Discovering I Had Breast Cancer

I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 47. I was terrified. I was the BBC’s Green Goddess, the nation’s gym mistress. I felt desperately alone. John and I had separated a year before. I was on the crest of a wave with my campaign on BBC Breakfast: ‘Get Britain Fit’. Cancer happens to other people, we all know that. My thought at that moment was, ‘I don’t want my life to stop. I’ve got so much more I want to do. And the biggest thing at that moment was, ‘I want to see my boys with partners and I want to see some grandchildren.’

I decided to keep it a secret. I told a close friend. I told my agent. They made me tell my sons, and the boys told John. So now there were just six of us who knew. Eventually, after two weeks’ of deliberating, I went back to see the surgeons to say I wasn’t going to have anything done but by the time I came out I had conceded to their recommendations of a bilateral mastectomy followed by immediate reconstruction, about which I knew zilch.

I was booked into the hospital under my maiden name. The operation was a very big shock. I felt mutilated. I was proud of my body but, more than that, it was part of the tools of my trade. I had high levels of fitness and that got me over the operation, but mentally I was in a mess. I couldn’t talk to people. I now know you must talk to people, which is why I encourage people to talk about their problems.

I was spiritual; I talked to my God quite a lot, and eventually I found the best way to cope with my problem was to write it all down. So every day I wrote down what was happening to me physically, but also spiritually and mentally. I was coping because of an inner strength brought out in me as a small child by my disciplined and disciplining father, who taught me to stand on my own two feet.

Harold Evans, then Editor of ‘The Sunday Times’, heard from a mutual friend I had had cancer and had been keeping a very detailed diary. He said a diary like that would be important to share with other cancer patients and that’s how I came to publish the book which I called ‘A More Difficult Exercise’ – the diary of six months of my life. It was launched in the lecture theatre of the Royal Marsden Hospital, because the surgeons were thrilled that somebody was finally coming out so positively about having had cancer. Some of the press coverage was hurtful. A male journalist in ‘The Mirror’ wrote: ‘Green Goddess has breast cancer. If that’s what keeping fit does for you, I’ll stick to walking my dog.’

Immediately it was out in the open, I started my work with cancer charities. I am celebrity ambassador for Breast Cancer Care, for Breakthrough Cancer, patron of the Breast Cancer Campaign and of the Cancer Counselling Trust. And there are many more.

I now know that the support you get from other women who’ve been on this journey is vital. Before we start the Breast Cancer Care ‘Ribbon Walks’, I do a mass workout; thousands of women in front of me, bending and shaking to my command! We have four this year. We all support one another because we’ve all gone through the experience of breast cancer – usually ourselves but also in memory, or thanks, for somebody close to us.

I relax by painting, whenever possible out in the fresh air. I sit by the river and capture light. I’ve painted on and off during my life, probably when I’ve had my most down moments, when I’ve had some time as well. That’s when I resort to the paint. It has to be oil, it has to be thick; it can be put on with a knife as well as brushes; it’s not delicate stuff, it’s strong stuff, and it’s absolutely passionate. When I paint I don’t eat, I don’t see anything or anybody; I’m absolutely in a world of my own and I’m never happier!