Cancer survivor speaks of 'Angelina Jolie' operation

Claire Farwell, 44, a mother-of-two from Devonshire, England, who lives in California, had the operation in February 2010. Her treatment was virtually identical to that of Jolie, who bravely wrote of her ‘medical choice’ this week in the New York Times.

Today, the former fashion model has revealed the pain and heartbreak she suffered during her battle with breast cancer, and has spoken of what Jolie can expect from life after the operation.

Credit: Byron Atienza

"I thought Angelina Jolie’s piece was amazing,” says Farwell, speaking from her home in Pacific Palisades, near Los Angeles.

"Like myself, Angelina wanted to voice her message, and when I read that line, ‘I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered,’ I was overcome by emotion."

Having beaten the disease, Farwell has today joined Jolie in going public, by releasing these stunning fashion photographs that proudly reveal her post-operation body, scars and all.

A Haunting Diagnosis

"Reading Angelina’s story bought back memories," says Farwell, "I cry at the drop of a hat about any conversation about cancer. It strikes me straight in the heart. I was 40, nearly 41, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It all started in November of 2009.

I had been feeling really, really tired, so I decided to bring my annual check-up forward. I’ve always been healthy, so I knew by the way I was feeling that something was wrong. The tests confirmed I was depleted in my vitamin D, and that has strong links with cancer."

Credit: Byron Atienza

Doctors suggested a mammogram, which Farwell underwent in December of 2009, and shortly afterwards, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, just before Christmas.

"I remember the moment they told me," she recalls. "I was in a clothes store, naked, complaining that I wouldn’t be able to wear a beautiful, low v-backed top, because I’d have to wear a bra. And then the doctor rang. You drop everything when the doctor calls."

Farwell remembers that she was informed of a ‘calcification’.

“’You’ve got to come back,’ they told me. It was all so technical, and I could barely understand all these medical terms that I’d never heard before.”

Under the knife

"First I had to have a biopsy, which was, ‘Lie down, tit through the table,’ and soon afterward they called me saying ‘you have breast cancer’. I’ll never forget that conversation. I remember the doctor had the audacity to say, ‘We’d better check you don't have cancer anywhere else.’ I thought, ‘shouldn’t we deal with the breast cancer first?’

Unlike Angelina Jolie, Claire Farwell says she didn't have a decision about whether to have the double mastectomy or not.

"I simply went to the doctor and the first thing I said was, ‘have them off.’ He replied, ‘hold on, we have to go through the procedures’."

Doctors checked nodes in her arm during a lumpectomy, to check the cancer had not spread elsewhere in her body.

"I was thinking, ‘if it hasn't spread, then why radiate me?’ It seemed like poison. The results were that my margins weren’t clear after my lumpectomy, so I had the mastectomy."

Credit: Byron Atienza

"I had the choice to have a single mastectomy, but I opted for the double mastectomy. For me I don't want the bother of having all these mammograms and then having to worry psychologically about the other one. ‘Take them both off, I don't need it,’ I told them.

I think people assumed that because I used to be a model, I wouldn't want such an operation. Even my mother-in-law said, ‘why would you have a double mastectomy?’ But I am who I am, not because of my breasts."

Yet Claire Farwell became famous because of her curves. Growing up in England, she became a model aged 16 and embarked on a career that took her to the fashion capitals of Europe. She appeared in French Elle alongside Claudia Schiffer, and modeled with Naomi Campbell, who became her roommate when the up-and-coming models lived in Paris, France.

Having signed for the international model agency Storm, Farwell appeared in campaigns for Gian Franco Ferrè, Nivea, Speedo, and in glossy magazines from Amica to Vogue; her body desired by advertisers for her fit, voluptuous shape.

Today, she is bravely showing the world a new figure.

"Angelina’s coming out has inspired me,” she admits. “That is why I loved what she had to say. If Madonna spoke about sex in the 80s, Angelina Jolie speaking about cancer is a defining moment of this decade. It has empowered us all."

A Brave Recovery

Claire Farwell went under the knife in a Los Angeles hospital in February 2010. She says her recovery was even worse than the moment she was diagnosed.

"The hardest thing was waking up from the surgery. Under the knife for five to six hours, I woke up feeling nauseous from the painkillers.

"Then I felt like I had a hippopotamus on my chest. I couldn't breathe. It was the toughest thing I went through."

"The breast surgeon and plastic surgeon work together around the double mastectomy," she explains.

"The breast surgeon takes all the tissue out of both breasts, while the plastic surgeon puts in two expanders in each breast, which are hard plastic pretend silicon things with a valve attached.

"Every week you go back and have saline solution injections through the breasts, to fill up the expander to the size you want."

The process took about two months, during which Farwell’s family rallied around her. My husband and I would joke: ‘How big shall we go?’ You have to see the humor in it, otherwise what’s the point? I couldn’t have got through it without my husband and girls."

Farwell married Gus, a former American Football player turned opera singer, in 2004. They have lived together in the United States for the last nine years. Farwell says her children, Avalon, 5, and Devon, 7, were ‘unbelievable,’ in their understanding of their mother’s medical condition.

"One of the hardest things was that I couldn't pick hem up like a normal Mum does," says Farwell.

"I came back from the hospital once with the EKG stickers on, and I had them on like fake nipples, because my own nipples were gone the doctor thought it would be funny for the girls. Devon said ‘that doesn’t look right!’

I chose not to hide it from them."

And the recovery process was not a quick one.

"You’ve got scars healing nicely from the expanders, then they have to come out, and then the silicon goes in, and the scars heal up. In that time you cannot sleep lying down, so I had to sleep sitting up. Then in December I had the reconstruction done again, as they hadn’t done it right. The breasts were falling under my arms. If I live till I’m 100 like my grandparents, I’d have another fifty years to live with these breasts! What’s another five hours?"

"When the doctors asked, ‘do you want to keep your nipples?’

I joked, 'How on earth will I do Playboy!' And then I thought, why the hell wouldn't I be able to do Playboy—if I wanted? Why shouldn’t I stand there with my boobs out and say ‘I feel incredible’!"

A Glamourous Photoshoot

Farwell says the inspiration for her fashion shoot came from the Scar Project, a hardcover, 126-page book containing 50 portraits of young breast cancer survivors, shot by fashion photographer David Jay.

“He took these amazing documentary type photographs, but I felt it was so sad. Some were crying. While it’s a beautiful project, I didn't want that, I wanted to say ‘here I am!’

I started thinking about my own photo shoot. I wanted to do a shoot that is about how I feel as a person, not what I look like."

"I spent fifteen years as a professional model, when everything that mattered was aesthetic. I realized I did not for one second feel any less of a woman from having my breasts taken away.

"When I look at my modeling photos now, I feel more of a woman today than I did then! I don't look at that and say, ‘I wish I had a nipple’. Sometimes I look at my husband Gus and think, that looks weird, because I don't have nipples and I’ve got used to looking like a Barbie doll now."

"I have no feeling in my nipples at all, that's a shame. I don't have any nipples. I thank God I’m still a woman in other areas. You just come to realize it won’t be like you were before and you move forward.

”I had the operation the same year as Avatar was released, and if I’d have painted myself blue for Halloween it would have been perfect! You have to retain your sense of humor. I had cancer the size of a golf ball, and I got through it, with a joke and a smile."

Angelina's Battle Ahead

Yet Farwell admits that the next few weeks and months will be incredibly hard, yet important for Angelina Jolie.

"Whether or not she wants to talk about it with the kids, I don’t know. Angelina is a warrior, and for coming out and saying it, she’s become an empowering person. Angelina’s going to gain a completely new respect from anyone who wasn't quite sure about her before. She will probably become the face of the BRCA1 gene, if not breast cancer."

"This is why Angelina Jolie will help women: What Jolie said was this, ‘I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer…and now I have less than five percent.’

If I had any advice for Angelina, or anyone reading this, who is battling breast cancer, I would say this: The most important thing for me was to not take breast cancer to the bedroom, once you step over into the place you sleep and rest, leave all thoughts of it. Nighttime can be the worst. Be really kind to yourself."

How Cancer Inspired her

Remarkably, being diagnosed with cancer completely changed Farwell’s life, in ways she says she could never imagine.

"Three weeks before I was diagnosed, I was compelled to write a novel…I sat down and just poured it out. From that, this creative freedom came.

"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 did I do with my life? Then you just get on with it."

In October 2011, Farwell decided to throw an event to raise money for breast cancer charities.

"I said, ‘lets put on a party! Let’s make money for breast cancer. So I threw an event for 300 people, and thought I’d do a fashion show. When I realized I didn't like any of the designers, I decided to do it myself!"

The former model made 24 pieces by hand, models wore them on the runway, and the dresses were sold at auction.

"People told me, ‘you need to do this full time!’ and I was giving a percentage away to breast cancer charities, which made me happy.

"Breast cancer had given me this creativity, and now I’m building a brand, my dresses are moving into boutiques, and I’m so passionate about it."

Described as ‘elegant, comfortable and unique designs with a British accent,’ the Claire Farwell London range features hand-picked fabrics for ‘the practical, cheeky and classy woman, who lives life and tells her story through fashion.’

Farwell is also currently planning an online store, such is the demand for her gowns.

"I feel so positive today. If I’d have waited a year to get the mastectomy I’d probably be dead. There are women younger than me who have died because they weren’t as lucky.

"I was really, really lucky. Cancer makes you realize that you need to be yourself, be the woman that you want to be. I’m so proud of my new photos, the most important photographs of my career."

See Claire’s fashion line at