Part III of a series on local breast cancer survivors to highlight Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Special to the Fort Mill Times
It was not the best of times, but in a struggle for her life that spanned two continents, Celine Thiria and her family grew to appreciate the important things in life: Each other.
“I’m French. We arrived here in Fort Mill eight years ago for my husband’s work. I’ve got two kids, and I was working with small kids. We lived in Lyon. It’s a beautiful city. I miss it every day, but it’s fine. I really love it here. It’s completely different. I appreciate the people here trying to help you no matter what. I like my two lives. They are different, but I like them,” Thiria said.
“When I had my daughter, I was 27. Just after she was born, I got a nodule on the left and they needed to remove it. They said it was clear, but the surgeon came to me and said, ‘You’re 27, but one day in your life, you will have cancer. What I saw this morning when I removed the nodule, I really don’t like it. You are free now, but one day you will have it. Promise me, promise me to have a mammogram each year.’”
Thiria had absolutely no family history of breast cancer, and she was just 27 years old, but she kept her annual appointment for her mammogram. At 39 years old, she was still clear.
Then she turned 40.
“I said, ‘Ah, I’m starting a new life…I’m 40!’...No.”
At her appointment that year, a lump was found, but she was told not to worry about it, but something wasn’t right. Celine’s father, a doctor, helped her find a specialist in France to get a second opinion. Health care in France is free, she says, and she continues to pay insurance there as well as in the United States.
When cancer is diagnosed in France, “you receive a card and you are 100 percent refunded, so everything is free for you. Hospitals, doctors, medicines, exams, everything. It’s a relief because you don’t need to sell your house to pay the hospital. It’s completely different,” Thiria said.
“You’ve got two kinds of doctors. Some, like my first one, try to protect you, try to save your prayers, try to save your image. And the other will try to save you, no matter what. I talk to my doctor a lot, and there are a lot of women who don’t want to know. They don’t want to know. They don’t ask questions. It’s weird, I know. They are scared. It’s hard. When I received the news, it was not easy.”
It was not “a tiny, tiny thing” as she had initially been told. The cancer had spread throughout the breast. To save her life, Celine would need a mastectomy.
“This is not something that you want to hear. I was with my mom – I think this is the worst thing – I don’t know how to explain that. She was crying. I said, ‘OK, I don’t care what you need to do. Just save me.’
“When I talk with my parents, my family, my friends, they can’t – absolutely cannot – take the news. It’s so hard, so some women don’t want to know. It’s easier, but you need to open your eyes some times.”
Thiria tried to organize everything from finding an au pair for her two children, Emma and Etienne, to making travel arrangements between Fort Mill and Lyon. She was told that with the type of cancer she had, they had to move fast. It was the first day of school in Fort Mill, and Emma’s birthday was in early September. Thiria put off her travel plans temporarily.
“I said, ‘I would like to be there for her birthday, because I don’t know if I will be there for the next one.’ So I left the day after her birthday, arrived in France, had some more exams, got an MRI, and they said the cancer was everywhere. It was the worst time in my life.”
There was concern that the cancer had spread to the lung and liver, but further testing found it to be five millimeters away from spreading past the breast tissue. Doctors told Thiria that two months later, the diagnosis would have very been different.
“I said, ‘Cool. I just have breast cancer. Nothing else.’ I was happy. They organized everything else, and two weeks later I needed to go to the hospital and remove my breasts. Normally it’s a family story. No. I’m the first one. I’m sorry. I’m just the first one. I’m glad Mom got nothing. I’m very happy with that, but the doctors don’t understand why I’ve got it and nobody else.”
Thiria said being strong for her family during her diagnosis was hard on everyone. She remembers getting the news over the telephone.
“I think it’s the worst part, because you need to save yourself. You need to be there for you. My parents were there in the same room. My dad started crying. My mom too, and I said ‘OK, not easy!’
“I need to support my parents. When you’ve got a child, to see a child who is sick is very hard. Even if I’m older, I’m still the child of my parents, so it’s still very hard for them.”
During her treatments, Thiria stayed with her parents at their home in Lyon.
“My dad – my dad! He cried for one week. We were living in the same house. Each time we were in the same room, he started crying. ‘Come on…please, no!’” Celine laughs now. “It was very hard.”
Dealing with others outside the family presented its own unexpected challenges for Celine.
“I stopped talking to people. I saw that I made the people very uncomfortable. I said I had to have some surgery, but that’s it. I didn’t explain much because I tried to protect them, because ‘cancer’ is something people don’t want to hear. They image you in a small box. It’s awful. I am not a box.”
Thiria recalls telling her children about her cancer diagnosis:
“My kids arrived. My son was 9 and my daughter was 14. They said, ‘What’s happened?’ and I said, ‘I have some very bad news from the doctor. I need to have some surgery and we will see.’
“Emma said, ‘Don’t lie to me. You are lying. What’s happened?’ and I said, ‘I think I’ve got cancer.’ She said, ‘What?! It’s not possible. We need you.’ And I said, ‘Yes. I think so. I will be there. Don’t worry.’”
Emma Thiria is a composed and well-spoken freshman studying chemical and paper engineering at North Carolina State. A 2013 Fort Mill graduate and color guard member, she currently volunteers with the high school band. She stood beside her mom recently during half time at Fort Mill High’s Pink Out football game to honor students’ family members affected by breast cancer. This year, Celine was sponsored for the Pink Out by her son Etienne, an eighth-grader who plays clarinet.
“I did it last year, too, and it was different,” Emma says. “I was more aware this year. It was a little harder. I watched the balloons go up [in memory of students’ relatives who had died from breast cancer] and it was more emotional.”
Emma recalls her mom’s final breast surgery in France this past summer. Celine is now cancer-free.
“I guess I’m just more world-aware now. I know more. Even this summer, my mom had another surgery. It wasn’t her first one, but it was her last one. I wasn’t with her when it happened. I was with her in the aftermath. It was hard seeing her in the hospital bed, but I was there for her,” Emma says.
Thiria’s cancer battle took its toll on Etienne and Emma. They had to grow up fast. They had to learn to take care of each other during the times during Celine’s recovery when daily tasks, like pushing the grocery cart by herself, were impossible. Emma notes that as the family weathered the fight against cancer together, she learned something surprising from her mom – strength.
“She went through this. It’s also improved my relationship with her. I think we were more open with each other. We talked about these things. It strengthened our relationship and kind of inspired me to be strong as well,” Emma says.
“It’s important to be understanding and to have meaningful conversations. When you say something, it has to be meaningful because it’s going to impact the other person,” she says.
Thiria’s fight opened Emma’s eyes that at any time, her words could be “the last thing they might hear. It always has to be positive. Always end the communication on a positive,” she said.