Image: Sunday Night/Channel 7
Former Home and Away star Tessa James says she used to look at actresses who were experiencing personal hardships and think, ‘Well, I don’t have a story. My life’s really great.’
Now, almost one year after being diagnosed with cancer, the 24-year-old has a story of her own — and tonight, she shared that story publicly for the first time.
In an emotional interview with Channel 7’s Sunday Night, James reflected on her battle with Hodgkin Lymphoma, a rare blood cancer that affects the lymphatic system. There are around 550 diagnoses of the condition in Australia each year.
“Yeah, I have a story now,” James, who left her role as Nicole Franklin on Home and Away in 2011, told Sunday Night. “No one should have to go through that.”
In 2014, James had been living in Los Angeles, where she'd moved to pursue a Hollywood career, for just a few weeks when she began to feel unwell. She'd often experience cold sweats and nightmares. "I wasn't myself," she recalled.
She eventually found a large lump on her neck, above her collarbone, and had a feeling something wasn't right - a feeling that was shared by her parents, who urged her to fly home for testing. A biopsy in September revealed her cancer, and James moved home to the Gold Coast be with her family, including her NRL player husband Nate Myles, and undergo treatment.
"I was just in shock," she said. Making her situation even tougher was the fact her father, former AFL player Stephen James, had been recently diagnosed with a similar form of cancer - non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. The two lymphatic cancers affect the body in slightly different ways but are both potentially fatal.
"It was devastating ... I think, 'Out of the whole family it's happened to me, that's fine'. To happen to your baby girl, it was tough," Mr James said. His wife, Charis, said it felt as though the "innocence had gone out" of the James family.
Tessa underwent 12 rounds of chemotherapy, every two weeks for six months, accompanied each time by her husband and mother. (Post continues after gallery.)
"You can't describe the feeling because it's beyond feeling sick or nauseous. To sit in that chair and know in like a couple hours I wasn’t going to feel good, that was hard. The change was just huge," she recalled.
Six rounds in, James had her long blonde hair shaved. "It made it real, even moreso than what already was. It was like, this isn’t going to be as quick fix as I thought," she said.
Although James maintained high spirits in the initial rounds - helped by the "really fun" environment created by the hospital staff who attended to her - the treatment eventually wore her down.
"A couple of times … something came over me and I just felt sick, I felt really, really unwell. I think I was frightened," James says, describing the experience as traumatic.
At one point, she had a panic attack. "I remember calling Dad and saying, 'I want to die, I don’t want to do this. I’m not strong enough. This isn’t worth it. I don’t want to feel sick any more. There’s got to be another way'," she said.
He responded by telling her, "You need to treat the chemo as your friend. It's there to make you better'." (Post continues after video.)
James finished her chemotherapy in February, and celebrated in hospital with her friends and family beneath a banner with the words 'Done and Dusted.' Myles decided she should wear a Wonder Woman suit, a fitting metaphor for her resilience. "I felt like Wonder Woman at the end of it,” she admitted.
Now, five months on, James is in remission. Her body appeared to respond strongly to the treatment.
"I'm totally fine. I just have to have regular blood tests and keep an eye on it, look after myself … I’m done and dusted," she said.
Her father Steve has one round of treatment remaining, and is equally confident he'll be in the clear. James says his understanding of what she was going through was invaluable. "Dad and I now have a little club. The upside is we had each other - he knew what was going on and what to do. I was really supported …. It’s brought us closer. It's brought everybody closer."
James has also spoken of how Myles was "a rock" throughout her ordeal. Tonight, the Gold Coast Titans captain spoke of his wife's courage and strength, saying, "Footballers are very tough humans, but I think she might take the cake."
"I don't wish it on anyone, but we are stronger because of what has happened," he added.
James and Myles hope to start a family one day, though they understand cancer treatment can complicate this. "If it’s meant to be, it'll be. I’m okay with that," she said.
The couple consulted with fertility experts after her diagnosis, to decide whether freezing her eggs before undergoing cancer treatment would be a wise option, but they ultimately decided to go ahead with chemo first.
One round of IVF would have delayed it by at least a month, a risk James wasn't willing to take. "I didn't know if in a month I would have to have 12 months of treatment instead of six, because [the cancer] was quite fast-growing so we decided to have treatment straight away," she told the Daily Telegraph earlier this week.
As for her Hollywood ambitions, James says she has "huge dreams". "[They're] probably too big. That’s my dream - to be in film and just to work, to be a working actress would be the ultimate," she said.
We have no doubt she'll make it.