[WATCH] ‘Make the most of life and take control of your health’ – cancer survivor Charlene Mercieca

Survivor Charlene Mercieca is 32 and only just coming out of a six-month stint with breast cancer: here she tells Jeanelle Mifsud of her ordeal and how she stared death in the face

Charlene Mercieca and her boyfriend,  at her retail outlet Soap Café
Charlene Mercieca and her boyfriend, at her retail outlet Soap Café
Charlene Mercieca talks about her ordeal and overcoming cancer

The only way to really come out on top truly is to drop the fear and start living – that’s what Charlene Mercieca can tell you. The 32-year-old is just coming out of a six-month stint with breast cancer, which cost her hair and breasts, but not her love of life.

“It only first hit me when I went to my first chemo treatment. I started crying. It wasn’t an easy ride, and it’s not like I was jolly-jolly throughout the whole thing,” she told me in the sitting room of her quaint little shop in Sliema.

“But even people who are cured of cancer feel scared because you never know if it could come back. But then again we don’t have any guarantee that we won’t die the minute we walk out the door,” she said, being her brave and positive self.

Indeed, this is the attitude she kept throughout her entire experience with the dreaded disease.

So, I asked her what her reaction was when she first found out she had cancer.

“It was not like I felt sick from the beginning. I was going about my day when I noticed a lump on my left breast. My doctor didn’t think much of it, actually, since cancer is so rare in people my age. He first told me that it was just a lump that was related to my period. But I know my body and something just told me that it was not related to that. So I insisted that we investigate it further.”

When the results came in while she was abroad, Charlene was told to come into the doctor’s office straight away.

“At that point, I got a little nervous because I was already putting two and two together. When I eventually went to see the doctor he told me I was right and that I had cancer,” she said.

Charlene had an aggressive tumour, stage 3 cancer. “Tests proved that it was a triple negative, meaning that the cancer would not be responsive to any hormone. It was all quite complicated. I felt a bit like a headless chicken because we always associate cancer with death.”

Doctors decided the best option was to turn Charlene’s treatment on its head, starting first with chemotherapy over a period of six months and then performing surgery, for fear of the cancer spreading if they operated before.

Charlene, who is a qualified beautician, product designer, herbalist, make up artist, spa consultant, as well as an avid researcher of natural remedies, had always put her faith in nature, but in this case she had to find a balance.

“I started chemo two weeks after my diagnosis. But I attribute my recovery to a combination of lifestyle change as well as the treatment itself.

“Most people like to go to extremes, they either want something completely natural or they want something backed by scientific data. In my case, I like to have both, and since my cancer was very aggressive I couldn’t wait for nature to take its course.

“For this reason, I chose to undergo chemotherapy, despite my belief in natural remedies. Actually, chemo was my back up plan, as I supported it up with complementary therapies, such as the right nutrition, supplements, meditation, essential oils and aromatherapy, homeopathic remedies and psychological help.”

Cancer can be a gruelling experience physically, but it can be destructive for one’s mental wellbeing.

“One of the major things for people going through cancer is a support system. Simply having family and friends who help out with things like preparing food or going to hospital with you, it makes the whole experience less stressful. For example, my boyfriend practically took over my shop, especially on weekends which are very busy for us. I had chemo on Fridays and I couldn’t leave the house for two days after that, but I decided to keep my doors open, with his help.”

Charlene made it clear that cancer would not break her spirit.

“Those six months really flew by. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t as hard as people make it out to be. You just need to eat well to make sure you have enough energy, and have a good support system to take care of the things you can’t do – and it’s ok if you can’t do certain things, it’s fine, just take it easy. You just have to believe you’ll be alright and have a positive attitude to life, looking for the beauty of every story. Cancer shouldn’t be the tale of death.”

Her belief in positive thinking played a big role in her recovery, and today she says her belief in a higher power is much stronger now than before. “I realised that there is more to life, so I don’t stress out about silly things like traffic or being late anymore. I decided I wanted to do away with negativity, that includes my approach to cancer. Cancer is something your body creates, so I refused to talk about ‘fighting against cancer’ or ‘battling cancer’. I just accepted it as something life offered me.”

But even then, how does one manage to stay positive when faced with such hardship and uncertainty?

“What’s the alternative?” she asks back. “I can either be positive and try to live the best way that I can, or I can live the next few months feeling miserable. It was an easy choice.”

On Facebook, Charlene described her experience and the psychological journey she went through. It was much easier to be open about her ordeal, and she also found relief in putting her feelings down on paper. But the aftermath of her cancer treatment has also left its battle scar.

My lack of breasts had no effect whatsoever on my body image, femininity or even my relationship - Charlene Mercieca
My lack of breasts had no effect whatsoever on my body image, femininity or even my relationship - Charlene Mercieca

“I never really had a good relationship with my boobs,” she says of her bilateral mastectomy. She laughs heartily: “You can make them the size that you like and the shape that you like.”

“I was not afraid of having my chest removed. It was scarier to wonder if I was going to survive the surgery or not… But I wasn’t really sad to see my breasts go. I was more anxious about going under the knife, and if, even after the operation, the tumour would spread.

“My lack of breasts had no effect whatsoever on my body image, femininity or even my relationship. Ironically, I used to be much more conscious before … I’m much more comfortable in my own skin now because I realise that our bodies are just vessels.”

Charlene still chose to undergo reconstructive surgery to combine the two operations. During the mastectomy, doctors inserted two expanders which are gradually filling with saline to expand her skin. There is a next phase of the reconstructive surgery. But Charlene is not in any rush to do it.

“Most people are happy to get 100cc of saline pushed in at once and take painkillers because of the pain. I get 50cc or 60cc at a time and go a few extra times instead. That way, I avoid the pain and the possibility of tearing my skin. The same goes for the actual implants; it should be scheduled for November but I don’t want to do it then because it’s a busy period for my shop. So I’ll just do it later, maybe in January. I’m really taking it at my own leisure.”

Ultimately, Charlene says that the key is taking control of the situation, and that includes one’s health.

“It’s very important to start taking care of your health and take control of it. Doctors can help you but it is important to take control of your health, because whatever you were doing before was not working. Most of it is mental health; having energy, breathing fresh air… When you get diagnosed, it is time to start living, because you don’t know how much life you have left. So you have to make the most of it.”

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