‘I didn’t care if I was going to lose a breast or two ... as long as I would see my kids grow up’
After having successful treatment for breast cancer, TV and radio presenter Victoria Derbyshire talks frankly to Lisa Salmon about her experience
For some women, there can be few things more traumatic than losing a breast to cancer. But for straight-talking broadcaster Victoria Derbyshire (49), who was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2015, losing a breast was nothing compared to the relief of getting the cancer out of her body. In fact, she says she was “euphoric” after having a mastectomy.
The presenter, who has recently written about her experience in Dear Cancer, Love Victoria, explains: “Some women are really attached to their breasts and they’re a symbol of their femininity.
“Not for me — it was like, ‘Get it out. Get rid, I don’t care, I just want the cancer out of me, I want this period of my life to be over and then I can just get on with the rest of my life’.
“After the operation, I was euphoric. Clearly a little bit of that was the morphine, but even when that’d worn off, I was on a high, because the most significant part of my treatment was done, and the cancer was out of me. The cancer cells were gone — that’s a big deal, psychologically and physically.”
Mother-of-two Victoria, who presents her current affairs and debate programme on BBC Two and the BBC News Channel, first went to the doctor on the same day she noticed her chest had “collapsed”. Her right breast had dropped about two inches and the nipple was pulled in. An internet search for the possible causes suggested cancer.
“You just think, ‘Oh my God, I might have cancer’. Obviously you need confirmation from the medics, but I just knew. I knew. There was no other explanation,” she says.
“Until I had it confirmed five days later, people like Mark [her partner] and close friends were saying, ‘We don’t know it’s cancer’, but in my head, the whole time I was going, ‘We do. We do’.”
There then followed a rigorous series of tests, biopsies and scans to find out how aggressive the cancer was, and whether it had spread.
Fortunately, the disease was only in one breast and hadn’t spread to Victoria’s lymph nodes, which meant the prognosis was good, although she needed a mastectomy, six chemotherapy sessions and 30 radiotherapy sessions to try to beat the disease.
“When I realised it wasn’t going to kill me, I was very much, ‘Okay, I can do this, because I’m gonna live. That’s the most important thing’,” Victoria says.
“I didn’t care if I was going to lose a breast, or two. If I was going to be alive, and be with Mark and see my kids grow up, then I thought, ‘I can do this’.”
Like any cancer patient, Victoria felt tired and ill during her chemotherapy, but she is adamant that the worst thing she had to endure was not losing a breast, but losing her hair.
“Losing my hair was the most challenging thing. I found it very, very hard,” she admits.
“When you’re washing your hair and suddenly you see these long strands going down the plughole, it’s very depressing and you feel very low. And then you feel this guilt because you think, ‘Why do I give a toss about my hair? I’m alive, for God’s sake!’”
Victoria says she thinks some of the despair she felt over losing her hair was because your hair is a very visible part of your identity. But that’s not all: “When your hair’s falling out, you look like a cancer patient, and I didn’t want to look like a cancer patient. I didn’t want people to pity me.”
She wore a very realistic wig until her hair grew back, although she says she understands the “bold decision” some cancer patients make not to wear a wig.
“It’s like they’re saying, ‘I want to show the world what I’m enduring’,” Victoria says. “But my decision was based on the fact that if I went to work and did a news programme on TV every day without wearing a wig and looking a shambles, it would totally detract from the guests I was interviewing, from the stories we were bringing people.”
Ever the journalist, Victoria ensured her own cancer story reached a huge audience by filming video diaries during her treatment. She explains: “I wanted to shine a light on the treatment to normalise it, demystify it.”
Victoria only filmed when she felt up to the task. She says: “There were loads of times during the chemo when I was just drained, exhausted and pretty dispirited. I wouldn’t have done it then.”
The response she got to the videos was “absolutely overwhelming and humbling”, with many other cancer patients contacting her to say the films had helped take their treatment fears away. “That is just massive,” she says.
Victoria’s treatment finished in May 2016 and her doctors say there’s now no evidence of any active cancer.
She says: “I feel grateful, I feel lucky, I feel that cancer is such a lottery — I could’ve had a cancer they couldn’t treat. That’s the outrageously unfair thing about it, which is why it’s so important scientists are spending every day trying to combat it, and why it’s so important to keep raising money for the charities who fund those scientists.”
- Victoria Derbyshire’s Dear Cancer, love Victoria is out now