I probably expected to hear some profound truths, some clarity of vision, some tears but what I encountered instead was strength, humour and resilience. Over the weekend I was in Milan shooting interviews with women who had metastatic breast cancer. What this means is that the cancer that was originally diagnosed in their breasts, had now spread to other part(s) of their bodies (although some women are diagnosed directly with metastatic breast cancer, others not, and the cancer spreads afterwards) . The women had been drawn from across the world for a two-day conference organised by the non-profit organisation Europa Donna.
The women who spoke to the camera talked about a range of topics affecting their lives. One woman from Malta who is still only in her late 30s talked about how she used to worry about leaving her partner alone after she died and how he was tragically killed in a road accident just a month earlier. And now it was she that was left behind. And remarkably, she recounted her loss without the slightest trace of self pity.
A British woman talked about how she was now helping other cancer patients find their voice. She was convinced about the healing powers of singing aloud and was now running workshops in local hospitals.
A tall Dutch woman who I overheard say that the cancer was now all over her body, had gone on a three hour bike ride under the scorching Milanese sun the previous day. She said that she was determined to live each day to the fullest. She also drew shrieks of laughter when she turned up for the evening drinks do, wearing a bright red wig of ringlet curls over her bald head that we’d seen earlier
Perhaps the one that touched me the most was the soft-spoken Swedish woman I had a long conversation with later in the evening. She is only a couple of years older than me and she talked about how she has to listen to her friends complain about minor ailments like tooth ache and how she has little to say when they talk about their long-term career plans as she can no longer afford to have any.
She said that she was not religious but spiritual. When I asked to explain what that meant, she said that when she spoke to therapists and other trained professionals, she found what they were saying was something they had been taught. As if they were reading from their training manuals. But when spoke to someone of faith, she found their words coming from a different dimension that was altogether removed from what a therapist might say. And in this she found her strength and solace.
It would be too simplistic to say that I came away with new insights into life. But what I could glean from the women who had had this devastating diagnosis was a genuine appreciation of life. An unwavering hope that they would live long beyond their original prognosis (as some of them clearly had). And an acute awareness that often life could change irrevocably and dramatically with no warning. It would be fair to say that what I earned on this project was significantly more than what my invoices would reflect.