INTERVIEW: FELICITY PALMA
Since college, you have become quite involved with the push for women’s rights. When and why did this become important to you?
It all started with an Intro to Feminism course my first quarter of university. After years of living in my bubble of the L.A. suburbs (where I believed I wasn’t pretty because I didn’t have blonde hair and big breasts), I, for the first time, learned how to engage with the world critically. And it was amazing.
After receiving your Master’s degree in International Studies from NYU, what were your original plans for combining your passion for women’s rights with your degree?
Since my research centered on immigration and xenophobia in the Mediterranean, my hopes were to work with organizations that supported migrant and/or refugee women and children.
Just after completing your studies, you were given some unexpected news. Could you tell us about your experience with receiving a breast cancer diagnosis as a 28 year old?
When my doctor uttered those fateful words, I felt as if time had suddenly stopped, and all the weight of the outside world came into the room and threatened to crush me. The pressure was too much, and I reeled. In that moment, just like many moments that followed, there was so much uncertainty. I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have insurance, my family was on the other side of the country, and I was pretty convinced that I was going to die.
After receiving this diagnosis, what steps did you take next?
The very first thing I did was go home and spend the entire next day sobbing in my boyfriend’s arms in bed. As soon as I could catch my breath, I started making phone calls – first to my friend who worked at Planned Parenthood and helped connect me to a breast specialist, then to my best friend back at home. It took me another couple of days to call my family and tell them. That was the worst. In the meantime, my friend at PP started gathering information and helped me figure out which doctors at which hospitals I should pursue consultations with. I had to get health insurance, set up more diagnostic exams, and figure out how to gain access to fertility preservation treatment. It was so much to handle and was so incredibly overwhelming.
The majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer are over the age of 45. How has being so young mentally affected your experience?
Since a cancer diagnosis in your 20s isn’t exactly commonplace, that also means that it remains largely misunderstood – both in the medical field and amongst your peers. Because of this, being so young with breast cancer was overall a really isolating experience. I was always the youngest person in the waiting room, few doctors acknowledged the unique needs that I had as a young woman, and few of my friends knew how to show up for me to the extent that I needed it.
Throughout the whole process, in what ways have you found your strength?
After treatment ended, I found myself in a really dark place. It felt like there was all this pressure to just get over it and move on. But cancer doesn’t work that way; just like any other trauma, you need time to grieve – grieve what you’ve lost, grieve what has changed, grieve the hardship that has yet to come. I got really angry around this time toward most of the people in my life, unwittingly blaming them for how alone and misunderstood I felt.
Then one day, I woke up – like, truly woke up. I realized that I didn’t need to “get over” cancer, I needed to learn how to incorporate and carry that story with me. So I started going to therapy on a regular basis, and committed to taking back some control in my life. I started a regular practice of yoga, and I swear, the teachers and community at Prema Yoga in Brooklyn (where I was living at the time) saved my life. From having no mobility and lots of pain in my left arm and chest, to experimenting with arm balances and inversions, I regained a sense of empowerment, confidence and fearlessness that I had never felt before, not even before cancer.
This point in time was a pivotal one for me, and everything in my life began to shift. I sought out opportunities to take risks, try new things, whatever it took to remain empowered, and finally, I began to feel happy again.
So where do I find my strength? I find my strength each time I acknowledge all of the amazing amount of love and support that I receive from my community. I find my strength when I don’t sweat the small stuff, but am able to hold space for someone else’s. I find my strength whenever I grab lunch or a glass of wine with a friend who shares the common story of breast cancer. I find my strength anytime I meet someone who has lived their own trauma and realize that no matter how different, our struggles are still the same. I find my strength every time I look over and see my partner is still here, sticking it out with me. I find my strength every time I allow myself to feel sad, angry, or ripped off. I find my strength whenever I pick up my camera, and capture the story I want to tell.
Strength to me doesn’t mean courage all wrapped up in sparkles and rainbows and positive thoughts. Instead I’d say strength is about living life with fearlessness and authenticity as much as you humanly can.
What advice do you have for other young women that find themselves in the unexpected situation of discovering they have breast cancer?
First off, the most important thing you can do is be your own best advocate. While a lot of the harrowing decisions we have to make must be made quickly, slow down and take your time. Get a second opinion; get a third. Try to understand all of your options so you can make an informed decision, and don’t be afraid to ask questions or for clarification. Above all, it is YOUR body. Don’t lose sight of that, no matter how much of a lab rat you may feel.
What advice do you have for those whose young loved one(s) have found themselves facing the same situation?
I love that you’re asking this question. Too often, the conversation is focused on the patient alone when in reality there are many people right beside you going through their own processes, too. I would say, most importantly, don’t make assumptions about what your loved one might want or need. Try to anticipate their needs, and make an effort to show that you care. If you don’t know what to say, or if the whole thing is too overwhelming for you, it’s ok – that’s perfectly normal. Just don’t disappear – be accountable and try to find other ways to show up and be present.
I understand a very interesting mental shift occurred during your recovery process regarding your interest in women’s rights. And it’s not what people might think. Could you tell us about that?
You know, it’s a funny thing. After being diagnosed with a disease that threatened everything about my feminine identity, the experience simultaneously redefined for me what it means to truly be a feminist. Looking back now, I realize that I had a lot of passion that I didn’t actually put into action. The thing about a life-threatening illness is that a lot of the petty bullshit in life suddenly doesn’t matter anymore. Your priorities shift, and the way you relate to the world shifts, too. Before cancer, I admittedly was pretty judgmental towards women who didn’t “pass the test” so to speak, and constantly compared myself to them. I passed off my insecurities as sass and snark, tore other women down, and struggled with their successes and triumphs. Then one day while I was feeling sorry for myself during treatment, it just hit me like a ton of bricks. Who the hell was I to call myself a feminist? If I really wanted people to understand me and my process, this also meant that I needed to make space for other women and their processes, too. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of female rivalry – that’s what society sets you up to do anyway. So I started to practice lifting other women up, listening more deeply and empathetically, exploring the importance of intersectionality, and celebrating other women’s successes. And holy shit, can I just say that I feel like a brand new person? I had absolutely no idea how much I was holding myself back from such a potentially fulfilling and enjoyable life.
Since this discovery, you have become quite passionate about supporting other women, especially younger women, in the breast cancer community by capturing the struggle via photography and also in your role as a Young Survivor Coalition (YSC) State Leader. Could you tell us a little about your work?
Throughout my recovery, I have focused on channeling my experience with breast cancer into finding meaningful work in a career whose mission resounds with my own ethics and values. Having breast cancer at such a young age redefined my values as a feminist, and has left me committed to advocating on behalf of all young women affected by breast cancer. When I was first diagnosed, it took me months before I found any sort of support specifically aimed towards young women. So I stepped in to volunteer with YSC because I want to give back and create a space where young women with breast cancer can go to talk to and connect with other people who just simply “get it.”
Photography as a creative practice has always been very integral to the way I process the world around me. So I started documenting my experience with treatment a little before my diagnosis. I knew something was wrong. And I knew I needed to archive it. But right after my surgery, I began to fear that I didn’t have enough of a visually-compelling story to share. I opted for the more conservative route throughout treatment: a lumpectomy vs. a mastectomy, 3-5 years of ovarian suppression vs. chemo. When I took my bandages off, I began sobbing; not because of the scars, but rather because my surgeon did such a great job, that I felt I had nothing to show for all the hell I had been through. So in an effort to find my power and my voice in another way, I’ve switched focus from the personal to the global scale. My goal is to document the diverse array of young women’s experiences when faced with cancer. By making this project a global, transnational endeavor, my project seeks to capture both the internal and external forces that inform a young woman’s experience while dealing with the disease. I aim to explore how women deal with an illness such as breast cancer where the disease and treatment threaten every notion of what it means to be a woman, and how social or cultural shame/stigma/etc. might further make the process that much more challenging. Keeping in mind that each woman’s experience with cancer is incredibly unique, my end goal would be to create a profound, cross-cultural, and visual representation of the ties that bind us together through photography, video, and storytelling. I’ll be heading off to South Africa in November with A Fresh Chapter to volunteer abroad and then staying on to get this project off the ground. After which hopefully I will have enough footage between the US and SA to be able to apply to grants to keep the momentum going!
You had mentioned that your journey has inspired an exciting possible new step for you. Could you tell us about that?
Yes! I’m so excited about this prospect. I am now in the process of applying for PhD programs in Film & Digital Media, to pursue filmmaking and creative digital practices as a means to explore transnational feminism and to tell the untold stories of women across the globe. I’ve always felt torn between the academic and the artist within me, so what is so great about this is that these programs offer a blend of critical studies and creative practice, which is perfect for me! Keep your fingers crossed that I get accepted somewhere, because there are only a handful of these programs that exist.
How has the perspective of your story changed since your diagnosis a couple years ago?
One of the most obnoxious things that anyone can say to someone with cancer is that “cancer is a gift.” While I’m sure it usually comes with the best of intentions, it’s also really just so problematic and offensive. I had a handful of people say this to me, and I was enraged over it. Two and a half years later, I would still shout ‘oh hell no!’ if anyone tried to say it to me again, but you know what’s funny? I have learned a LOT about life. There’s no way in hell I would relive this experience again, but I’m not so sure I would go back and erase it either. Sure I live with some fear, sure the side effects suck. But above all else I live with gratitude, and damn does that feel good.
L.A. Lady Culture
Favorite area of L.A.? Pirate’s Cove and Topanga – it’s just nice to feel like you’re not in L.A. anymore. Also I have major nostalgia around Manhattan Beach, even though it’s nothing like what it was when I was growing up.
Favorite eatery in L.A.? I’m kinda obsessed with Bowery Bungalow and Pine & Crane
Favorite weekend activities in the city? Even though I grew up out here, it’s so fun to take little adventures to discover secret, hidden gems of the city. Keeps it feeling fresh and new.
Place or thing you want to do most in L.A., but haven’t yet? The Broad! & summer movies at Hollywood Forever
-Felicity Palma, Breast Cancer Survivor
Have you, or do you know someone who has also dealt with an unexpected breast cancer diagnosis at a young age? If you like, we would love to hear your experience below. Please pass this along to anyone you know dealing with this surprising news who may be in need of a relatable story.