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TESSA James holds her chin up defiantly and looks into the camera. “Great,” the photographer tells her. He checks the frame and nods. “You look strong.”

James’s husband of four years, Nate Myles, who’s also on the shoot, raises an eyebrow. “I could’ve told you that,” he says.

It’s little wonder James is looking as though she could take on the world. The day of Sunday Style’s shoot marks exactly 12 months since the 24-year-old actor started chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer that affects the lymph nodes.

“When I was ill, I wrote down everything I wanted to do when I was better,” she tells me later. “I had a long list. And one of those things was to do a fashion shoot. Today, I’ve done that. It seems like a good day to be able to tick it off my list.”

Best known for being a bubbly, blonde Home and Away star, the tiny green-eyed young woman sitting in front of me today is calm and considered. She exudes a quiet confidence, which she attributes to the time she spent reflecting on her life while she was undergoing chemotherapy.

“I had six months of thinking about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to change how I’d been before,” she says. “I’m a different person inside and outside now. I feel like I’ve got a whole lot more to give.”

After three years playing Nicole Franklin on the soap, James left in 2011 and married rugby league player Myles, 30. “When you say your [wedding] vows, you know you’ll have hard times, because that’s life,” she says. “But you don’t say the words [‘in sickness and in health’] thinking anything is going to happen.”

It turns out those words were going to become very poignant. James set off to Hollywood to try to make her mark in the US, but by mid-2013, she felt unwell.

“I was feeling pushed,” she says. “I was exercising a lot, auditioning, flying a lot [between LA and the Gold Coast, where she lived with Myles]. For six months, I’d been saying to Nate that I felt tired; I had a headache, a stomach ache, that I just wanted to go to bed. Just complaining, if that’s what you want to call it. He’d say, ‘Just take a step back, you’re fine.’ They weren’t things that set alarm bells off.”

When she noticed a lump just above her collarbone, she went to the doctor. “Nate was at training, so I went on my own,” she says. “I didn’t think it was anything.” But as the doctor ordered scans and blood tests, she started to feel uneasy. Twelve months earlier, James’s dad had been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and the similarities between their symptoms were worrying. “At the back of my mind, something didn’t feel right,” she says. “I definitely had a gut feeling it was cancer, and all of the tests and tiptoeing around were just precautions. But then I’d think, it can’t be. My dad was sick — it can’t happen to me. That would just be cruel.”

But it did. “I was in the car with my mum and a girlfriend when the doctor called,” she says. “I knew what he was going to say. I was extremely upset. I went into planning mode. How was I going to deal with this? I knew I was going to be fine, but how was I going to get on top of it?”

Myles was away on an end-of-season trip, so she had to ring and tell him the news. What’s it like to receive a call like that from your wife? He shakes his head. “Heartbreaking,” he says. “But it wasn’t about me and how I felt. I just had to get home as quickly as I could and be there.”

Doctors recommended starting chemotherapy immediately, although they couldn’t tell her whether it would be successful.

“I tried to be positive,” she says. “It was difficult, but I woke up every morning, saying, ‘Today is going to be a good day.’ That didn’t always eventuate, but that’s what I tried to do. My dad had been through it and had the same attitude.”

For Myles, watching his wife endure the often-debilitating treatment was hard. “I knew she was tough, but the extent she had to go to …” He pauses. “…for her to keep showing up [mentally], particularly in the early parts when nobody knew whether it was helping or not, was brutal. Without any knowledge of the result, she just kept turning up and doing it anyway.”

Despite James’s positive attitude, some days were tough. One day, she had a panic attack and phoned her dad to tell him she could no longer muster the will to survive. When I ask what pulled her through, she looks to Myles. “I had to,” she says simply. “I didn’t have a choice. I’d hit what I felt was rock bottom. That doesn’t feel good. I didn’t want to feel like that every day, so I chose to have a better day. I wanted to get better, so I put that pressure on myself to shock me out of where I was. But I needed to go there to get out of it again.”

“It was very scary [seeing her like that],” Myles says. “I knew she could come out the other side because of the people around her — her mum and dad have been through similar things, or worse. And she’s stubborn.” He grins. “There are plenty of stories about that!”

The couple managed to find light relief in unexpected moments. When James’s hair started to fall out, she shaved it off, with Myles filming the moment for posterity.

“The deal was he’d shave his head after me,” she says. “It was funny. Don’t get me wrong, it was confronting and scary and, of course, I had a moment where I cried because I didn’t have any hair, but then I thought, ‘What can you do about it?’ I actually really enjoyed being bald. I had nowhere to hide. I could just be myself. Some people have a bad day because their hair doesn’t look good. For once, I didn’t have to think about it. It made things easy.”

After 12 rounds of chemotherapy over the course of six months, James’s treatment finished in February this year. To mark the occasion, Myles bought a Wonder Woman outfit for her to wear to hospital. “My mum raised four kids by herself, so I’ve got some amazing women in my life,” he says. “But to watch Tess go through [chemo] put her in a different category. Wonder Woman fitted the way I looked at her.”

In April this year, just two days before her 24th birthday, James was told she was in remission. But it wasn’t the weight off her mind you might imagine.

“I think it was a bigger relief for the people around me than it was for me,” she says. “I was happy, but it doesn’t just end when they say ‘Your treatment’s finished, you’re OK.’ You have to deal with the after-effects. While it was great that I didn’t have to go through that [treatment] anymore, I felt I was going to go through something else. I still had so much work to do within myself. I still felt the physical and emotional effects of what had happened to me. When my treatment was over, I could do anything I wanted, but I didn’t know where to start.”

Slowly, James is starting to rebuild her life. She’s made a couple of trips to LA and she and Myles have bought an apartment there so she has a base when travelling over for auditions. “I was super-independent before, but when I wasn’t well, I needed to be surrounded by people all the time,” she says. “So, it was really good for my confidence to go back to LA; I have no association with being sick there. I’ve been doing classes in dance, singing and acting, so I’m getting back to doing what I love.”

She admits it won’t be easy. “It’s definitely not like it was a year ago,” she says. “Basically, I have to start again, but I’m trying not to look at that as a bad thing. I look completely different. The roles I get to go for are different, so it’s kind of a whole new world. But I hope that’ll translate into the right opportunity.”

She’s just filmed a part in the Australian film Spin Out with former Home and Away co-star Lincoln Lewis. “It was a tiny role, but it was on my list to do a film, so I ticked that off,” she says.

“It was fantastic. I went on set every day, even if I wasn’t needed, and just watched. I just wanted to be around creative people. It got my fire going again, which I needed. It’s exciting.”

James has a keen eye for fashion and hopes to foster relationships with designers so she can collaborate with them when she wears dresses to events. She’s keen to wear “things she wouldn’t have chosen before”, and, after the shoot, tries a few dresses for an upcoming event the stylist thinks she might like. She gravitates towards a chic calf-length Christopher Esber number. “Do you like this, Nate?” she asks, coming out of the changing room barefoot and giving a small twirl. His eyes light up and he nods enthusiastically. He seems slightly in awe of the woman his wife has become.

Her new approach to fashion and the creative industry has made her think about running her own business one day. “There isn’t a huge amount of control in acting at the beginning, so I like the thought of having something I can control and that’s mine,” she says. “I think I’m strong enough to be able to do something like that now.”

The couple recently moved from the Gold Coast to Sydney, where Myles now plays for the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles.

“When we left Sydney [three years ago], we didn’t think we were ever coming back,” Myles says. “But it’s a fresh start; a new approach. The past year has changed our priorities.” James agrees. “Our outlook on life has changed,” she says. “As a couple, how we want to be and who we want to be. I think things have been as bad as they can be. So everything we do now is positive.”

Myles adds: “We know what we can endure. It’s hard to say how strong your bond is without going through something. When you’re pushed to places you don’t want to be, it makes you realise where you are together. We’re better for it in regards to understanding each other. I don’t want to push past that and see how strong we really are. I don’t think we need to do that again.”

James has to have regular check-ups but feels confident about her health. Her father is also in remission. “I have no doubt my outcome was a reflection of how my dad looked and handled his journey,” she says.

Although babies aren’t in the immediate future, the couple would love to be parents one day. “I have a lot of things I want to do first, but, of course, it’s on the list,” she says. She’s been told she should be able to conceive and carry a baby after the chemotherapy. “Touch wood,” she says, and Myles knocks on her forehead.

For now, the couple are enjoying letting life take them wherever they choose. “I don’t have to do one certain thing any more,” she says. “I’m open to anything. I look at life that way now. Anything we want to do, we can. The dream is to be working. To have a business. To do film and theatre. To be healthy. To be happy.”

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