INTERVIEW: The woman who never gave up on her hope of having a baby
JO Cerqueira’s breasts have become somewhat famous.
A photo of them posted – with her permission – on social media by Jersey photographer Sophie Darwin last month has reached more than 160,000 people around the globe. Jo has received worldwide interest as a result and even Insider magazine in the US has been in touch.
If Instagram or Facebook got in touch citing their ‘no nipples in photos’ policies, Jo told Sophie, she should explain that the one nipple that can be seen is actually made from a piece of skin from her thigh and so doesn’t actually break the rules at all.
The other nipple is covered up by the mouth of her young son Javier, who is pictured contentedly feeding from his mother’s one remaining ‘normal’ breast.
Because Jo is – her words – a cancer patient. After being diagnosed with breast cancer aged just 26 she made the difficult decision to have her left breast removed.
But today, despite having feared that her treatment for the disease might have prevented her from ever realising her dream of having children, she is also a very proud mother.
She has exclusively breastfed her now six-month-old since birth with just one breast and has chosen to bare all – literally – to raise awareness not only of breast cancer but of the postpartum body.
‘I have only had positive responses, not that I ever thought people are going to be horrible about seeing somebody’s boob that isn’t really their boob. But you just never know,’ she said.
‘If I can help that one person or two people to get themselves checked out by having my boobs in the media archives, then it doesn’t really matter.’
Jo remembers clearly the day she became a cancer patient.
It was a Thursday in summer 2012 and she was feeling upbeat, having ‘clicked’ with a man called James on a first date in a coffee shop the day before.
Her mum joined her for the appointment at the Hospital – a follow-up from an operation a few days earlier to have what doctors believed was a cyst removed from her left breast.
She had discovered something that felt ‘a bit different’ in her breast a few weeks earlier while in the shower and, although she had no family history of cancer, was young and had no other symptoms, her gut told her to get it checked out.
Fast-forward various hospital visits and a small operation (she was too young for a mammogram because the breast tissue is considered too dense in younger people) and she was called back to the Hospital.
‘It was the first time my mum had come to an appointment,’ said Jo, now 34. ‘I don’t know why, but she was off work, so she came.
‘You are just not expecting them to tell you you have cancer. You are shocked, obviously, and my mum burst into tears – you just think cancer and death, don’t you? But I didn’t know why I wasn’t crying.’
Jo’s practical side kicked in. The cancer was small – 2mm – and she was being sent to Winchester the following day for an appointment with a specialist, as at that time Jersey did not have a dedicated consultant specialising in breast cancer.
They called her dad and told him the news over the phone, ‘as you do’, jokes Jo.
Jo also called her best friend. Then she went to work and told the rest of her ‘close knit’ team of colleagues.
‘I am a really organised person, so in my head I just wanted to know what I needed to do. Ultimately I think that was my way of protecting myself. I suppose I didn’t process really that he had just told me I had breast cancer.’
Jo, the consultant in the UK told her, had two options – she could have her whole breast removed in a mastectomy or have a course of radiotherapy.
‘After the appointment me and my mum and dad went for lunch, as you do. We even asked the consultant for a restaurant recommendation.
‘Then my dad said “shall we get some champagne?” So we shared a bottle of champagne and talked about what we had talked about with the consultant.
‘I instinctively said I didn’t want radiotherapy – again did I even really know what that meant? Probably not. But I am quite a quick decision maker. We booked a date for a couple of weeks later. Tests showed my lymph nodes were clear which was really positive.’
At the same time all this was going on, she was still in touch with James – the man from the coffee shop. She decided to tell him about her diagnosis, and made it clear she didn’t expect him to stick around.
But he told her in no uncertain terms he really liked her and wasn’t going anywhere.
Speaking about her now husband, Jo said: ‘I call him my guardian angel. I think he came into my life at the right time and partly having him but also having a new relationship almost distracted me from what was going on.
‘It just felt right and he made me laugh.’
She added: ‘It was also a big decision therefore to have a mastectomy – just coming out from a long-term relationship, going into a new relationship. But again I just felt it was the right thing to do. And James saw past everything during the whole process.’
Tests on the removed breast tissue had shown it to be an oestrogen-prone cancer, fuelled by Jo’s body producing too much of the hormone. It was grade three, in Jo’s words ‘not the worst but it could be better – it was pretty aggressive’. But they had caught it early and the outlook was positive.
All the factors, however, meant she needed a course of chemotherapy.
Again, James wasn’t fazed, even if Jo would soon lose her long brown hair – something she was really worried about.
She’d bought a wig – named it Crystal – and even asked doctors to arrange her chemo sessions as close to the weekend as possible so that she could continue to work part-time. She had her head shaved when her hair started to fall out and returned home wearing Crystal. James liked it, but said he preferred her bald head and that was that – she hardly wore Crystal except for interviews at work ‘so as not to frighten the recruits’.
The question of fertility also came up.
‘Chemotherapy is a really invasive concoction of medication that effectively kills everything in your body. They told me my periods would stop but they may not come back. I had always wanted children but now needed to have to have that conversation with James two months into our relationship.’
Unfortunately, because of the type of cancer Jo had, freezing her eggs was not a possibility, as the medication required to collect them contains oestrogen.
During her three months of chemotherapy, Jo continued to work when she felt able and was notorious for having numerous visitors.
‘My family and friends were incredible during the whole chemotherapy process. I always had everybody there – James’ parents, who again I had not long met were there; James was at every chemotherapy session; Mum and Dad were there; friends, family and colleagues would pop in. It was a running joke as to how many chairs we would need.’
Just before the course of chemotherapy ended, Jo and James bought a house – as you do.
A year later, James threw Jo – who was continuing to have hormone therapy to stop her ovaries from producing oestrogen – a surprise party to mark the anniversary of the end of her chemotherapy. And a few weeks later he proposed.
‘From then on that chapter to me was closed. But I will be honest: I underestimated how I would feel. By treating it as a process I think I forgot to deal with what would come after and how I may feel.
‘But once you are a cancer patient you are always a cancer patient. That is what psychologically has taken some time to get my head around.’
The couple, who had agreed with doctors Jo could come off the medication after four years to try for a baby, got married in August 2015. They went on a mini-moon shortly after and it was then Jo’s world came crashing down again.
‘I felt something in my boob again. It felt different,’ she said.
An MRI back in Jersey showed that the cancer had returned, with doctors explaining that it was likely a single cell had been left behind in the small amount of breast tissue that can remain when you have a mastectomy and had grown from there.
‘That was harder than the first time,’ said Jo. ‘Even though by that point I knew we’d got through it before, it was that bloody cancer again that was getting in the way of my life plans. I wouldn’t say I got depressed but I was quite low.’
An anxious period followed during which Jo had to undergo full body scans and various other tests. At one point doctors were concerned the cancer had spread to her liver.
But it had not, and soon she was sent to Southampton for four weeks for radiotherapy – this time she had no choice.
She returned to Jersey on Christmas Eve and was placed on even stronger hormone therapy injections for the next five years, once again dashing her hopes of becoming a mum any time soon.
‘I asked a lot of questions and I was really upset at times but actually quite pragmatic at times too. I needed that plan again; I needed to know if it was going to have to be five years. In the end two years was the lowest they would let me do it. So in 2016 and 2017 we had lots of fun and went on lots of nice holidays instead. But there was still never any guarantee we were going to be able to conceive. Who knew what was going to happen when I came off the medication?’
That finally happened in January 2018 and the couple were referred to Jersey fertility specialist Neil Maclachlan. They discussed everything from IVF to surrogacy and adoption.
In the end they decided to wait and see what Jo’s body would do naturally first.
If she hadn’t had a period by September they were going to go back to see him.
They did not need to. Her periods returned and after her first proper cycle she was pregnant.
‘It gave me the faith that I know my body,’ she said. ‘Seeing his heartbeat for the first time at an early six and then eight-week scan was really surreal – I didn’t know what emotions to feel. I was almost just frozen, it was just so unbelievable looking at the tiniest dot on the screen and it is everything we have ever wanted and worked towards.’
Despite advice that she may struggle to produce enough milk to breastfeed exclusively with one breast, Javi has had no complaints. He has grown perfectly into a happy, healthy little boy who makes his mum’s eyes light up when she talks about him.
‘My breastfeeding journey has been a tough one. I don’t think anyone necessarily has an easy one,’ said Jo.
‘But I was determined. James says I am pretty stubborn! But even at 2am when I have been crying in pain I have kept on going because my body has done it and my body has amazed me once again. It has produced what it needs to keep my son alive and that is priceless.
‘All the pain and treatment I have been through, the hair loss, the aching bones, the being sick, the radiotherapy, all of that is worth it for that moment when you have your baby.’
She added: ‘I am always going to be a cancer patient, it is always going to be in my history. But I can sit in front of my son and say I did everything for him and I never gave up and I am here for him – that is the biggest story that I can give him.
‘And I hope he learns to never give up on his dreams, whatever they are.’
Jo is one of a number of mothers whose photos were taken as part of the MOTHERHOOD campaign organised by photographer Sophie Darwin and midwife May Bourne. An exhibition of the photos is due to run at the Jersey Arts Centre in spring 2020.
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