Belfast Telegraph

Gloria Hunniford: My life of love and loss

Broadcasting legend Gloria Hunniford talks about coping with her daughter Caron's death, her belief in angels and her pride that the charity money she's raised for Action Cancer's Big Bus has helped to save lives.

The crushed hand is bandaged and held aloft to stop the blood rushing down into it and causing more pain. It is small and fine-boned, like the rest of Gloria, an exceptionally attractive woman in the flesh. A fortnight ago, she was trying to move a heavy bronze sculpture of an angel when it fell on her, much to the scoffing of those who decry her belief in the angelic realm.

"It is sore," she frowns fleetingly - and she can frown, by the way. No needles have pierced the fair skin on her face (her decolletage, by contrast, is deeply suntanned), but she does admit to thinking about fillers.

But you don't need them, I tell her, taking in her naturally plumped-up skin.

"Oh I do - I'd like some round my mouth," she confides, quite endearingly, inclining forward to show me a faint fan of lines, which are not bad at all for a woman of 76. "But I wouldn't do Botox; I wouldn't put poison in my face. I did try it on Open House once; didn't like it. I've heard it's good for facial palsy though, it does something to the muscles."

A genuine broad smile banishes any trace of the advancing years and lights up her granite-green eyes. She is a very feminine person, with a button nose and full lips, and slim, shapely legs.

Shorter than you'd imagine, she's wearing a silk jacket in a flattering shade of coral, summery trousers and flats, accessorised by chunky gold costume-jewellery and a trendy white wristwatch. He husband Steven towers over her - as do her two grandsons Charlie and Gabriel in a photo on her husband Stephen's phone, taken at a recent wedding.

"Look at how tiny you are there," says the handsome Stephen, who's equally bronzed and dapper. The owner of a string of hairdressing salons, he has an abundant silver streaked thatch, carefully groomed and with a hint of a quiff.

He has flown over with Gloria for the day to promote Action Cancer's Big Bus, on her first official visit since becoming patron to the leading local cancer charity. A long-term supporter of Action Cancer, Gloria has provided £95,000 in funding for the Big Bus breast screening service through the Caron Keating Foundation, which was set up in her daughter's memory.

Added to the impressive £1.5 million raised by main sponsor SuperValu and its independent retailers since the mobile unit first went on the road in 2006, that money is helping to save lives.

Gloria has all the facts and figures off pat: "Thirty thousand women have been screened in the last nine years on board the Big Bus and there have been 146 cancer detections - that's 146 women who have had a breast cancer diagnosis without displaying any symptoms. As with any cancer, the earlier breast cancer can be detected, the better chances of survival. If breast cancer is caught in the earliest stages, survival rates are 95 per cent.

"So I'd strongly encourage your women readers in their 40s and those over 70 - outside of the NHS screening range, that is - to book an appointment and come on board the Big Bus for a mammogram. It's free and it's intimate, not an impersonal experience in some huge hospital."

We meet on the actual bus, in the grounds of the King's Hall in Belfast. Dozens of Action Cancer volunteers and other slightly star-struck admirers have clambered on board to have their photographs taken with the Portadown-born broadcasting legend, who graciously receives them all with a warm grin and a bit of chit chat.

Although the presenter is in a high risk category for breast cancer, her own mammograms have always been clear.

"My mother and my daughter had breast cancer, so I asked Professor Paddy Johnson at the City Hospital, before the Cancer Centre was opened, if I should have a test for the gene but he said no, that at my age I should just be diligent. Still, I didn't go for some time after Caron died. I think I was scared…"

It has been 11 years since Gloria lost her adored daughter, the former journalist and Blue Peter presenter, when she was only 41. Anyone who saw Gloria on the Late Late show a couple of years later, her face crumpling and her lip jut and tremble like a tearful child's, cannot fail to have been moved by her all-encompassing grief.

"Even now it feels terribly unreal; it's nonsense when people say you'll get over it," she said of Caron's death. "As the years go on, the reality of her loss gets more acute: she's not around to watch her children grow up, climb trees, play the guitar and do sports.

"I've lost both my parents and my first husband, but losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to a mother. You can't carry a child for nine months and not feel that impact for the rest of your life."

Her accent becomes more BBC Belfast than BBC London as the afternoon wears on. Naturally assured and charismatic, she keeps her composure while speaking of the most painful memories, bolstered, one imagines, by her faith. She is unapologetic about her belief in angels - the Caron Keating Foundation website sells prints and figurines of them - and the white feathers she sees as calling cards from her daughter.

"I still find isolated feathers - there was one on my doormat the morning after I hurt my hand and another day there was one stuck to the handle of the car, where you couldn't miss it.

"Caron used to ask the angels for a parking space and I'd laugh at her, but I absolutely believe in them now and I don't care what people think of that. I don't know what you believe; I just know what I see. It doesn't matter to me what anyone says."

We agree that supposedly liberal-minded free-thinkers can be among the most judgemental when it comes to religious belief.

"Yes, some people can be very scathing when I talk about things like that, but it's … comforting to me," she says, considering her words. "I remember after Caron died, the boys were swimming in the pool for hours and hours, and there was water everywhere, and eventually I told them they'd have to get out, and there was this big - dry - white feather in the middle of the pool. There was no explanation for it.

"And a friend of Caron's told me she found a white feather from nowhere on her tablecloth and took it with her when she was about to drive off somewhere, only to find out an entire wheel was about to come off the car. She's convinced it was a message from Caron."

Does she sense her daughter around her?

"I still feel Caron around us in the family home and in our house in the south of France. Russ (Lindsay, Gloria's former son-in-law) proposed to her there, so it was a place of special significance to her. It's a medieval house in a medieval town, so nothing changes, and I do see her a lot there. I see her walking back to the house with all her shopping.

"We always raise a toast to her on her anniversary; it's 11 years now. I think that's important for the boys."

The epitome of the doting grandmother, she asks Stephen, who joins us half way through the interview, to email me the picture of her with Charlie and Gabriel, who is the image of his mother.

"He was a scared little rabbit of seven when Caron died; now he's going to university this year. He looks so like her and has her quirky off-the-wall sense of humour. He'll ask who I'm interviewing and I'll say, oh … Barbra Streisand, and he'll suggest some really off-beat questions. I wouldn't be surprised if he goes into broadcasting - he's steeped in it, with me, and his parents and his grandfather all having careers in it. And Charlie would like to be a film maker."

The boys took part in a celebration of Caron's life at the Dorchester Hotel, London last November, to mark her 10th anniversary. A star-studded crowd of 350 guests gathered for a champagne reception and dinner, with BBC One Show Matt Baker giving a welcome speech. Caron's friends and former colleagues, Fiona Foster and Yasmin Pasha, gave "moving and funny" tributes, and Philip Schofield told amusing anecdotes from his days of dating Caron.

Lord Jeffrey Archer, no less, acted as auctioneer for eight items which raised £75,000 for the foundation, and Gloria took to the stage to gave an introduction to a video of celebrities who couldn't be there, which included Ant and Dec, Rod Stewart, Neil Diamond, Michael Ball, Rob Brydon and Sir Cliff Richard.

Gloria is very close to Cliff; they're often spotted at Wimbledon and various events together, and she has been quoted as saying his constant companion, former priest John McElynn, has allowed the singer to "spread his wings".

The one blot on Cliff's horizon is the claims of sexual assault that have been levelled at him. Gloria is patently hurt over the allegations, described by Cliff as "absurd and untrue".

"Cliff will be doing concerts in September to celebrate his 75th, I can say that," says his friend, a shadow crossing her face. "I'm sure he'll get even more coming to see him because of the injustice of those claims against him."

No doubt the Loose Women will have Sir Cliff on the show if the opportunity arises in the autumn. Gloria is on the panel on Mondays and hit the headlines when she blasted NHS plans, on air, to have doctors ask the over-75s whether they want medics to try and save them if their health suddenly deteriorates.

She launched a bitter broadside at the plans - and said she would not want a "do not resuscitate" rule because she loves life too much - just like her daughter did. "My Caron never, ever, ever talked about death, only about life. I think I'm the same," she railed. "Goodness only know what will happen to me, but I want to be here. I want to live."

She enjoys the more serious debates on the sometimes raucous show.

"I was asked to do it nearly a year ago but I felt it had got too silly and a bit daft - all this stuff about getting drunk; I didn't like it," she says. "But there's a new head of programming and it's changed. There's a good balance now and some heavier items. I like a good stimulating discussion which makes you think, such as the "do not resuscitate" issue. Some people think that's a brilliant idea but I don't - I want to live!

"My sister was ill and had a heart attack in the middle of her treatment - it was like Emergency Ward - or what do you call that other one? ER - all these medics descended on her with machines. It was quite frightening. They put her to rest for a while and then the question arose as to whether or not to wake her up or switch off the machine.

"Absolutely not! She had another two and a half good quality years after that and the children had their mum a while longer."

Charley and Gabriel had six more years with their mum than was expected when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and given 18 months to live.

"When Caron found her lump we weren't worried at all, neither was the doctor. We thought it was probably just a milk lump, that young people don't get cancer," Gloria recalls calmly. "Caron was given only a year and half when she was diagnosed - it was an aggressive cancer - but she had seven years. All her efforts paid off to that extent, all the blood cleansing and alternative treatments. I think your mental attitude is just as important… I'd lie awake at night worrying but Caron stayed positive."

She sighs, twisting her bandaged wrist in her good hand.

"Then I came to the conclusion that I could be run over by a bus before anything happened to Caron. She was always very positive; she was the teacher throughout this."

So, what would Gloria say to another mother who might find herself in her shoes?

"Well, I'd say there's always hope, and you'll find strength. The drugs have changed so much since Caron died, there are more treatments and new technology available. Herceptin came four years too late for Caron but everything has changed now.

"The woman who does our dry cleaning, for example - she had breast cancer in both breasts and then she had a heart attack and lost about three stone in weight. I wouldn't have had much hope for her three years ago yet she has made a full recovery - that's why I won't tick that box!

"That's why I was really was really drawn to this big bus - it's unique. People don't normally have mammograms unless they're summoned; this can save lives. It's amazing, it can be driven into a housing estate, down the high street - anywhere."

Bucking the supposedly ageist trend in broadcasting, Gloria is as busy as ever filming the Rip Off Britain series and is preparing for a guest appearance on Brian Conley's new chat show. I tell her she'd be great in the place of Margaret Mountford, fellow Northern Irish born advisor to Lord Sugar, on The Apprentice.

"Oh!" she exclaims in surprise, green eyes widening. "I never thought of that … you can suggest it!"

Before she heads off to her holiday home in Dalkey "to see if it's still standing", she takes some make-up and creams from her handbag so I can recommend them to various relatives of her vintage, who urged me to ask her for her beauty tips.

First up is La Prairie moisturiser.

"It's quite expensive but it lasts for ages," she stresses. "I get it for my birthday and at Christmas. I like that Clarins beauty flash balm, too, and Lancome night cream - my skin's quite dry."

She uses a Clinique foundation but doesn't know what shade it is. On closer inspection of the packaging, I see it's called Vanilla.

"It's Vanilla," I tell her, unlike Gloria, who's anything but bland. I hope she'll stay on our screens for many years to come.

Bra-vo walkers

Have your bras at the ready as Belfast prepares to turn pink on Friday June 5,  2015, for The Bra Walk, Action Cancer's 10k walk in aid of the charity's life-saving breast screening service.

This new Action Cancer walk will begin at Belfast City Hall at 7pm. Action Cancer are encouraging men, women and children of all ages to come and take part in the family event, helping to raise breast cancer awareness and funds for the charity.

Bras will be the theme for the evening, the bigger, the bolder, the better! Have your sequins and glitter at the ready to personalise your own official t-shirt for The Bra Walk, with prizes for the best.

The £12 online registration for The Bra Walk is now open and Action Cancer is encouraging participants, where possible, to raise a minimum amount of £80 in sponsorship, the cost of a mammogram to the charity. Everyone who registers will receive a free goodie bag and a t-shirt. For further information, or to register, visit, contact Action Cancer on 028 9080 3344, or email

How the Big Bus is making a difference in the fight against cancer

Action Cancer's Big Bus provides free breast screening to women aged 40-49 and 70 plus (outside of NHS screening age range) and M.O.T. health checks to men and women aged 16+. The bus travels to over 220 locations every year, making Action Cancer services accessible to people throughout Northern Ireland.

Gloria Hunniford has been a long-term supporter of Action Cancer and has provided £95,000 in funding for the Big Bus breast screening service through the Caron Keating Foundation, which was set up in her daughter's memory. Caron tragically lost her battle to breast cancer in April 2004, at the age of 41.

In addition to the breast screening, in the last nine years 17,000 MOT health checks have been provided to men and women to help reduce cancer risk. These involve a number of assessments including cholesterol, blood glucose, body composition, blood pressure, facial skin analysis and peak flow measurements. These checks give clients a snap shot of their health, with health promotion staff offering information on diet and exercise, cancer signs and symptoms, self examination and screening programmes. Clients are referred to their GP if their results are outside of desirable ranges.

Michael McCormack, Managing Director Musgrave Northern Ireland says: "SuperValu retailers across Northern Ireland are extremely proud to help Action Cancer bring the Big Bus to the heart of local communities. In the last nine years, 47,000 people have availed of the cancer prevention and detection services on board the Big Bus. Together SuperValu retailers and Action Cancer are making a massive difference in the fight against cancer."

To book an appointment on board The Big Bus or call 028 9080 3344.

'You are never too old to be proactive and book a screening'

Dorothy McAlinden is 83 years old and lives just outside Castlewellan. She is widowed and has six children and 12 grandchildren who all live close by. Dorothy was diagnosed with breast cancer following screening on board Action Cancer's Big Bus in October 2013.

"Following an advert in my local newspaper I decided to book an appointment on board the Big Bus when I saw that it was coming to Ballynahinch. I knew what to expect as I had been for a screening up at Action Cancer House three years previously. I thought the Big Bus is practically coming to my doorstep, I have no excuse. I phoned a friend and said 'come on, we're going'."

Just like her first experience at Action Cancer Dorothy did not find the mammogram painful. "It borders on uncomfortable but was very quick and easy, the staff on board the Big Bus were very pleasant and helped me to feel relaxed," she said. Unlike her first experience, however, the mammogram brought concerning results.

Dorothy received a letter within a number of days saying that the screening had picked something up and that further investigation at a breast clinic was required.

Following further screening at the Ulster Hospital and a needle test on her right breast, Dorothy was told that she had cancer but it was unclear how extensively it had spread. Dorothy was operated on on November 4 and she had a quadranectomy, where a quarter of her right breast was removed. "The lump discovered was irregular in size ranging from 6-12mm. The surgeon did a wonderful job making an incision below the breast so you can't see the scar. I had little to no pain, problems or infections following surgery, I was very fortunate."

A month after her surgery Dorothy was brought in and was told that she wouldn't need radiotherapy or chemotherapy which was a great relief. Dorothy is now doing well and is cancer free.

"When people are older, they are inclined to think what's the point? But there's every point, you've got the rest of your life ahead of you. You are never too old to be proactive about anything - if you're proactive you have less to worry about. For most women the screening will produce clear results, reassuring you that everything is fine."

'Booking an appointment saved my life'

Mary Allen (50) lives in Ballymena with her husband Donald. She has four grown up children, two boys and girls aged between 21 and 30. Mary's breast cancer was detected on board Action Cancer's Big Bus in November 2012.

"One day I was doing shopping at Dunvale when I saw the Action Cancer Big Bus sitting in the car park. I had heard about the Big Bus before so it was curiosity more than anything that prompted me to poke my head in the door. I had no signs or symptoms, so nothing to be worried about, or so I thought."

The bus was fully booked that day but it was returning to Ballymena a few days later to the Kintullagh Nursing Home so Mary decided to make an appointment for that visit.

"The radiographer on board the bus put me at ease explaining how the machine would take an X-ray of each of my breasts and it was all over in a matter of moments."

Mary received a letter from Action Cancer a week later stating that something had been picked up in the screening and that she was to be referred to a breast clinic of her choice for further investigation.

Mary attended the Breast Clinic at Antrim Area Hospital. "The doctor showed me a magnified version of my X-ray taken on board the Big Bus highlighting an area of calcification in my left breast. I then had another mammogram, 6 biopsy samples were taken and a scan but I still wasn't concerned."

The reality didn't hit Mary until the doctor told her that the lymph nodes under her arm were swollen and that they would have to take more tissue away for testing. She was then told by the surgeon that she would probably need a mastectomy. Surgery followed in January of 2013.

"Things haven't been easy but I have recently had reconstructive surgery to create a left breast," said Mary. "I am so thankful to Action Cancer for detecting my cancer early on.

"My message to all women is to avail of a free breast screening from Action Cancer. My decision to book an appointment on the Big Bus saved my life."

Belfast Telegraph


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