As first-time mum Talia Cooper sat breastfeeding her baby son Navy, she took in the precious view of his small head against her chest, holding his warm body close to hers.
With tears streaming down her cheeks, she whispered that it was their final feed. She was sorry. There was nothing she wanted more than to continue the sweet mothering ritual that bonded them so tightly. But now, she had to beat cancer.
"After that last feed, I left Navy downstairs safe, warm and innocent – and it was the first time I really felt like a mother, like a lioness," recalls Talia, 30, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in June.
"I had to go through all this trauma and loss so I could be there for him."
The new mum first noticed a lump on her right breast six months into her pregnancy. But because she was young and healthy, Talia shrugged it off, assuming her body was changing with the hormones. She focused on becoming a parent with her husband Jesse, 30, a music producer and videographer.
"I went into motherhood not really wanting too many things," shares Talia, who met her Niuean hubby 14 years ago through high-school friends. "I wanted Navy to be passed around so he gets used to lots of people and to breastfeed exclusively for six months."
But when her bub was 10 weeks old, the Aucklander was told she had breast cancer. She needed six rounds of chemotherapy, followed by a mastectomy. She and Jesse would also have to start an emergency round of IVF since Talia could become infertile and their young family wasn't complete.
Devastatingly, Talia had to stop breastfeeding. She was given one night to prepare.
She admits, "The most traumatic part of all of this isn't actually my diagnosis. It's not being able to breastfeed and I have a lot of grief around that being taken away from me."
Chatting with Woman's Day from her family's home in Sandringham – where the travel-loving mum grew up before moving to New York with Jesse, who secured a record deal in 2012 – Talia recalls their decision to live at a slower pace and start a family.
"We decided to try for a baby and then it happened so fast!" she laughs. "After Navy was born, I did six weeks post-partum confinement, which is when you stay at home. In a lot of Eastern cultures, you stay home and the family cook and clean for you. Your role is to feed, nurture and grow the baby. So that's what we did."
When she noticed the lump, which felt like a golf ball, Talia put it on her list of things to check with her midwife. She planned to tell her mum too, but she didn't.
"It came out of nowhere and cancer was the last thing I thought," tells Talia. "It wasn't until Navy was born and I starting breastfeeding that Jesse felt it too and the midwife told us to get it checked."
When her six-week cocooning was up and Talia started leaving the house, she went to her GP.
"My doctor gave me a stern telling off and said I should've come in when I found it," she says. "In hindsight I should've, but I'm also glad I had that time at home and wasn't rushing to get out the door and back to a normal life."
The tired mum was booked for an ultrasound, which turned into an urgent mammogram and biopsy.
"The doctor said it wasn't a cyst or benign lump, so what did that leave? My head was spinning," explains Talia. "I was confused because there's no cancer in my family, I'm 30 and have a new baby."For Jesse, being hit with the news his wife could have cancer was "a hard pill to swallow". He was beside Talia the evening her doctor called to say they were dealing with breast cancer. The musician recalls, "Hearing that as a husband and dad is destroying."
Talia had to wait five days for her results. She was told to do the things she loves and create happy memories, but confides, "I chose to spend those days at home because I'd done everything I wanted, like all the travel and living overseas."
Before Navy's birth, Talia spent six years in New York and followed Jesse on European and American tours as he played big festivals including Coachella. They travelled Europe, Mexico and Guatemala, and climbed the same trek where her parents met in Nepal, in the Himalayas.
The best friends married during a Kiwi summer in the Coromandel three years ago, surrounded by forest and beach and guests from all around the world.
"I was at a place where I didn't feel like I needed to create all these memories because I do on the daily," she smiles.
But what they hadn't done was complete the family they wanted.
When Talia learnt she has Grade 2 breast cancer – that thankfully hadn't spread – the next four weeks became a blur of hospital visits, appointments, blood tests, scans and huge decisions. Since the chemo could make her infertile, the devoted couple were booked for emergency IVF.
"It couldn't be funded because we already had a baby, so we literally had to raise $10,000 overnight," she tells. "All of that on top of a newborn was crazy."
But the hardest part was hearing that to have IVF and chemo, the doting mum needed to stop breastfeeding.
Talia let Jesse take over bottle-feeding Navy for a week to help him wean off her milk. It took all her strength not to rush to his cries.
"Jesse was patient, calm and the epitome of strength, and Navy was a champ," says Talia, whose family became her pillar of support during chemo. Then she said goodbye to her blonde hair, which Jesse shaved in a bathroom lit with candles, with Navy on her lap.
But there was a silver lining. "When I was doing a Plunket course, another mother mentioned how she was pumping milk for a charity called Mother's Milk Charitable Trust," explains Talia. "I said, 'Wow, well done doing that on top of having a newborn.' Then three weeks later, I was a recipient."
The organisation facilitated and screened mothers who offered their breastmilk for Navy, and now 10 generous mums, including best friends, girls from high school and strangers, are gifting their milk.
Talia insists, "There's no problem with formula, but I thought if I could keep him on breast milk, why not? It gave me some control back where I have none.
"Navy needs one litre a day and it takes a mother about a week to pump that. Our freezer is full thanks to these amazing mums who are literally growing my boy."
With four of her six rounds of chemo completed, Talia is booked for her mastectomy in December. The brave mum is weighing up having both breasts removed. Now, loved ones are fundraising for the estimated $60,000 she and Jesse need for the year to cover treatment, essentials and loss of income.
Among the army of women supporting Talia is Kiwi musician and mother Anika Moa.
"'Wheels on the Bus' and all those other songs drive me crazy, so I came across Anika's baby albums and they're so cool! Navy and I are big fans," she enthuses. "Anika heard about my story through a couple of friends and agreed to do a benefit gig. I felt really lucky."
The Bubbas and Boobs fundraiser sold 450 tickets and was emceed by fellow mum and The Edge radio host Sharyn Casey.
Jesse says his wife's fight has been relentless. "She's getting through it so well and I'm really proud. We lived in New York City by ourselves and thought that was tough. We hiked Nepal and thought that was tough! Having a baby was the next challenge and then cancer came along."
But there's another positive sign. After Talia's third round of treatment, an MRI showed the tumour is no longer visible and it's had a near complete response to the chemotherapy.
"I'm responding really well and tests showed I don't have some of the really scary breast cancer genes," she smiles. "Although this is hard, Jesse and I are telling ourselves that it's just a season. We'll have our life back one day."
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