Conversations With My Mother: Lucy Fleming and Toni Tanner on breast cancer

Conversations With My Mother: Lucy Fleming and Toni Tanner on breast cancer

Transcript of conversation between Toni Tanner and Lucy Fleming
Introduction by Chloe Popa
Photography by Elizabeth Sharpe

About six months ago I took the call from my sister Lucy, knowing what she was going to tell me. She’d had an ultrasound and mammogram the day before and had been waiting on the results and as daughters of a breast cancer survivor, I feel like you can read the room when you head in for your annual monitoring and Lucy already knew what was coming too. They’d found a lump, and the real kicker was, it’s a rare aggressive form of breast cancer, Triple Negative, and they needed to start treatment immediately.

We’ve seen our mother Toni, our maternal Aunt, close family friends and many, many other women in our circle journey through breast cancer and now Lucy, my younger sister at the age of 38. I guess we’ve always known that it could be our reality one day, but you still never expect the moment that it is.
It seems irrational, but my first instinct was to want to take it away from Lucy, to protect her and take it on myself. If one of us must bear this burden, why can’t it be me instead of Luc?

I know that the best I can do is be there for Lucy while she goes through this diagnosis, provide practical help and comfort while she endures an intense and invasive regime of chemotherapy, surgery and follow-up radiation therapy. It’s a lot, but she’s strong. She may not think that she is because she’s also frightened about what the future holds now. For herself and her two daughters. But just like our mother and our aunt, in their quiet, humble and enduring manner, Lucy will move through this.

When Lucy told me that she’s learnt more from Mum about her breast cancer, which she experienced when we were teenagers, over the past few months then we’ve known our whole lives, I asked Mum and Lucy to share a conversation about their experiences and the impacts they feel it had on their lives and those around them.

Lucy: I've learned more than I ever knew about your experience with breast cancer since my own diagnosis, do you think it's easier to talk about it now because I'm going through the same thing?

Toni: Definitely. I don't know. I think people these days in general are more open to talking about breast cancer and if I can tell you anything from my experience, hopefully it helps you.

Lucy: I was only 13 when you were diagnosed, and I probably didn't fully understand or comprehend what was going on as I also started boarding school that year, so I wasn't around in the family home as much. And I know I was really worried about you throughout my teenage years, and I guess now I have those feelings as well for my own daughters. Is that something you can relate to?

Toni: Oh yes. In hindsight, it looks as though we just shunted you off to boarding school to get you out of the way. But that's not the case. It was always planned, but it was just unfortunate timing, and we didn't realize at the time what an impact sending you off to boarding school just after my diagnosis had on you until years later. Even on Chloe, we didn't realize the impact until one of the teachers at school phoned us and said that Chloe just wasn't Chloe anymore. She seemed to have lost all her vim. So it's you know, it's something that takes a toll on the whole family. But at that stage, nobody really talked about it. And we didn't want to tell you too much in case it worried you. But we probably should have told you more.

Lucy: I don't think Chloe and I realised until later, speaking for myself anyway, what an impact it did have. And timing was just very unfortunate and age, I think being 13, Chloe was 16. Age-appropriate information, what to share and how to share, that I think is something I've learned with my two girls, or hopefully from what I went through as a child you having breast cancer.

Toni: Well, to be honest, there wasn't the help around that there is now. You know, there's lots of support services out there for you, it seems. And I've learned about that through your journey. But when I was diagnosed, it was only just starting to become a thing. There were no breast cancer nurses. There was the cancer center. About the only benefit at the time you could get was the Look Good Feel Better program, which I took part in. But that was it.

Lucy: Whereas nowadays there's a lot of ancillary services for the whole family. Counselors, breast care nurses, resources, dedicated children's books to help explain the journey and what's going on. It's certainly come a long way in 26 or nearly 27 years.

Toni: Yeah. Well, I know now that it affects the whole family. You've witnessed the effect that it's had on you, on Camilla, your older daughter, more so than Harriet. But maybe Harriet's just hiding her fear. But it certainly impacted Camilla with, you know, having a bit of a breakdown in class, hasn't she?

Lucy: yes, yes. She's been upset at school a couple of times and asking questions like, Does that mean I'm going to get it?

Toni: it's obviously, it's ticking over in her mind.

Toni and Lucy's conversation continues in Journal Three, with an emotional, open and heart-warming conversation about breast cancer and Toni and Lucy's relationship as mother and daughter.