How I Discovered I had Breast Cancer

As part of the original team of BBC Breakfast Time, from 1983 – 1987, I was a symbol of health and fitness for the nation in my campaign “Get Britain Fit” wearing my trademark shiny green leotard and tights!  It came as a complete surprise to me that I had breast cancer.  I was feeling as fit as a fiddle at the time and there was no indication that anything was wrong.  I was 47 when I was diagnosed and was at the peak of my fitness.

I was menopausal at the time and went to the menopause clinic to see if I would be a suitable candidate to take hormone replacement therapy (HRT).  As part of a series of medical checks they carried out a mammogram.  Later that week they called me back and suggested I went to the Royal Marsden Hospital in London.  When I got in to see the consultant the mammograms were up there and I said to him “you’re going to tell me I’ve got breast cancer aren’t you!”  And he simply replied “yes you have”.  He told me it was in its early stages and that the cancer was in situ, which means it was contained in both the breasts.

My reaction was one of utter disbelief, and then as the consultant talked it over with me my feelings were of intense fear and then intense anger and I thought “what have I done wrong?”  I knew nothing at all about breast cancer, and back then in 1988 nobody talked about it.  I looked for books about the disease and information, but it was to no avail, there was nothing at all, not like there is today.

My treatment was to have both breasts removed – a bilateral mastectomy – which is sometimes referred to as “the cruellest cut” for a woman.  Although breast cancer patients look and appear fine from the outside, we are all of us somewhat scarred inside.  It is an onslaught to our femininity.  The consultant talked about re-construction but to be honest I hadn’t got a clue what they were talking about.  All I knew was that they had cut the cancer away and because of that I thought there was no further treatment.

I hated the hospital I had gone to for the operation.  I went into the Cromwell Hospital and because I needed to keep my cancer absolutely secret had booked in under my maiden name.  Only my two sons, my former husband and a close friend knew.  I was high profile at the time and I did not want the press to find out.  It’s not what you want when you are ill.

When I came home I found the press had been sniffing around because I had not been on TV.  I was off screen for about 4 months before I came back and did a four minute segment.  Nobody knew my secret nor did they know how I had to steel myself in order to do it!  I hadn’t got my stamina or mobility back and could never have done a 45 minute fitness class.  It took about a year before I could again.

During all this time I kept a detailed diary of what was happening to me because I could not talk openly to anyone about it.   9 months after my cancer the diary was published by Bloomsbury called “A More Difficult Exercise” – which it was!  When members of the family and friends found out they were very angry with me because I hadn’t told them I was ill.

Today I am fighting fit.  Being fit is important and if you are going to be hit by a thunderbolt, like my cancer was, it pays to be fit.   Fitness helps you to get through such difficult times and assists a more speedy recovery.  Until my illness I had assumed I would go on for ever and had not thought about popping my clogs at 47.  However some years later – in fact it was 12 years ago – the time came for me to face all my demons.  I had to go for counselling, I just had to find somebody that I could talk to about all my suppressed anger.  I went to the Cancer Counselling Trust because they offer help to cancer patients – even a long time later – and they can help you, your family and friends.

One of the things that are important to me is that I am still around and I feel that I have been given a second chance in life.  My message to anybody going through the same trauma as I did is to share what you are going through with others.  You must not be left feeling that you are alone, because you are not alone.  This disease affects one woman in nine.   I was wrong to have kept the diagnosis to myself.  Breast Cancer Care run a marvelous support system which can not only provide you with the latest information, but will also put you in touch with other women who have been through just what you are now going through.  Both Breast Cancer Care and the Cancer Counselling Trust have websites and free help lines.

One of the most important things to me is that I am still around and have been given a second chance in life.  It gives me some urgency.  But my sons have presented me with the gift of 4 grandchildren and seeing this continuance of your life makes it all worthwhile.