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'I asked my surgeon if I would have dark days but I've been very fortunate... I told myself that I'd get through it'

As the much-loved presenter Nicki Chapman takes to our screens for a new gardening show, she opens up to Georgia Humphreys about having major surgery to remove a brain tumour

Show time: Nicki (left) with Mark Gregory, Carol Klein, and Diarmuid Gavin from The Great Garden Challenge
Show time: Nicki (left) with Mark Gregory, Carol Klein, and Diarmuid Gavin from The Great Garden Challenge
Staying positive: Nicki Chapman has a busy schedule following her surgery
Nicki with Simon Cowell, Pete Waterman, Neil Fox and show hosts Ant and Dec at the launch of Pop Idol

By Georgia Humphreys

Nicki Chapman labels herself as "naturally a very private" person. Not that you'd think it from meeting her: the Kent-born telly and radio host is so compassionate, friendly and genuinely lovely, it's like talking to someone you feel you already know well.

And there's one major life experience she's happily opening up about - she recently had surgery to remove a brain tumour.

The 52-year-old first noticed a change in her vision at the end of March this year, then realised that she'd started suffering from memory lapses and speech difficulties.

She called her GP, who urged her to go directly to A&E. There, a neurosurgeon discovered a benign, golf ball-sized tumour pressing on her brain, and she was operated on at the start of May.

When we meet to discuss her latest show - Channel 5's The Great Garden Challenge - it's been just under six weeks since the surgery, but she's bursting with energy, looking as glamorous as ever, and excited to be going back to work part-time the week after.

"I feel great," says bubbly Chapman, who initially sprang to fame working in TV promotion for the music industry (she worked with artists such as David Bowie, the Spice Girls and Prince).

"Everyone's different, and I did ask my surgeon whether I'll have dark days - a lot of people, after major surgery, have very dark days and that's understandable, because you have that realisation that they did say I might lose my sight, and my speech and things like that.

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"I've been very fortunate. I'm very grateful - not everybody's road to recovery is the same as mine. But I told myself beforehand that I would get through it."

The TV personality, who's married to record company executive Dave Shackleton (51), continues: "I'm fortunate I'm a very positive person. They say, 'Look for the win in every situation', and this is my win.

"Someone I know very close to me, who has been very ill, said to me, 'It's a dark gift' and I think, in a way, that's a good way of saying it because I have been fortunate, and I do look at situations now slightly differently, that is the truth."

How has the experience changed her outlook on life?

"I look at other people in a different way. Not everyone acts the same way as you, so don't be the first to judge them. Have a bit more patience, try and understand what their world is like, because it could be very, very different."

On the reactions she has had from others, she says: "Have really been quite overwhelming - lots of amazing stories, also some very heartbreaking stories. So, it makes you take a moment and think, 'OK, let's move forward'."

On the topic of sharing her tumour diagnosis with the public, she admits she "would have hidden away had I had to work through lots of issues, like speech and stuff".

"But if it helps other people going through similar things, hopefully they will get some courage and take something from it. You can't be positive every day, that's one thing I will say. But try, when you can, to be positive."

The in-demand presenter, whose TV career started as a judge on ITV's Popstars and Pop Idol, has plenty of upcoming projects to keep her busy.

She's about to film a new series of Escape To The Country, and later in the summer will fly to Australia to record more episodes of hit daytime show Wanted Down Under.

But first we will be seeing her in a brand new series, The Great Garden Challenge. Each episode sees teams of professional designers from across the UK take under-used and under-loved spaces and create a garden in just 48 hours - and on a budget.

The idea is that the projects will transform the lives of truly deserving recipients, from war veterans to care homes for the disabled, hospitals to dementia sufferers.

The gardens are also judged by two award-winning names in the industry, gurus Carol Klein and Mark Gregory, and one pair of competitors will eventually be crowned winners.

Chapman suggested her friend Diarmuid Gavin, who she's worked with at Chelsea Flower Show in the past, as her co-host.

Discussing the series, she says: "I think it was a very brave move on Channel 5's part, because it's not a cheap series to make, but it's going to have a profound effect.

"So, for Diarmuid and I to be steering that ship and watching it all, not unravel, but actually explode in front of our eyes - in a good way - it was the most amazing project."

It's refreshing to see such a cross-generational show, which Chapman agrees is rare in the telly world.

"You had designers fresh out of college, other people who had been in the gardening world a long time," she notes.

"For the people that are watching the programme, Channel 5 doesn't have any boundaries and it's great.

"The BBC has a very set audience - I think with Channel 5 it's much more fluid. It's opening up gardening to a different audience that might not have thought of it before, which I think is really good.

"But also, in the last five years - more than any time over the last 50 years - we're really appreciating outdoor spaces, what gardening can do for us."

Chapman has had a taste herself of just how beneficial and therapeutic being in a garden can be for our mental health, particularly post-surgery.

She also likes that The Great Garden Challenge is a feel-good TV competition rather than cut-throat: "There's no jeopardy in this that isn't real. Nothing is for the camera.

"It's not them (the competitors) arguing. If there was, we'd film it, but we didn't see any of that."

She follows with a grin: "They were really nice, the couples. It's just a genuine show... I think over the last few years, shows that have the bitter edge, the general public aren't liking anymore. You know the shows I'm talking about... We want kindness.

"The last two years of I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! have been record-breaking years, because the contestants have all worked together and got on."

Well, with Chapman at the helm, The Great Garden Challenge was always going to be a heartwarming show to watch.

The Great Garden Challenge starts on Channel 5 next Tuesday, July 2

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