Private Lives: Our marriage was the only fatality

A Family Affair

LOSING HER BREASTS TO CANCER WAS A TURNING POINT FOR MIRANDA VICENTE. RECONSTRUCTION SURGERY GAVE HER A NEW LEASE OF LIFE, BUT ALSO MARKED THE END OF HER MARRIAGE TO FRANCO

Miranda and Franco Vicente had been married for three years when Miranda was diagnosed with breast cancer aged 23 and underwent chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. Given the all-clear medically but depressed about her body shape, Miranda decided to have reconstruction surgery. Franco, however, was against the decision. Two months ago the couple separated. Actor Franco now runs a restaurant in south Malaga, Spain, where the couple used to live. Miranda and their children - Daniela 7, and Sergio, 6 - live in London.

Miranda

I'd never given my breasts much thought until I was diagnosed with cancer and had the mastectomy. Then, suddenly, they were all I could think about. At night I would dream that I had breasts, but in the morning I'd look down and see the scars.

When you're initially diagnosed with cancer, all you want to do is get better. I went on to autopilot - I never considered what I'd feel like if I survived. There never seemed time for Franco and I to talk, we'd just lurch from one crisis to the next. I got into the habit of saying that I was fine even when I felt terrible. Franco did the same.

The mastectomy changed me in so many ways. Sexually, it was as though someone had switched the light off. If I felt the odd twinge of sexiness, as soon as I looked down at my body I would instantly feel turned off. In a way the roles were reversed. I was more upset about my body shape than Franco was. I was the one turning away, which was hard for him.

He couldn't understand how not having breasts was like living with this constant shadow hanging over me. I disliked going out with the prostheses in. They're hot and uncomfortable and, whatever I wore, I didn't feel as though I looked nice. I was more than flat-chested, I was concave, and I hated the way my shape made me feel.

Reconstruction, I decided, would mend everything, but Franco and I rowed about it. He said he didn't want me to have the surgery because there was no guarantee it would work, but I was adamant. I would feel feminine again. I could wear a pretty dress and go out in a bikini. Gradually, the idea started to take over my life.

I returned to London, without Franco, for the treatment. They did one breast first and three months later they did the other side. Waking up from the first operation and looking down at myself was amazing. The doctor whispered in my ear - "We managed to do you a 34C" - and I felt ecstatic.

In London I had time to think about Franco and me. With distance, I realised that the relationship had been on a downward slope for a couple of years and, if we were honest, we weren't happy any more. After everything I'd gone through I just didn't have the energy to put the relationship back on track.

There are lots of things we could have done differently. I wasn't prepared for the deep emotional scar breast cancer leaves. I used to walk into the bathroom, take off my T-shirt and sob. But it was only in my own private time. No one else saw. Perhaps if I'd told Franco he would have felt more needed. But the man also needs to realise that breast cancer isn't about him. If you're depressed, or not feeling sexy, it isn't a rejection of them. It's about how you feel about yourself and I don't think Franco ever understood that.

I don't know what would have happened between Franco and me if I hadn't had the cancer. Perhaps the relationship was going wrong anyway - there's a big age difference between us because I'm 29 and he's 52. I'm looking to the future now and it's scary. The hospital becomes your extended family. Now I've got to learn how to enjoy the day for its normality. I will be eternally grateful to the surgeon for giving me breasts. They've helped me feel better about myself. But they haven't turned out to be the answer. I know now that I will never get back what I lost, and it's going to take a long time before I come to terms with everything.

Franco

On the same day as Miranda had her first mastectomy, my bosses rang to tell me that the series I'd been working on - the soap opera Eldorado - was being scrapped. My wife was gravely ill. It looked as though I was going to have to bring up two children on my own. And now I'd lost my job. For the next few months, until my contract ran out, I would go to work smiling, pretending everything was OK, when really I was desperate.

Thank God Miranda did recover and, after the mastectomy, I thought life could go back to normal. But the problem was that we had different ways of coping. Miranda has said since that I didn't talk to her, that I didn't ask her how she was often enough. She says all I wanted to hear was "I'm fine" because if she said that then I could just carry on as normal.

Miranda hides her feelings well. Now I wonder if I should have dug deeper, because I obviously made the mistake of thinking she was stronger than she really was. But at the same time I lived in constant terror. I wanted her to say she was fine, because if she wasn't there was a new pain which might have meant that the cancer had come back. I suppose you could say we were both in denial.

I opened a restaurant and tried to start a new career. Meanwhile Miranda was living in a small village with no one to talk to, no family or close friends nearby. Now I realise how lonely she must have felt.

People always said Miranda and I made a handsome couple. After the mastectomy, when we walked down the street people would go nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Is he gay? Is he with a transvestite? One time I wanted to punch these guys and it was all Miranda and my daughter could do to stop me. I felt like saying, "Listen you bastards. She's had cancer. Do you want to see the scars?" Miranda cried for a couple of days after that.

But I never saw the situation as Miranda losing her breasts. I was still madly in love with her. Perhaps I over-compensated but, in my mind, I fancied Miranda more than I had ever done. When I opened my eyes I never saw the scars. But she was cold, distant.

She would say that she didn't feel like a woman any more. She said she'd understand if I had an affair. But that just made me feel as though she was rejecting me. I'd sit on the sofa and we'd hold hands, but I felt nothing back from her.

I was against the reconstruction. I thought she'd been through enough. I'd seen her with drainage tubes in her arms, I'd seen her in so much pain she couldn't sleep. I said - "You're healthy again, you've got two happy kids, you've got me. Why are you putting yourself through this? There's no guarantee what it will come out like." She is such a perfectionist. I was terrified she'd hate the way she looked even more.

Earlier this year we tried a temporary separation and then, in August, she returned to Spain with the children and told me that the relationship was over. I offered to come back to England, I've suggested we go to Relate, but Miranda says there's been an irrevocable breakdown.

Why does everyone think that it's only the person who gets cancer who is the victim? Everyone around us has been affected by it - me, the children, her family.

If I had my time again I'd get us counselling. I'm sure we'd still be a couple if the cancer hadn't happened. I'm still in love with her. But I know there's no chance of us getting back together. No one wins with cancer. Miranda recovered, thank God, but I lost my wife and kids.

The documentary `Miranda's Chest' is being shown on Monday, 12 October at 9pm on Channel 4

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