Words by Blyth Brentnall
When Claire Rodrigues-Lee realised she had a high chance of developing breast cancer, she initially kept it a secret. But later she gained a supportive community from the breast cancer awareness charity, Future Dreams. Its staff guided her post her preventative surgery, helping her open up to her family and develop a positive attitude that inspired a new passion project and a means for her to give back.
Claire knew she would have to undergo surgery eight years before she told anyone about it or organised an appointment. In 2014, she tested positive for the gene mutation, BRCA 2, that increases chances of developing the cancer. It was only in 2022, just before her operation, that she told her closest family and friends.
“The moment I found out that I was BRCA 2 positive I just shut down and didn't want anyone to know,” she explains. “I just wanted to get on with my life. I had just got married and I knew that I would have to have surgery at some point. But I didn't want people asking me constantly when or if I was having it done.”
Then she learnt that her mum’s sister had breast cancer. She already knew it was in her family as her grandfather had had it. The news that yet another relative had received the diagnosis reawakened Claire to the possibility that she could develop breast cancer too.
“I realised I had to avoid it at all costs,” she says. “So that’s when I decided to get the ball rolling with getting myself referred for the preventative surgery.”
‘Warmth that envelops you the moment you walk in’
Claire had two appointments postponed before she finally underwent surgery. With each postponed appointment, she spent time and energy preparing. She organised childcare, travel to school, meals, relatives - everything necessary for her hospital visit, before she discovered it wouldn’t take place.
In the meantime, she discovered Future Dreams, a charity that transformed the process for her and made her feel like at last she didn’t have to cope alone.
Future Dreams was established by a mother and daughter, Sylvie Henry and Danielle Leslie, who both tragically passed away from breast cancer. In their legacy, the organisation continues to support people touched by breast cancer. They offer yoga sessions, support groups and fatigue-management classes as well as sharing online information and advice.
Most importantly for Claire, they helped her explain to her children what she was going through. At first she could not face telling her three-year-old and six-year-old about her surgery. But the Future Dreams support worker explained how she could best communicate what was happening without shocking them.
“I was going to come up with all these stories about why I had all these tubes. But they said to me, ‘just be honest with them. Children are not stupid’,” she says.
On the day of the operation, Claire left before the children had even woken up but messaged their teachers ahead of time to let them know she was undergoing surgery and that she would tell them this upsetting news once she was home and could see them. As far as the children were aware, mummy was away, working.
When they returned, they found their mother in bed. Claire spoke to them as she had been advised to by Future Dreams, explaining: “Mummy had a little bit of a problem with her boobies. Now they're just a bit sore. So that's why you need to sit quietly next to me, but within a few days I'll be out of bed and we'll start getting things back to normal.”
“And the kids just took it in their stride,” she says.
Claire felt hugely relieved and appreciative towards Future Dreams for their support and Amanda Hanison, who was introduced to Claire as the key support phoned or messaged Claire everyday to check in, to let her know she wasn’t alone, answering her questions and making her feel supported.
“When you walk into Future Dreams House, there's this warmth that envelops you the minute you walk in. It's just got this feeling that makes you feel safe. It's just a lovely feeling,” she says.
The gift of positivity
Unfortunately for Claire, the operation wasn’t the only challenge she faced in that period. Prior to lockdown, she had a career as an award-winning songwriter in the K-pop and J-pop music scene. This all came to a sudden, unexpected halt when the pandemic hit and the music company she worked for closed down.
One moment she was working in a creative, stimulating environment, the next she was mostly indoors, cooking, cleaning, teaching and looking after her two young children.
“I was exhausted,” she recounts, “it was like Groundhog Day every day.”
As was the case for many people in that period, Claire did a lot of online shopping. However, the more she searched, the more she realised that there was actually very little she genuinely liked. So, in a burst of creativity, she closed her laptop and turned to her own wardrobe to start upcycling items she already owned.
For a long time, she had found great value in positive affirmations and she began weaving these into the accessories she produced: a beaded bracelet with a protective evil eye, a face mask embroidered with the words “Believe in your vision”, a makeup bag emblazoned with: “Self confidence is the best makeup”.
Her creations multiplied, all produced in bright colours and featuring positive messages. She began to feel just as she had done when producing music; at last, she was inspired again.
“I had this crazy outlet of creativity and energy. I just knew I was onto something,” she says.
From a desire to create accessories for herself, a larger project emerged and grew into a whole new enterprise. She started researching manufacturers, building up a selection of marketable designs and deciding on branding.
With her newfound passion, she redoubled her desire to recover from the operation. She told herself: “Right, I'm going to get through this. I'm going to recover quickly and I'm going to be on my feet.”
On 22nd November she underwent surgery and by mid-December she was hosting her pop-up business in John Lewis.
Her new business, Neon Army, sells bright, upbeat accessories reflecting the positive mentality that helped Claire overcome the life challenges she encountered.
“By changing my mindset, having a positive outlook on life, viewing myself with different lenses and believing in myself, I went on to achieve amazing things,” she says. “By sharing my story, I’ve been able to show people they’re not alone.”
In thanks for the support of Future Dreams, Claire is donating 50% of the profits from her ‘pink love eye bracelets’ to the charity this Breast Cancer Awareness Month, October 2023. Buy the bracelets and support Future Dreams here.