When Cora Fahy heard the words “it’s cancer” in April of 2015, she wasn’t completely surprised. After going through a divorce and losing several close friends and family members in recent years, receiving another piece of bad news was almost expected. What did surprise her though, was how surviving breast cancer gave her a new sense of purpose and allowed her to show up in the world in ways she never expected.
Q: At 47, was the possibility of developing breast cancer on your radar?
A: My sister Stephanie had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, so the possibility of developing it myself was definitely on my radar. Because my breasts were very dense and I had too many cysts to count, I was monitored closely by my medical team before my sister’s diagnosis. Her diagnosis meant my risk of getting breast cancer was even higher, so my doctors ramped up the surveillance.
Genetic testing revealed I had a changed copy of the ATM gene mutation, which meant I had more than a 50% chance of developing breast cancer in my lifetime. Sure enough, on April 21st, 2015, I found a lump.
My sister passed away in 2011 from complications of diabetes (which had become unmanageable after her chemo and radiation treatments.) It’s likely that she had the same genetic predisposition as well.
Q: Where did you find support as you navigated the loss of your sister, your own diagnosis, and the biopsies, chemo treatments, and surgeries that followed?
A: Strangely enough, on social media. I “came out” about my diagnosis on Facebook and then I started blogging (even though the nuns back at school told me I was shite at writing!)
I KNEW I needed support to get through this. I live alone in the frozen tundra of Maine with no family nearby and I divorced my husband of 11 in 2013 after he told me he was “done” with me. I had no one to lean on, so I reached out both online and in real life and gathered a tribe of the best women I could ever ask for around me. They fed me, listened to me, drove me to appointments, and encouraged me when I could barely breathe, let alone fight.
Four years later, they’re still here, circling the wagons at every twist and turn of my journey through the shite storm. They’re a huge part of why I’m “sur-thriving” to this day. No one should have to do this alone and because of the women in the breast cancer communities, I’ve never been alone.
Q: Were you offered different treatment options or alternatives to surgery or were your doctors adamant about what you needed to do?
A: Funny you should ask that. After my initial diagnosis, my team and I came up with a plan of action: lumpectomy, radiation, and 10 years of Tamoxifen. But Cancer doesn’t seem to follow anyone’s plan. During a second surgery to remove a noncancerous tumor, my surgeon found two more cancerous tumors that didn’t show up on the MRI I’d had. In fact, none of my cancer showed up on any of the mammograms, ultrasounds or MRIs. My surgeon saved my life.
Needless to say, that changed the game plan. I went back to the oncologist and told him to “hook me up” with the chemo. I explained to him that my mother hadn’t raised stupid children! I figured my body could handle one tumor, but three? I needed the big guns for that fight.
So, in the space of a year, I had two lumpectomies, four rounds of chemo, and a double mastectomy with reconstruction. Less than most, more than some, but either way…..a shite storm.
Q: How do you feel about being forced into early menopause and losing your breasts?
A: Both have been very challenging. Who knew what amazing things hormones do for us….and sometimes they also try to kill you! In my case, my hormones fueled my cancer.
The flipside is when you don’t have them doing their thing, your body changes. I have hot flashes, mood swings, and my skin has changed dramatically. I wish I’d been given the chance to slowly ease into menopause like most women but it is what it is.
As for the mastectomies, I had to come to terms with the amputation of a part of my body that society tells us makes us women…and sexy. Something that helped me through it was writing a letter to my breasts for the Dear Boobs Project.
The project was organized by a woman in New Zealand who had written her own letter and found it therapeutic. She then started this project on FB and Instagram and ultimately put together a book of 100 letters written by women all over the world. These letters were about saying goodbye to who we were and hello to who we would become.
I still struggle with body image issues but choosing to have mastectomy scar coverup tattoos has helped tremendously because now when I look in the mirror, I see a work of art; not a work of cancer.
Q: On your blog, you share your journey in an irreverent, humorous, and open way…was this always your personality or did it evolve throughout your journey with cancer?
A: I think my default has always been happy and positive. Like most people, my life has been a series of highs and lows. For a while, it seemed like I’d been bombarded by loss–my father, my best friend, my brother, my sister; my husband left me…then I got cancer. But all those challenges gave me the tools to face the biggest battle of my life. In my mind, I said “bring it the feck on! I’ve got this!”
As for the humor, I think it’s inherent in Irish culture. For me, it’s been a source of strength or like a coat of armor. People have asked me how I manage to laugh through all this. I tell them I don’t know how to do it any differently; this is who I am. Cancer doesn’t define ME, I define IT.
Q: How did surviving cancer change how you show up in the world?
A: I’ve always loved this George Bernard Shaw quote: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself,” but I never truly understood it until now.
I’m still the same person I was before cancer but I believe I’m an improved version.
Before I was diagnosed, if you had told me I would put myself out there on social and mainstream media…that I would become an advocate, I would’ve said you were fecking nuts! I’m a talker (heck, I’m Irish after all and we’re blessed with the gift of gab) but I am also very shy in large groups.
Despite that, I’m showing up. I figure if I can kick cancer’s arse, I can stand in front of a group and tell my story. As cliche as it sounds, I want to pay it forward and if I can make woman’s cancer journey a wee bit easier, it’s worth it.