‘My hysterectomy saved my life as doctors found I had a rare and deadly blood disease’
Television presenter Andrea McLean tells Gabrielle Fagan how a shock diagnosis gave her a big wake-up call and the desire to enjoy every day as it comes.
On ITV’s Loose Women, Andrea McLean looks the picture of glamour, health and confidence, but in private, she’s been battling both emotional and physical trauma. Not only has she struggled with the debilitating symptoms of menopause, but she recently received a shock diagnosis that she had a rare, life-threatening blood disease.
Following a hysterectomy in 2016, doctors broke it to her that they’d discovered she had medium-vessel vasculitis; a rare and dangerous disease that causes blood vessels to inflame and, in severe cases, cause organ failure.
The 48-year-old mother-of-two, whose TV career began as a weather presenter for GMTV in 1997, has spoken openly about her health ordeal in her book Confessions Of A Menopausal Woman.
Here, she reveals how the past few years have made her stronger than ever and why the love of her husband Nick has sustained her throughout.
How has being diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening illness affected you?
When you think life is coming to an end, you’ve never wanted to live so much. It’s hugely frightening and a shock to think you might die. You’re kind of braced to hear the word ‘cancer’, but this was something I’d never heard of; it was rare and apparently without cure.
Weirdly, my hysterectomy saved my life, because the condition might not have been discovered if I hadn’t had it; fortunately the surgery removed the area affected by it. Without that, the outcome could have been way worse.
I had a horrendous year waiting for the final results — all my major organs had to be tested for signs of the disease. There were many times Nick and I just held each other and cried. When I was told all my results were clear, it was overwhelming. I realised how stressful it had been for so long.
Is it difficult to live with the fear the disease could come back?
The knowledge it could reoccur has made me realise that you do only get one life. It was a big wake-up call.
I’ve re-evaluated everything and I’m bolder and freer now because I’ve been given a second chance — I’m not going to waste it. When I first found out, I thought, ‘What if I only have a year, what if this is it?’ It made me list all the ambitions I hadn’t pushed through because of fear, self-doubt and lack of confidence. Now it’s fired me up to achieve them.
Writing the book was one of those and having done it means so much. I have annual check-ups and I’ve told myself that if it comes back, I’ll deal with it. I get a shiver sometimes where I think, ‘What if...’ but then I think that I could be frightened forever and it might not even be the thing that gets me — I could just get hit by a bus.
How do you feel now?
Weirdly, this trauma has turned me back into the Andrea I used to be when I was in my early teens, before life got in the way. Then I had the attitude of, ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ but over the years, self-doubt, low self-esteem and anxiety eroded that. Now I feel like me again and it’s great.
What’s your biggest fear?
Something happening to me, because I need to be around for my children. I know what the threat of that feels like, because I’ve looked it in the face, and it’s so dark and horrible. But I’ve put that in a drawer now and it’s okay.
Finlay is 16 and Amy is 11. They need me to be around just a little bit longer and then they’ll be fine.
You married businessman Nick Feeney last year. How did you feel about getting married for the third time?
On paper, three marriages sounds dreadful and, of course, I worried about people judging me. But at the end of the day, I didn’t set out for that to happen; it just did. [McLean was married to TV producer Nick Green from 2000 to 2005; and builder Steve Toms from 2009-2011].
After what happened with my previous marriages, I was terrified our relationship would fall apart once we married and my heart would get broken again.
I’ve always suffered from anxiety; it’s an off-the-scale fear and paralysing dread. I get panic attacks where I feel I can’t breathe and feel sick. At those times I’m convinced I’m stupid, ugly and unlovable. Both have been made worse by the menopause and my anxiety soared before our wedding. I even had a panic attack on the way to the ceremony.
What support has Nick given you?
Nick’s always so calm, steady and 100% on my side. I haven’t always had that in relationships and he was wonderful about my wedding fears, as he has been about everything I’ve gone through since.
He’s a modern man who is tuned into my emotions. He pointed out that I hadn’t been married to ‘him’ before, and reassured me this time would be different. He was so right — it is.
We met on a blind date and had only been together for two years when I had my hysterectomy, and then I got my diagnosis. It was a lot to go through in a fairly new relationship, but we have such a strong connection and understanding. I feel we were meant to be together.
He’s been so understanding and supportive about everything that’s happened over the last few years.
How do you view the menopause?
I want women to know it’s not the beginning of the end, but the start of a new chapter of life. I want to break the taboo and silence around this subject.
My particular experience has been tough. I’ve had hot flushes where I’ve been sweating so much I had to change my sheets every day, and wear pads under my arm pits to soak up the sweat while I was on screen. I’ve also had huge mood swings, exhaustion and hair loss.
At times I’ve felt awful, but I’m getting through it and hormone replacement therapies have helped.
Finally, in 2016, I had to have a hysterectomy because I was suffering such pain from endometriosis [a painful condition where the tissue that lines the womb starts to grow outside of it].
For too long, women haven’t wanted to admit to, or talk about, menopause because it’s been associated with growing old. That’s so wrong and can leave them feeling unsupported and alone. The Loose Women presenters have been wonderful friends for me throughout all of this and I hope my speaking out and the book can help other women to feel supported.
How do you look after your health and wellbeing?
Since the hysterectomy, I’ve had occasions when I’ve had to remove myself from the world, because it all feels a bit too much and my body crashes. I need to sleep and withdraw for a couple of days.
I’ve always suffered with low moods, but I overcome them through a mixture of exercise, diet, fresh air, setting goals and looking on the bright side. I’m a natural optimist.
Being active is key for me. I swim (you can’t have a hot flush while you’re swimming) and counting laps calms my mind. I also do weight training, yoga and meditate every morning.
What’s your biggest achievement?
Getting out of the other side of what’s been a horrible decade, with all sorts of stuff; my second marriage broke up, and I’ve had tough times trying to raise my kids and make sure things are all right for them, as well as coping with my health problems.
I’m not kidding myself that everything’s going to be amazing from now on, but I genuinely feel that if I could get through all that, I can pretty much get through anything. I’m a huge perfectionist, but I’ve finally realised that if I get things right 70% of the time, then that’s pretty good. I’m proud of myself for coping with all that’s happened.
Confessions Of A Menopausal Woman by Andrea McLean is published by Bantam Press, £14.99