the words.
“By then it was about as advanced as it can be. It had spread outside my lymph glands and into the bones and all over the place,” Briony said.
“You think that’s something that happens to other people, and suddenly it’s you. You’re just trying to think, ‘How can I change this? Can I go back in time?’ You’re just in disbelief, you’re just thinking they’ve got it wrong.”
There was no time to digest what doctors had just told her either. Within 12 hours of receiving the news she was beginning the process of freezing her eggs, then it was home to Gold Coast for chemotherapy.
“It’s scary. I would almost try to stop my brain going forward too much,” she said. “You just don’t know what it’s going to feel like, how your body is going to react… You’re sitting there in the chair with your long, blonde hair, looking completely healthy and normal and yet you’re so sick.”
‘Stranger Things’ have happened… @milliebobbybrown Did you know one of the symptoms of lymphoma is night sweats? So if you’re having them best to get that checked out. I was having them on and off for a year in the lead up to diagnosis. Shout out to Denise Benjamin for makeup/costume/lighting/location scouting. Which #shavedhead celebrity should I try next? #lymphoma #celebrityheads #shorthair #cancerawareness #brightside #laughteristhebestmedicine
Feeling very ‘Alien’ with my short hair… ???? I miss my hair and I can’t wait for it to grow back but mum and I thought we’d have some fun in the meantime with my shaved head. Like so many parts of this experience we’ve looked at the light side and found a fun way to deal with it. Mum you are the greatest – and thanks for the awesome lighting/ costumes and props amazing what you can whip up in the living room! ???? What shaved headed celebrity should I try next? ⭐️ Thanks for your help with makeup @moll_benny #celebrityheads #alwayslookonthebrightsideoflife #cancerwarrior #laughteristhebestmedicine #sigourneyweaver @sigourney.weaver.rus
Briony’s diagnosis followed more than 12 months of “feeling a bit off”.
“I could never get on top of my fatigue, I was getting sick really easily and having night sweats on and off,” she said. “My GP at the time thought it was just stress so that’s what it was put down to.”
It was Briony’s father who insisted she have a biopsy on her lymph nodes – an invasive procedure, but generally the most effective means of diagnosing lymphoma. Thankfully he did, and thankfully she responded to the treatment.
While chances of surviving lymphoma are 75 per cent, according to Australian Government data – it’s predicted that in 2018, 1,489 patients will die from the disease.
The vagueness of the symptoms doesn’t help those numbers. They include swollen lymph nodes, fatigue, unexplained weight loss, night sweats, widespread itching.
“I was told for a year that I was totally fine, when really I was the opposite of fine,” Briony said. “Only you know your body. So if you ask questions and you’re not satisfied with the answer, just keep pushing.”
Keeping very busy whilst recovering from chemo… Hanging with my mate @cate_blanchettofficial Thanks for painting my head mum! Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is a rare blood cancer that affects about 600 Aussies a year. But many of the symptoms are similar to other cancers. Night sweats, weight loss, mood change, itchy skin and a cough. It’s easy to join the dots when you look back but can be hard to identify. I say to everyone now – only you know your body. If it feels odd and not quite right dig until you have answers. It took me 18months to get diagnosed. So keep asking questions! #celebrityheads #chemotherapy #laughteristhebestmedicine #shavedhead #creativelife #cateblanchett
That’s another crucial message she’s hoping to send by sharing her story through Instagram and beyond.
The importance of listening to your body; to the little nudges it gives you, the signs that not all is well.
It’s especially important for women, Briony believes.
“We tend to push on through, we put it to the side,” she said. “Our bodies have all the answers there; we just have to listen to them. Whether it be lymphoma or something else going on, I think if we’re more in tune with our bodies it’s always going to be a helpful thing.”
September is Lymphoma Awareness Month. For more information about the disease, to donate or raise funds for vital research, please visit the Lymphoma Australia website.