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'I couldn't lift my kids.' I was diagnosed with cancer at 34. This is what I want you to know.

Mamamia logo Mamamia 27/01/2023 Laura Jackel

When 34-year-old Rhea Felton received a breast cancer diagnosis, it was the emotional aspects she struggled with the most.

"In the weeks after being told I had breast cancer in February 2021, I would wake up at 3am to read about all the different treatment options," the mum-of-two tells Mamamia

"I was fearful. I also felt the pressure of making the right decision for myself, my husband Gareth, my girls Neve and Mila, and the rest of my family. It was overwhelming."

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After much deliberation, Rhea opted for a unilateral mastectomy (removal of one breast) immediately followed by reconstruction surgery known as DIEP flap breast reconstruction.

This complex procedure involves surgeons removing fatty tissue from the abdomen to reconstruct the breast and also create a new nipple.

"A lot of people in my circumstance don't choose the DIEP, or choose to have it at a later date, because of the intense recovery time. They just don't have the resources to make that decision. I'm so grateful that I could choose the procedure that I wanted, because I was able to rely on the amazing support network I have around me."

Rhea says that even with Gareth and her mum on hand to help with the girls, the recovery was much more intense than she expected. It was also only after the surgery that she was able to process what she had been through. 

"I had seven days in hospital and I was initially quite unwell. I had been cut from hip bone to hip bone for the reconstruction surgery and I was in a lot of pain. I was told I couldn’t lift anything heavier than a laundry basket for at least three weeks and as any parent of little ones knows, that is so hard! My girls just wanted to be held and nurtured, but I wasn’t physically able to do it."

While the physical recovery was slow and incredibly difficult, the emotional aspect of Rhea’s cancer journey continued to create challenges.

"Nothing prepared me for the emotional recovery. I was in a terrible state for months.

"I felt so much guilt as a mum not being able to provide what my children needed and wanted. I remember my mum setting me up in a chair covered in pillows so Mila could have a cuddle with me. She fell asleep on my lap as tears just fell down my face.

"Cancer in itself is horrific but as a mum it’s tough, there’s a unique set of challenges to navigate."

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Rhea with Mila after surgery. Image: Supplied.

Rhea knew she wanted to be able to talk about what she was experiencing with her girls in a way they would understand. Cancer changed all of their lives, not just Rhea’s, and she felt it was important they had a sense of what was happening to their mum.

"In the lead up to the surgery I spent a lot of time thinking about how I was going to tell the children. I sought advice from a friend, who is a children’s counsellor, and I told the girls where my cancer was and that it was very different to having a general sickness like a stuffy nose or a stubbed toe. 

"We did some role play with the toy medical kit at home and I drew an outline of the female body on an A3 page to help explain what would happen to me and how the cancer would be removed from my breast. 

"I put together my own simple story book and we read other books, but at that stage I realised there weren't a lot of resources available for parents to help navigate these tricky life experiences."

After seven days in hospital and returning home from surgery, Rhea says that while both girls struggled with the big change to their lives, youngest daughter Mila suffered more.

"My youngest had significant separation anxiety which continued until about 12 months after my surgery. Up until that point, I'd never spent a night away from her and then all of a sudden I was gone for seven days. While I was in hospital, Gareth later told me she would walk into different rooms at home calling out 'Mama, Mama, Mama'. 

"I just don't think we can discount the impact [of a cancer diagnosis] on little ones. They really understand what is happening in the world around them when things change or when things are not like they used to be, but their communication is different."

Rhea wanted to continue to be open with her daughters about her journey with cancer post surgery, especially because her body had changed.

"When I was getting dressed in my bedroom or changing bras, my girls saw that my breasts were different. I’d had a nipple reconstruction, and I had scars on my tummy. 

"Neve would ask: 'How’s your breast?' or 'Is your breast still sore, mummy?' and I was always just open and honest with them."

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And it was not just for the benefit of understanding what was happening to her body, but for a broader understanding of medical professionals and the health system.

"I didn't want my children to develop this really skewed idea around health professionals and that surgeons cut open the body and make it really sore! I wanted them to understand I had to go through this surgery to get better and that our medical system can help them if they become ill. 

"Two years on from my diagnosis, I take medication and have regular scans so we still have conversations around breast cancer and how the medical team got the breast cancer out of my body. It comforts them, and it is not distressing at all. 

"I think what I'm really proud of is that they've developed this language around what breast cancer is. It is like baking or going for a swim. It's just another concept that they're familiar with."

Having experienced trauma in her own childhood when her father died by suicide, Rhea hopes that by being open with her girls she will help them face life’s more challenging moments.

"I know I can't shelter my children for the rest of their lives. I know they're going to face challenges that are as significant as those moments I've experienced or if not more, and I want to build resilience in them from a really young age so that they can push through different challenges in life. 

"I also wanted to recognise that challenges can be conquered if you've got a support network around you. You don't need to pursue things in isolation and struggle through and I wanted our girls to get a sense of connection - that we're in this together and we're going to get through this together."

Rhea acknowledges every parent may take a different approach to cancer diagnosis news. But she wanted to take everything she had learnt from her experience to create the practical guidance tools she wished she’d had back in February 2021 when starting her cancer journey.

"In 2022, I sat down with Neve and we workshopped together to see what that period was like through her eyes; what it was like from her perspective to have her mum go through cancer. After a few weeks, we came up with 27 cards and Story Society was born."

This deck of unique and beautifully illustrated cards co-designed by Rhea and Neve are Story Society’s first resource. Rhea says that the cards aim to support children through the care journey of their mums' cancer treatment.

"The phrases on the cards are really short and simple, using child focused language. Some examples are: 'Mum’s slow days are a perfect time for couch cuddles' or 'I wasn't ready for life to change so suddenly. It is okay for me to feel overwhelmed by this sudden change.' They reflect the child’s experience in an affirming way, helping them to feel that it's okay to be overwhelmed by the change and chaos that cancer brings." 

Ultimately, Rhea hopes that through the creation of Story Society with Neve, she can help families to navigate the difficult time after a cancer diagnosis with a little more support. 

"In the medical world, there is such a 'top down' approach to communication that happens where it's all about the patient and what the doctors know about them. 

"I'm not saying that shouldn't be the case, but I really wanted to focus on understanding the child’s perspective, because cancer doesn’t just affect the patient. It's about the whole family and children too."

Rhea is a mum, wife and a breast cancer survivor. She lives on the south Coast of NSW, Australia with her husband and two daughters, Neve (5) and Mila (3). Rhea is currently completing her PhD in psycho-oncology and child well-being. She has a particular interest in creative knowledge translation which transcends academia into children's literature and other practical applications. Find out more about Story Society here.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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