Michelle Heaton: I've a sickening feeling in my stomach when I look at my daughter and think she could carry the same cancer gene as I do
Three years after undergoing a preventative double mastectomy and hysterectomy, singer-turned-TV-personality Michelle Heaton explains to Gabrielle Fagan why she's ready to open up about the ongoing impact on her life
Michelle Heaton has faced a series of daunting health challenges over the last six years, after discovering she carried the BRCA2 'cancer gene'. Told she had an 85% chance of developing breast cancer, and 40% chance of developing ovarian cancer, the former Liberty X singer underwent a double mastectomy followed by an hysterectomy in 2015, which plunged her into an early menopause at 35.
Now, she's revealing - with brutal honesty - what she went through in her new book, Hot Flush: Motherhood, The Menopause And Me, which charts her health journey and path to parenthood (she and her personal trainer husband Hugh Hanley have two children - daughter Faith (6) and four-year-old son AJ).
Here, Heaton (38) talks about the mood swings that put her marriage at risk, how she's still dealing with the effects, and her fear that her daughter may carry the 'cancer gene' too ...
What's it been like going through all these traumas?
"When I look back on my life in Liberty X and then meeting Hughie, it was all amazing and I was loving every second of it, and then dramatically everything got turned on its head," recalls Gateshead-born Heaton, who's since pursued a career as a TV personality and is a qualified personal trainer. "For so many years, I've felt under attack, both physically and emotionally. I've battled to reduce my risk of breast cancer and fought to reduce my risk of ovarian cancer. The emotional, physical and mental toll has been nothing short of cataclysmic for me, my husband and our two children.
"But I recognise everyone's life can be hit with difficulties or tragedies and you have to try to move on from it," she adds. "I wrote my book because I wanted to be totally honest about everything that's happened and not hold anything back - even the hard bits to write about, which I've wept over - otherwise it would have been like living a lie. I hope it will help other women."
Throughout it all, what's been the biggest effect on you?
"I've changed emotionally since the hysterectomy, which was six months after AJ was born. Maybe it's the cumulative toll of receiving a life-changing diagnosis, having two babies and undergoing two major body-altering surgeries in the space of two years.
"But even trivial things that Hugh or the kids do can send me into a temper, because my emotional stability just isn't what it used to be. I'll catch my reflection mid-rant when I'm on one with Hugh over something trivial and think, 'Oh my God, what's wrong with me?' It's so unfair on them and I hate myself for being this way," she admits.
"I'm caught up in this vicious cycle of self-hatred, where I often beat myself up about not being what I was, feel angry about what's happened to me, and feel I've let people down - especially my family - by not coping better with all of this.
"At times, I'd give anything to go back to the old me for a few months - the one who still enjoyed highs and lows. Not the one who flew off the handle, but the one who was measured, able to keep emotions in context and not be owned by them so totally."
What pressure has all this put on your marriage?
"Enormous pressure. I've pushed Hughie as far in the last few years as I think I ever will in our marriage. Occasionally, I've thought our marriage won't weather the storm, and Hugh has said at times, 'I don't know if I can do this any more'. But our marriage has survived and I believe we're over the worst.
"Hughie's been so supportive. He's my best friend, the best husband in the world, and without him and the kids, I know I'd be a broken woman. He's wonderful at sitting back and waiting for the storm to pass with my mood. I think you always take things out on the people you love, because you don't mind them seeing the real you, but it's painful to accept I do that to him and the kids."
Are things improving?
"They are but I still have good and bad days, and I'm considering having therapy. These days, I try to count to 10 or remove myself from a situation when I feel the anger descend. I'm trying to recognise it and see where it comes from, so I can figure out whether it's really anger or whether I'm masking it as something else," says Heaton. "I try to remind myself I'm alive, I've reduced my risks of cancer, and that should be the benchmark against which I measure all other emotions."
How do you feel about your body?
"It was as though I'd lost my femininity when I lost my boobs and had my hysterectomy," she confesses. "I have scars and my belly's not the same. For a long time, I didn't feel like a real woman and it really knocked my self-confidence and self-esteem. Now I've realised I'm never going to be perfect and finally accepted my body for what it is. It didn't help that I struggled with a loss of libido for around a year, until my doctor changed my oestrogen-only HRT to one with testosterone, which has put it back on track."
Has keeping fit helped you?
"I'm a qualified personal trainer and I've always needed gym time, but never more so than in the menopause. I work out five times a week and, if I feel a rage building up, I escape to our garden gym. It's become a safe-haven for me.
"Around a 45-minute session lifting weights or a high-intensity routine puts me in the zone, gives me a mental break and calms me down.
"Building up a sweat also helps with the hot flushes I've started getting and training helps my weight control. My metabolism's slowed since the menopause, a natural side-effect, and weight's easier to gain and harder to shift."
How are you coping with the possibility your daughter Faith may carry the BRCA2 gene too?
"I have a sickening feeling in my stomach when I look at my daughter, whom I adore, and think about that possibility. We won't know until Faith's 18, when she can be offered the test to find out.
"She's far too young for me to talk about it, but on her sixth birthday she asked if she'd ever get ill too. I told her, 'I don't know, Sweetie, but if you do I will be with you every step of the way'. I'm passionate about speaking about this to help raise awareness and increase funding for research and prevention, to maybe help my daughter and others."
What have you learnt from all this?
"I'm a strong person and going through this has made me stronger, although there have been bleak moments when it's been so hard to carry on; it's only been the thought of my family's that's kept me going.
"I've learnt I need to ask for help sometimes," Heaton adds. "I feel it's bloody unfair I still have risk of cancer, even though it's reduced to a few per cent, but six-monthly check-ups are reassuring. I've learnt to live life to the full and live it for the moment, because I don't know what's around the next corner.
"I hope now is the start of a new beginning for me and the family, and I know I've done everything I can to be around for a long time for them and for me."
Hot Flush: Motherhood, The Menopause And Me by Michelle Heaton is published by Michael O'Mara Books, £18.99