“I thought, OK I’m going to die,” remembers Victoria Derbyshire of the moment she received her breast cancer diagnosis in 2015. “I genuinely thought my luck had run out. I said to myself ‘I’ve had a good life, but this is it now’.”
Subsequent tests showed the cancer was curable – albeit with the grim triumvirate of surgery, chemo and radiotherapy. As the host of her eponymous BBC current affairs show, she couldn’t exactly hide away during the brutal journey of cancer treatment, so instead decided to face it head on, sharing video diaries every step of the way until she received the all-clear the following year. The decision to be so open had to be a family one, and she and husband Mark Sandell already knew they were going to be honest with their sons. “My boys were 11 and eight at the time,” she says. “We didn’t say anything until we knew it was treatable, then we set the example of just being really pragmatic about the whole thing.”
It’s a pragmatism that many of us have had to embrace. One in eight British women will have breast cancer: a statistic that I didn’t know until I was diagnosed in January. I’ve since had 20 weeks of chemotherapy, with an imminent mastectomy the next step. One thing that has helped me over these months has been seeking out other women’s stories, for support with chemo side effects or commiserating over the bleak reality of losing your hair.
Now, Derbyshire is launching a podcast with the charity Future Dreams to support the army of us that are in this same boat. It will cover everything from the first signs to other people’s reactions and, of course, hair. “The hair is such a big deal,” she says soothingly, when I tell her that episode made me cry. “It was for me as well.”
She learned just how important talking about breast cancer is after taking part in last year’s I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!. On the show, she chatted with campmate Jessica Plummer about the signs of the disease. “I explained how I had noticed that my right breast was a bit lower than my left, and the nipple was inverted, and she was shocked because she thought breast cancer was always a lump on your breast,” says Derbyshire. “Jessica is only 27 and she’d never had a conversation about this. She was asking really good, basic questions. Fair play to ITV for putting that out because it’s not exactly a laugh a minute, but 11 million people saw it.” By the time she emerged from the castle in Wales, Derbyshire had been inundated with messages, “including some from people saying that they’d had symptoms checked after watching that episode and have since been diagnosed”.
Victoria felt it was important that ITV aired her conversation about cancer on I’m A Celeb Credit: ITV/Shutterstock
Her aim with the podcast is to open up these conversations and decode some of the language. “There is lots of terminology that we can slip into which doesn’t help people. For instance, the term ‘secondary breast cancer’. People don’t know what it means. It feels like a polite euphemism and I don’t like it,” she says. Put simply, it’s when the cancer has spread from the breast to another part of the body, such as the bones, lungs or liver. While there may be treatment to manage it, it is no longer curable. Talking about this I am struck by how important it is to get anything unusual checked as soon as possible.
Sadly, since the start of the pandemic, many have not been to the doctor about symptoms for fear of putting pressure on the NHS, or they haven’t been able to get a face-to-face appointment, so their illness has gone undiagnosed. Last month, The Telegraph reported that England is at risk of replacing the Covid crisis with a cancer crisis, with more than 300,000 people missing urgent checks. Statistics from Cancer Research UK said breast cancer checks alone had dropped by more than 20,000. “I met a woman for the podcast whose check-up was delayed due to Covid,” says Victoria. “By the time she got there, she had secondary breast cancer. That woman’s cancer is now not curable and she’ll never know if it’s because her check-up was delayed. It’s hard for my brain to go there because it’s so distressing.” Throughout the pandemic, there was the message that the NHS was still open “but that message wasn’t loud enough or emphatic enough”, she says. “And the knock-on effect of that is immense.”
I should add that my own experience was efficient, despite it being lockdown in January. I was referred quickly by my GP, and started chemo within six weeks of the day I first noticed a lump. I was lucky that I could have my husband at the appointment where I got the biopsy results to confirm that it was breast cancer, but it made me think about those who live alone and hadn’t bubbled with another household during lockdown.
“I interviewed a woman on the podcast who was given her cancer diagnosis on her own and then had to go home all alone,” says Victoria. “She doesn’t have a family or a partner at home, so there was literally no one she could hug. I asked her, have you actually hugged anyone since your diagnosis? And the answer was no, not one person, and as a result she hadn’t shed a tear. Because she’d been so desperate to preserve her sanity, in this period of loneliness, that she hadn’t wanted to allow herself to cry. It’s just extraordinary times that people have been through.”
It’s easy to see why some have delayed having symptoms checked out, particularly if they live alone, but it’s so important to do so.
There is sometimes a sense that, since survival rates are comparatively good, we have “beaten” breast cancer. Try telling that to anyone who has to go through the emotional and physical battering of chemo, radiation, surgery or all three. Like all cancers, it’s only curable if you catch it early.
Victoria featured her first chemotherapy session on her own programme
“It’s like, if you’re going to get cancer, breast cancer is the best one,” Victoria laughs ruefully of well-meaning friends’ reactions. “It comes from a good place, but I’d rather not have it at all.” She recently read Sarah Harding’s book and found it devastating. “She delayed going to the doctor because of Covid and, again, we don’t know if things would have been different, but she’s been told she’s had her last Christmas.” She pauses and exhales slowly. “I can’t bear it. It’s so unfair. Breast cancer isn’t ‘beaten’, which is why we should be so grateful for organisations like Future Dreams, Cancer Research UK and Macmillan. And all these charities have been hit immensely by the pandemic. I just hope that funding picks up as things get back to normal.”
Derbyshire says cancer has taught her that people are stronger than they think they are and it’s given her a new appreciation of the emotional and practical support of female friends. One tough lesson that I have learned is about relinquishing control, because cancer makes you realise how utterly powerless you are. “It’s a lottery,” she agrees. “People die from breast cancer and it could have been my diagnosis. It could have been yours.”
I’m keen to know what it’s like on the other side. Five years after finishing treatment, does Derbyshire worry about the cancer coming back? “Broadly speaking, no,” she says reassuringly. “I don’t have anxiety about that. But when I talk to people who have secondary breast cancer or I hear of someone who’s died, then it hits me. I feel guilty saying that because, big deal, it hits me. I’m still here.” Going through what she did has helped her be philosophical about life’s challenges. “When my programme was cancelled last year, even though it was gutting,” she pauses, adding for emphasis, “and it was. But it’s not life or death. Cancer puts things in perspective. Every day, I am just so grateful to be alive.”
Victoria Derbyshire hosts the Future Dreams podcast, And Then Came Breast Cancer, out Monday, June 14
Source : http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health-fitness/body/victoria-derbyshirecovid-delays-have-left-women-cancer-will/