Flaminia Fegarotti is an accomplished Italian actress who just gave birth to her first child.
Fluent in both Italian and English, she's as comfortable in a Hollywood production as she is on stage in a Roman theater or behind a microphone in a dubbing studio.
She's also very familiar with the oncological department of Rome's Sant'Andrea Hospital.
In 2007, Flaminia was diagnosed with cancer in her right breast. She immediately underwent a mastectomy with 'simultaneous' reconstruction using part of her dorsal muscle, followed by hormone therapy. During the following year and a half she was in and out of hospital having minor operations to improve the aesthetics of her newly reconstructed breast.
Then in 2009, she was diagnosed with cancer in the other breast.
Flaminia again underwent a mastectomy with 'simultaneous' breast reconstruction. This time, the doctors told her she would need chemotherapy. Instead of letting it get her down, the actress matter-of-factly says she simply scheduled her treatments around her shows, making sure she had no performances in the initial days after every round of chemo -which is when patients generally feel their worst.
Between 2010 and 2012 she had several minor surgeries to improve the aesthetics of the other new breast, all the while juggling an intensive workload on-screen, on-stage and in-studio.
It's perhaps no coincidence, given that she was educated at university and drama school in the UK, that when I ask Flaminia about Angelina Jolie's editorial in the New York Times explaining her decision to have a double preventive mastectomy, she chooses a Shakespearian metaphor.
"Much ado about nothing," she says cheerily. "After all, in the U.S., it is relatively common to have a double mastectomy on healthy breasts when you find out you have one of the two known breast cancer genes (Br Ca 1 or Br Ca 2). It's a brave choice, which many women have made before Jolie, and I don't see what the big deal is. One good thing is that being famous, it will make many people more aware of their options."
I ask Flaminia whether the Hollywood superstar has done women undergoing mastectomies the world over a favor by going public with her operations. "Possibly," she tells me, "by explaining to the world that a mastectomy with reconstruction is a completely different matter to having a boob job. In other words, with a breast augmentation, you're adding an implant to your own breasts, you're not mutilating your own," she emphasizes. "It's very frustrating and humiliating that people don't seem to grasp the difference -- with all due respect to women who choose to have additive breast implants."
She underlines the word 'choose' since, although she is now cancer-free, it was never the case of choosing whether to remove her breasts or not at the ages of 37 and 39. It just had to be done. "At a personal level, Jolie's move makes me feel very vaguely better. I guess it slightly attenuates the stigma of being less of a woman or less feminine in a way..."
Flaminia has great respect for women who choose to take such a drastic preventive step -- including her good friend Silvia Mari who was one of the first women in Italy to have had her healthy breasts removed because she had lost her mother and other female family members to breast cancer (watch interview in Italian).
"Women who choose to operate on healthy breasts are very brave indeed," she tells me. "It is a rational and intelligent choice for those who have a genetic mutation. It's obviously not for women who are simply scared they might get breast cancer. Regular screening is their best option."
In February of this year, Flaminia and her partner Stefano had little Milo. "I feel lucky, blessed, elated, proud, grateful -- the list could go on forever. Yes, I often thought it would never happen to me and I still have a hard time believing it's actually true!" she exclaims.
Medical experts say that while not impossible, it is not very common to have a baby after breast cancer for two main reasons. First of all, old school oncologists used to strongly discourage pregnancy because they thought it would enhance the reoccurrence of cancer. Secondly, hormone therapy and chemotherapy cause amenorrhea which means, depending on her age, that a woman could potentially slide into early menopause.
"Over these last six years, I have observed many mothers and often wondered what it would be like for me -- especially whether I would have the skills, the instinct, the patience and so on to become a mom," Flaminia says smiling. "I felt insecure... but then the moment I became pregnant, which was soon after my oncologist gave us the green-light, everything came so naturally and it was quite different to what I had expected. I'm far from perfect, but I feel happy and comfortable being a mother and I'm unable to put into words the love I feel for my little angel! "
Does she ever worry about whether Milo might have inherited the cancer gene? "The breast cancer genes (1 and 2) can potentially affect both men and women in different organs," she explains. "Breasts and ovaries for women; breast, pancreas and prostate for men. If only one parent carries the gene, the offspring have a 50 per cent chance of inheriting it. In the case of Br Ca 2, the genetic mutation which applies to me, there's a pattern -- though it's not a guarantee - of skipping a generation. If you inherit it, you can still pass it on even, even if you are the 'lucky' generation. My grandmother passed away from breast cancer and my mother is apparently the healthy carrier. I'm praying that my baby has not inherited the gene."
Never one to shirk from responsibility, the actress plays a very active role in an Italian association called "Incontradonna" which runs breast cancer awareness campaigns. She's lent her time and energy to numerous events including fashion shows, press conferences, TV appearances, interviews for papers and magazines and even an international oncological congress held in Moscow last year, which she travelled to when pregnant.
"I do it because I want to encourage other women in their fight against breast cancer," she says. "I tell them: Attack and fight with all your physical and mental strength; remember that feeling blue and discouraged physically depresses your immune system thereby making you more vulnerable to any disease. Pray, laugh, spend time with your loved ones, do whatever works for you but do not seek isolation: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Many women before you fought and won the battle. Take action, don't waste time and stay focused on your goal -- life."
Flaminia concludes, "I draw my strength from my family and my friends, but mainly I am grateful to God for having imbued me with 'cosmic' optimism." After a brief pause, she adds, "I now have an extra special motivation to fight: my gorgeous baby boy."