We end the 2019 stories’ saga with Filipa. Diagnosed at the age of 32 with triple negative breast cancer, Filipa fought like a champion and has been in complete remission for a year. She is now 39 years old, and has a healthy 4-year-old girl, when she was supposed to be sterile. Life is unpredictable and Filipa’s story is one of hope, love, gratitude and perseverance. These are fundamental values that we sometimes selfishly put aside. So it is on this “Happy Ending” that we end the year and look forward to seeing you in 2020 for new inspiring women’s stories.
Filipa, can you introduce yourself in a few words?
I am 39 years old. I was born in Portugal and arrived in Switzerland at the age of 2 years. I lived all my life in Geneva. I went to business school and went into banking. After 15 years, I resigned in order to reorient myself in the field of human resources and professional integration. A well-considered and assumed decision, but if I had known what I was going to go through very soon afterwards, I would have waited a little.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
How did you find out?
By chance! Was it random? Probably not (laughter). I was at home, and I somehow managed to hit the door frame quite roughly. It hurt my breast very severely, and a bruise appeared. While looking at it closer and by touching it, I felt a mass. I have never been sick and am not the anxious kind, but I still called my gynecologist and made an appointment telling myself that it was the opportunity to do my annual check-up. Indeed, the doctor could also notice the mass and considered it as a cyst at first. After a puncture and an MRI, the cancer was finally confirmed.
How did you react?
At first, I didn’t react at all; I didn’t understand what was going on…. it was surreal. When I found out, I was not alone, as if my close friends and I knew it was going to be serious. After a rather short trauma phase came the acceptance, and it triggered “survival mode.” Dying was not an option! Anger came way after…. It was my driving force.
You mentioned you had just resigned; how did you handle it?
Yes, that’s right, I found out about the bad news back in November. Fortunately, I had just kicked off the unemployment enrollment process and could, therefore, benefit from the loss of earnings’ insurance; otherwise, only God knows what would have happened! Back then, I didn’t have a good knowledge of the Geneva social support spectrum and all its possibilities.
There are various forms of cancer, what did the doctors say about yours, and which treatment was put in place?
They told me I had triple-negative cancer, which is the most invasive and aggressive type with metastases spreading across the entire body very quickly. I was not yet aware of how serious it was (we were in November), I asked the doctors if we could wait until Christmas holidays to have the first surgery (sentinel lymph node and catheter placement, device linked to the heart) and start chemotherapy treatment. No way, the procedure had to begin immediately. Within two weeks, the entire protocol was in place.
Immediately after, they informed me I could become sterile due to the chemotherapy treatment. They suggested that I go to Paris to freeze my eggs, which I did.
Despite the size of the tumor, which already looked like a mandarin, they preferred not to do the surgery right away to avoid proceeding with breast removal. I then started to do the chemo once every two weeks for 5 months to reduce the tumor at maximum before surgery. They managed to keep my breast envelope, what luck! A second surgery followed and then radiotherapy sessions, on top of two additional operations.
Psychologically speaking, how did you hold on?
So long as you are going through the intense rhythm of treatments and the medical staff supports you, you don’t have time to mope. In my case, the biggest challenge was the phase after cancer. You are being told you are in remission, which by the way, is fantastic, but you hold on so tight for so long, and then suddenly you let it go….You are all alone with the task of rebuilding yourself. The Filipa I was before no longer exists; you start from scratch. Your body changes, body mutilation, appears as a physical wound, but also narcissistic, with significant psychological consequences. I had to give up my hair; I held on to my eyebrows thanks to permanent makeup; my breast was distorted… In other words, I didn’t feel like a woman anymore. I went through the first corrective surgery, which, at first, filled up the breast tissue, but the shape was not the same as the other one. Therefore, a month ago, I had to get a fifth surgery when I finally started to feel pretty again. It was a very long process.
Despite chemotherapy, you miraculously got pregnant, how did it happen?
Having switched from my period to menopause hot flushes, I came around the fact that I would never become a mother. To the doctors, I became sterile. So, there was no more reason to have protected sex. You know, after breast cancer, doctors advise against being on the pill to avoid a relapse. 9 months after the end of the treatments, I was pregnant, from a symbolic perspective, it’s quite powerful. As I felt sick and exhausted, I decided to do the test, convinced it would be negative… I took three tests. They all came with the same positive result (smile); I was 4 weeks pregnant. At that point, everything went very fast. What to do? We were torn between excitement and fear. What impact would the chemotherapy heavy metals have on the fetus? The HUG doctors had never faced such a situation. I was the first ever to get pregnant so quickly after the treatments ended. They were just unable to tell us if the baby would develop properly and what fetal malformation risks there could be. We decided to take that risk.
How did your pregnancy go?
Super monitored. I was exhausted. My body hadn’t recovered from the chemo and surgeries yet, the hormones came to mess everything up, although, this time around for the most beautiful purpose ever (smile).
Your daughter Alexia is now 4 years old; how do you feel about it?
Very good. It always moves me to talk about it. Doing it today through this interview is part of the end of my recovery process. Cancer changed me so much and made me stronger. I finally feel more settled and fulfilled. After such hardship, everything changes: your life, your values, and your wishes. You clean up (people, things, situations…) and move away from anything which could be toxic or complicated. There was a life before cancer and life after. When you’ve been near death, your perspectives on certain things in life change, and you realize how precious life is.
How would you describe motherhood in 1 word?
How is your relationship with Alexia?
I would say normal, healthy, and filled with love. It’s important to me that she feels comfortable expressing her emotions and be able to receive them. I like that she’s free… Of course, boundaries and clear limits are necessary but always in a kind way.
Did you tell her about your disease?
Yes and no, partly, with her words.
What gave you strength throughout the entire treatment?
My desire to live, stronger than anything. It was unthinkable for me not to get out of this alive. During the entire sickness, I learned to get to know myself better and, above all, listen to myself.
How did you deal with being other people’s scrutiny?
To be honest, I didn’t give a damn. Instead, I received so much love and compassion, which I take in as much of as I can.
Did you feel the need to talk about it?
Yes and no, but I learned to ask and listen to myself, which I was not doing before.
Today when you need a break or pamper yourself, what do you do?
Meditation, work out, take baths with essential oils, get massages, I love to pamper myself.
You kicked off an entrepreneurial project, can you tell us a bit more?
Despite all the pain, cancer also brings its share of questions about life. Returning to work was a big challenge. Moreover, the illnesses aftermath also means a lot of administrative tasks to manage while your mind and body are still somehow trying to recover from this experience. I needed to give my life some purpose, contribute to something bigger than myself. Several pieces of training, meetings, my experience as a professional integration coach at Geneva Business News planted some seeds. My mother’s passing in 2017 was the trigger to action for me.
When I was training at NLP, I met Mireille, who became one of my best friends and my business partner. We clicked right away. Together, we created JobCrafting Sàrl. We support companies to make well-being and quality of life at work a strategic focus. I work part-time (50%), which enables me to simply enjoy time with my daughter and my life.
As we approach the Christmas holidays, do you have any message to pass on?
A message of hope, love, gratitude, and perseverance. In every life experience, whatever it is, each of us has the resources (sometimes unexpected) to face it and get the positive out of it.
Filipa, what can we wish you today for tomorrow?