Breast cancer mademy life better
Former supermodel Claire Farwell, 45, channelled her inner warrior to beat breast cancer and realise her dreams…
Most women talk about battling and surviving breast cancer, but former supermodel Claire Farewell – who had a double mastectomy after being diagnosed – believes it was one of the best things to happen to her.
“It changed my life for the better,” the mother of two says. “Breast cancer made me realise I needed to bemyself, to be whatever I wanted to be.”
And for Claire, who worked on campaigns for French Elle and Vogue with Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer in the 1980s, that means running her own successful fashion label while juggling being a wife and mum.
“Having cancer unleashed this inner creativity in me,” she says. “My fashion line wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had it. I feel so positive today. What I’ve faced has changed my life in more ways than I ever could have imagined.”
Claire was diagnosed in November 2009 at the age of 40. She had two small daughters, Devon, now seven and Avalon, six, and was exhausted. “But it was more than running around after two little girls all day,” she says. “I had just been feeling really, really tired, so I decided to go to the doctor for a check-up. I didn’t have any other symptoms, but I’ve always been fit and healthy. I knew by the way I was feeling that something was wrong.”
Tests confirmed Claire was depleted in vitamin D, but at the follow-up appointment she casually asked the doctor when she should start having routine mammograms. “It was just before my 41st birthday,” she says. “I had no idea when I was supposed to have one.” Doctors booked Claire in for a mammogram, and on the way she received some
terrible news – a friend had died of breast cancer. “She was only 35, so young and she had a small child,” says Claire, who lives in Los Angeles.
“I didn’t know if I had cancer, but I knew I’d found this out for a reason. I was so distraught for this young sweet woman we’d lost. I knew if the worst happened to me – if I had breast cancer – I’d fight it with all my strength.”
Claire was out shopping when the doctor called with the results of her mammogram. “I was in a clothing-shop changing room, complaining that I couldn’t wear a beautiful, low-back top because I’d need to wear a bra with it. Then my phone rang.”
Claire listened in shock as the woman doctor told her they’d found ‘calcification’ in her left breast and she’d need further tests. “I just knew it was breast cancer,” she says. “They wanted to do tests to see if I had any abnormalities elsewhere in my body. My first thought was – ‘shouldn’t we be dealing with the lump in my breast first?’”
Shortly afterwards a biospy confirmed the lump was cancer. At the hospital with husband Gus beside her, a few days later, Claire was horrified to hear they had found a golf ball-size lump in her breast and advised her to opt for a single mastectomy.
“I said ‘Take them both off, I don’t need them’,” she says. “It was a no-brainer. I didn’t want to live worrying about the healthy breast, wondering if it would become cancerous or if I’d need to go through another mammogram and biopsy again in a year’s time.”
When the doctor confirmed there would there be a risk of the cancer returning if she kept her nipples, explaining cancerous cells from a tumour inside the breast can travel through the milk ducts to the nipple, Claire didn’t waste any time. “I told him to take those off too,” she says. “Of course I had a flash of ‘why me, why is this happening’, but I just wanted to get it fixed and I got through it all, with a joke and a smile.”
In February 2010, just a few months after being diagnosed, Claire had a double mastectomy – a five-hour long procedure. “I woke up nauseous from the painkillers,” she recalls. “I felt like I had a hippopotamus onmy chest. I couldn’t breathe. I was in pain. But I was determined to keep battling. I couldn’t see the scars, all I could think of was the nausea, and the pain I was in.” The breast surgeon and plastic surgeon worked together to perform the double mastectomy and the reconstruction process took a
‘You just come to realise you won’t be like you were before, and move forward’
further eight months. “I couldn’t sleep lying down for months, thanks to special expanders inserted to keep the shape of my breast and skin stretched,” she says. “You just come to realise you won’t be like you were before and move forward. But not being able to hug my daughters for weeks due to the surgery I was undergoing, and recovery time, was heart breaking. I had to tell them not to run up and hug me as it was too painful. Luckily the girls understood that Mummy was unwell but I missed holding them.”
Slowly, she recovered and in October 2011, once she was in remission, she decided to organise a fund-raising event for breast cancer charities.
“I was really lucky,” she says. “I’d beaten cancer and was in a position to help others.” But she had no idea what to do, until she realised thinking about her long career as a model gave her an idea. Claire had been discovered at 16 and modelled under her maiden name of Ferris for
international model agency Storm. She even became roommates with Naomi Campbell when she lived in Paris in the 1980s.
“With my modelling background a fashion show made sense,” she says. So Claire booked a venue, invited 300 people and asked husband Gus, an opera singer, to perform. She then asked real women who’d battled cancer or lost loved ones to the disease to model in the show alongside professional models including herself. The event was booked for just a few weeks away. But then she couldn’t find any outfits from local designers that she felt matched the look and theme she was after. “It didn’t feel right using local designers somehow,” she explains. “I wanted to take on the challenge of making them myself.”
Claire had no formal design training behind her, but armed with 15 years of experience in the fashion industry, she made 24 dresses by hand in a matter of days to be modelled and sold at auction after the show.
“It was a challenge, but I worked around the clock and hired a seamstress to give me a crash course,” she says. “It was a creative outpouring I couldn’t stop.”
The event was a success. “I’d cry at the drop of a hat on hearing other people’s stories about cancer, but that day we were warriors,” she says. “I couldn’t quite believe all those people were there because of me.
“People loved my designs and said, ‘you should do this full time’, which got me thinking. When you go through breast cancer you go through physical changes. But once you’ve been put back together again, you start to think: ‘Why did I have cancer? What comes next?’ And you get on with it.
“I wanted to create a line for cheeky and classy women who live life, and tell their story through fashion. I ploughed my savings into getting it started, sought out potential investors and found a PR team to get the word out there. “
A year later her fashion line, Claire Farwell London, was launched. Described on the website as ‘elegant, comfortable and unique designs with a British accent,’ Hollywood celebrities such as Eva Longoria and Carrie Keagan have been seen in her designs..
And her label featured in last year’s Nolcha FashionWeek – part of New York FashionWeek. “That never would have happened if I hadn’t fought cancer and won,” she says.
“The speed at which my business has grown has been incredible. Breast cancer somehow unleashed this creativity inside me, and now I’m building a brand I’m passionate about.”
But Claire wasn’t finished in her creative quest. In 2012, inspired by – a 126page book containing portraits of cancer survivors shot by fashion photographer David Jay, Claire decided to pose for her bravest shoot to date – showing off her post postmastectomy figure.
“Now the cancer was under control, I started thinking about why I’d had it,” she says. “I used to show my body off, use it to showcase amazing clothes. Why couldn’t I still do that? Could I show off my postoperation body, scars and all?
“I wanted to show other women there is life after breast cancer.”
Taking creative control, Claire chose a location and recruited a top make-up artist and hair stylist and asked renowned fashion photographer Byron Atienza, who has shot campaigns for the likes of H& M, to shoot her images.
“I’d modelled for decades, so being in front of the camera was nothing new,” she says. “But this particular photo shoot was the defining one of my life. Because it was showing the world my new body – the one that had fought breast cancer – and won.”
In the black-and-white photos Claire bravely posed topless showing off her scars and reconstructed breasts minus her nipples. The photos have since been seen globally online as well as in newspapers across the world.
“I’m so proud of my photos – they are the most important photographs of my career,” says Claire.
She is now focusing on her fashion line. Her designs are available online and the designer is keen to continue her work for breast cancer through fundraising events and public speaking.
“I was lucky. If I’d have waited a year to get the mastectomy I’d probably be dead,” she says. “There are women younger than me who have died because they weren’t as lucky as me. I have a future ahead of me as a fashion designer, mother and wife.”
Claire Farwell describes her designs as elegant, comfortable and unique
While she supports breast-cancer campaigns today, in her heyday, Claire worked with the likes of Naomi Campbell (below)
Husband Gus, 36, helped Claire get through her diagnosis with a joke and a smile
REAL LIFE Claire lives in Los Angeles with Gus and daughters Devon, and Avalon
Multitalented Claire served on the jury for the 2013 Angel Film Awards, ‘a celebration of nonviolent films’