Interview by Giselle Scicluna
Throughout my career I have had the privilege of interviewing dozens of people; some very colourful characters, some who are literally the proverbial rays of sunshine, several wise men and women, as well as a few not so palatable personalities. Such are the hazards of the job. The success of an interview hinges not only on the questions put forward by the interviewer, nor on his or her competence to read between the lines of what is being said, but mostly on the ability to remain objective and unaffected by whatever the interviewee can dish out. However, there are some narratives which despite all efforts to the contrary, they still manage to leave their mark, but narratives which ultimately need to be shared. Maria* is a breast cancer survivor, who was diagnosed with the disease at 42. Here she charters her struggle to cope with the illness and bring up her young family during the long and difficult journey towards recovery.
Despite huge scientific advances and an-ever decreasing mortality rate, a cancer diagnosis remains one of the things that strikes the most fear in our hearts, probably because we have all at one time or another have witnessed the devastation this abominable disease brings to the victim along with their family…
“I was diagnosed when I was 42. I had always taken care of myself; I never smoked or drank and always strived to eat and live healthily, so when a cancer positive result came back, I was shattered beyond belief. Then came the treatment; the whole shebang, actually. A mastectomy, radiotherapy and then chemo. When I was younger, way before my diagnosis, I used to say, that if I had to be diagnosed with the disease, I would not let them ‘butcher, fry or poison me’ but would let nature take its course. I had seen first-hand how treatment affects cancer victims, so was adamant that if worse came to worst, I would refuse all treatment. How utterly naïve and optimistic I was,” Maria* smiles sadly.
At the time of diagnosis, Maria’s two young sons were 14 and 9 years old. “When something like this happens, our survival instinct kicks in. I knew and was afraid of what was in store in terms of the treatment’s side effects, but at the thought of leaving my sons behind, refusing anything which even had the slightest odds of bettering my chances of survival, was never an option. It was already an overwhelming shock for my children to try to understand what was happening, especially my eldest, who had a better inkling of what was going on than his brother, so I had to do my best by them.”
Breast cancer is a disease which directly challenges our collective perception of feminine beauty; hair loss through chemotherapy and of course the loss of a breast or both wreaks havoc with a woman’s self-confidence… at times as much as the disease itself. “As a woman, losing a breast is like losing part of your identity. Yes, survival and ultimate recovery are all that as a victim you can hope for but coping with the aftermath challenges your very core. My illness had shaken the perception of my femininity to the point that I believed that I was no longer the same woman as before.
“During chemo I lost my hair and fell into the abyss of depression. I knew that each cycle was propelling me towards recovery, but I could not reconcile this with the woman I found staring back at me in the mirror every morning. The support services offered by our unmatched health system are unbelievable but shifting the black cloud that inevitably darkens your every waking moment is not something that can be taken lightly. I was given a wig, but this felt so alien that I refused to wear it and spent days and months not even venturing out of the door, while still trying to function on autopilot for the sake of my family. My husband and children tried their best to be supportive, but self-confidence is a fragile thing and breast cancer quickly destroys whatever’s left of it.
“Reconstructive surgery is available nowadays, but in all truth, I kept putting it off because I couldn’t for the life of me resign myself to the fact that I had to once again go under the knife. I wanted to simply move on and ignore the fact that I had been through hell and back. But it’s not that easy to move on with an angry scar from where my breast used to be; it was a constant reminder that life had changed beyond recognition. Intimacy became something which I avidly avoided – in my mind I was not the same attractive woman my husband had married, even if he was doing his level best to make me feel wanted and cherished. Finally, we had to address the elephant in the room, and it was the most difficult thing we ever had to do as a couple.
“My husband suggested that I reconsider reconstruction, not, he said, because I was anything less special than what I used to be, but because I had let ‘my inner demons’ take over to the point where I was not myself anymore. This rang utterly true; no matter how hard I tried, no matter how grateful I felt that I had just reversed what I believed was a death sentence, no matter how many times I looked at my children and was thankful that I was lucky to see them grow into young men, I felt disfigured, abnormal and wasn’t able to see myself as a woman.
“This might sound as vain and frivolous, but cancer can prey on your innermost frailties; our fragile mortality, anxiety of leaving loved ones behind, your identity, besides the toll it takes when coping with the very illness itself. Even now that I can look back and be thankful that that painful chapter of our lives is over and done with, once cancer has touched your life, it will always be on your mind. The only silver lining in all of this, is that cancer changes your perspective on life. It might sound like a cliché, but you truly learn to appreciate the little things in life and stop stressing about things, which, when you look at the big picture are not all that relevant. Finally, my advice as a cancer survivor is to seek help, as much help as you need, from wherever you can get it, whether emotional or psychological. Cancer is too big an adversary to tackle alone, but with the right support and the right people to put you in the right mindset, it needn’t wreak havoc with your emotional wellbeing as well,” Maria* concludes on a more optimistic note.
*Names and personal details have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewee and her family