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.

Breast Cancer Book – Answers at Your Fingertips

Recently I came across an excellent book “Breast Cancer – Answers at your fingertips”. Oh how I wish this sort of book had been available to me 22 years ago when I travelled my breast cancer journey alone. Sadly this book and all the other such books had yet to be written because cancer was not openly talked about that many years ago. Consequently I experienced my bumpy, sometimes frightening ride without a lot to read to prepare me for the unexpected hazards I encountered around every bend.

Happily times have changed for the better, and today bookshops are full of this type of book which means women, their families and friends, and not forgetting some men now have first class information about the disease and ways to combat it at their fingertips. To find out and arm oneself with information is the best way I know to acquire strength and knowledge which can help dispense fears and equip one to cope with the unknown. Many books are full of sound knowledge, facts about breast cancer and expert advice, and if information is given in a straightforward way it can help create a calm response to diagnosis and a positive approach to recommended treatments. Reading such books can provide answers to questions, while clear explanations, diagrams and illustrations can offer some re-assurance during the trauma of initial diagnosis.

We all experience confusion, anger, distress and fright in varying degrees, from the first signs and symptoms through to the final diagnosis of breast cancer. And irrespective of colour, class, creed or age many women will look for answers to the question “why me”? The most informative of books will have up to date advice on latest research and treatments to help guide women through the breast cancer journey. By explaining how each of us is unique and that all cancers are dissimilar, reading books can dispel unfounded myths, explain the benefits of complimentary therapies and help us understand and come to terms with, diagnosis and recommended treatment.

If you are embarking on your journey, or travelling down the road for a second time my personal tip is to read as much as you can, make a list of your concerns and keep asking your medical team questions. Take notes of advice you are given. If you are unsure of anything or have specific concerns, ask for a more thorough explaination, this will help you avoid unnecessary worry and stress. Or why not contact one of the cancer support organisations whose websites are another excellent source of information? Some hospital breast care units have specially trained cancer counsellors to help advice and support patients, so talk to them. If you are just starting out on the breast cancer journey it is so important that you digest and think through all the information you are given so you can be sure before you make important decisions. You alone must feel confident when you finally give your consent to the medical team to proceed with recommended surgery, treatment and care. Remember it is your body and you should be in control when you give them permission to start down the road.

As you make your traumatic journey you may discover a positive and unexpected benefit from your breast cancer experience. Your view of life will sharpen, and life itself may feel richer and more precious. As a survivor I know, because it happened to me and strange as it may seem my breast cancer experience enriched my life. And now I don’t intend to waste a single day of it!