Hilary Farr Urges Cancer Patients to Speak Up
- HGTV’s Hilary Farr spoke to SurvivorNet to reflect on her breast cancer journey, which began when a lump was discovered in 2012.
- A decade later, after her cancer returned, Farr says she wishes that she spoke up more and advocated for what she thought she needed.
- Being your own advocate and making your needs heard is an important part of the cancer journey for anyone dealing with a diagnosis.
It's been a complicated and oftentimes bumpy road for the Toronto born designer and president of Hilary Farr Designs. "I was thrown for a loop and then I recovered," the co-host of HGTV's popular Love It or List It series has said about her reaction after a lump was discovered on a routine mammogram in 2012. There was a lumpectomy with the diagnosis of DCIS [non-invasive breast cancer].Read More
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Just two years later, she was forced to confront a more formidable foe when her mammogram revealed a lump in the other breast and the diagnosis was invasive breast cancer. "I was in shock," recalls the now 70-year-old Farr on learning that cancer cells had spread into the surrounding breast tissue. "I wasn't expecting that, well nobody is. There's no history of it in my family."
‘You Can’t Always be Strong’
Regardless, Farr’s attitude remained the same: "power through it" and move on. "The reason I want to talk about it is because I made bad decisions based on wanting to always be strong. I was stupid,” she tells SurvivorNet.
She knows exactly how she got to that place. "I was brought up and taught to be 'stiff upper lip and barrel through.' My early career was dancing," says the former Royal Ballet School of London student. "You danced through the pain. You just always showed up. It didn’t matter if you were dying from the flu. That was my entire background and that was considered a valuable character trait and it is, except at times when you need to recognize that you're not doing yourself any favors. Who are you being a hero for? It's stupid."
Mimicking the first diagnosis, a doctor again told her she'd need a lumpectomy with no further treatment. Farr didn't ask any questions, instead thinking at the time, "Well, that’s great because that was the news I wanted to hear."
Unfortunately, it turned out to be too good to be true. After arriving in Raleigh, North Carolina her first venture to do the HGTV series in the U.S. Farr received a follow-up phone call from the radiologist in Toronto asking her why she did not come in for radiation. She was left with nothing else to say but “I was told I didn't have to.”
In hindsight, Farr admits she gave too much credence to the medical society. "That’s part of the story where I trusted and I didn't dig deeply enough. I could very well be in a very different situation now if it wasn't for the radiologist following up."
So thirteen weeks out from her second lumpectomy and almost on the "wrong side of the time frame" in which radiation should be given post operative, she began it at the Duke Cancer Institute in Durham, North Carolina. "That's terrifying how easy that could have gone wrong," Farr realized then.
It was at this point that Farr began to wonder about the wisdom of her "power through" philosophy and started reflecting on many of her decisions.
Farr on Advocating for Your Own Health
"I was never really given the option of just having a mastectomy," she says with obvious anguish. "In retrospect, I wish I had been able to." Farr acknowledges her own culpability in these decisions. "I didn’t push for it. I didn't even consider it as an option. I will admit a part of that was vanity as well. I do think that was a part of it but I didn’t go far enough to get educated in all the elements that were involved in the upside," she says.
While some things are out of your hands in the cancer trajectory, Farr admits that there was more she could have done to control her situation. "What was in my control was to say, 'Wait there should be other options. What are those other options?' And to really take more control."
It's not just her lack of advocacy she regrets but also her reluctance to share her experience and ask for the support she needed in the thick of it.
"We were just starting to film in the U.S. It was very exciting, a whole new chapter," remembers Farr about her desire "to keep the show rolling." So each morning for 28 days after getting her radiation treatment she would head to the set.
"There were times when I was really short tempered with no explanation," Farr recalls. "I lashed out because I was in pain, I was exhausted, I was stressed and all of the rest of it. There were just so many repercussions of choosing to push through without telling everybody: 'Here's what I’m going through right now.' That's all I needed to do and I wish I did."
By 2017 when yet another lump was found, Farr had woken up to the reality of self advocacy. Fortunately, this lump was “pre pre pre cancer.” Unfortunately, her desire at this point to have a mastectomy and just be "done with it" was impossible to deliver. The doctor told her that “the skin, the tissue was too ruined, it won't heal properly, it's too big a risk.”
Thriving After Cancer
While the last decade has been challenging, that doesn't mean Farr isn’t thriving. There's a flourishing career, her deep friendships, and a continued commitment to her healthy lifestyle, with the addition of meditation and a plant based diet.
"I've never been good at meditation. My brain just wouldn’t shut up. I couldn’t clear it," says Farr of the new found skill she acquired with the help of a teacher who gave her a lot of reading material. "It really solidified the power of facing your fears, death being one of themâ€¦ I don’t have a fear of death. I’m not inviting it in but I have faced it and that helped me a lot."
Many cancer survivors have found solace in meditation and the peace it can bring. Research has shown that just a few minutes of quiet meditation per day can really help with anxiety that can sometimes come with living with cancer.
Farr’s Plans for the Future
As a high risk patient, Farr's follow-up will include mammograms and MRIs. She's also not giving up hope on her physical healing. A future meeting with a surgeon who "has a different methodology for mastectomies for radiated skin" is on her calendar.
In the meantime, she will continue on her quest to encourage other cancer patients to self advocate. She’ll use her personal understanding that it can be "scary and difficult" as it involves "facing your fears, perhaps a deep seated fear that if you ask for help you won’t get it” to persuade others.
"That's the beginning of you taking control," Farr insists. "Once you can face your fear, you know what you’re dealing with, what you're grappling with, then you will not allow a doctor to say, 'You’re all done, off you go!' You will be taking control which is so empowering."