‘I want to embrace all of life’
Victoria Derbyshire is known for tenacious journalism on her BBC current affairs show, but how would she respond to a breast cancer diagnosis? By documenting her medical treatment in a series of videos and a new book
On Monday 27 July 2015, at 4.35am, Victoria Derbyshire was in her kitchen, with the kettle on, Googling “inverted nipple” before leaving home to present her daily BBC2 current affairs programme. Google came up with a list of explanations, one of which was breast cancer. It is usually best to ignore online diagnoses but, in this instance, her preliminary search was right. By 29 July she was having a biopsy, by 31 July it was confirmed she had breast cancer, and on 24 September she had a single mastectomy. And at this point she did something unusual: she made a video of herself, sitting up in her hospital bed in an NHS gown, after coming round from the operation. Pale, then suddenly smiling, she held up two pieces of card. On one, she had written: “THIS MORNING I HAD BREAST CANCER.” Then she showed us the second: “THIS EVENING I DON’T!”
Watching the video, you notice she talks as if she feels she has had a narrow escape. She takes little breaths between words, as though resisting speechlessness. “Today I had a mastectomy and I feel – all right – I can’t believe it.” There is relief in her pronunciation of that slightly questioning “all right”. She looks from side to side, as if bad news might be lurking in the room. She describes the NHS team as inspiring, shows us the black arrow inked on to her right wrist (to make sure the surgeons did not operate on the wrong breast), and has an impressive shot at explaining breast reconstruction – the tucking in of the implant, the pulling down of skin, the hammocky mesh over which skin will eventually grow – although she casts around for the word “reconstruction”, almost lost to morphine.
It is extraordinarily plucky and self-possessed to turn a vulnerable, private experience into reportage. She announces that she wants to do it not only because she is a “pretty open person” but because more than one in three people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lives. “Obviously, I have looked up those stats,” she adds, like the journalist she is. The video was the first of an illuminating series (all on YouTube) documenting her chemotherapy, radiotherapy and emotional reactions to treatment in an attempt to “demystify ” the disease, learning as she went.
The public response, with messages from the medical profession as well as fellow cancer patients, has been overwhelming. Derbyshire has inspired countless tweets, emails and column inches. And now there is a book: Dear Cancer, Love Victoria . Once past the title (who thought that was a good idea?), it’s as easy to read as it must, at times, have been hard to live.
Cancer writing has become an industry, but this is a book that is more reportage than memoir; it distinguishes itself with its informative immediacy, taking the temperature of every moment. It does not belong on the same literary shelf as the columns of Ruth Picardie, Christopher Hitchens or Jenny Diski, for whom writing came first – cancer simply a subject that could not be ignored. In intention, Derbyshire’s book is closer to Sophie Sabbage’s wonderful The
Cancer Whisperer . Sabbage resolved, on the advice of a consultant, never to allow herself to become a “patient”. Derbyshire is similarly determined to hang on to being a journalist. The result is unusually upbeat, not least because she seems, with any luck, to have seen cancer off.
When she walks into her publisher’s offices, she is precisely as she appears on television. She is 48. Piquant face, pointed chin, bright smile, glossy hair. Being herself is her forte on TV. And she is natural in her videos too, talking to the camera as though to a friend. This morning she has come straight from presenting her programme, wearing a crisp, candy-striped T-shirt and smart blue trousers. She has changed only her shoes, swapping heels for white plimsolls. She is chirpy, smiling, focused. I watch as she gracefully adjusts to being interviewee, not interviewer (she has done her homework, asking a friendly opening question about my sons).
You might assume, if you didn’t know better, that talking to her would be like chatting to a neighbour. But you have only to watch, to take just one example, her recent handling of a meeting between housing minister, Alok Sharma, and the residents of Grenfell Tower to recognise that this Baftawinning journalist is an impeccable professional – and fearless. She tells the minister to stop talking in “platitudes”. She calmly keeps the peace, hushing the shouting, raging, heartbroken residents. Seeing that she is on their side makes you feel on hers. You also detect the steel in her, a steel tested by cancer.
As she sits down, I ask if she were to make a 10-minute video diary right now, what she would say? “I’d start with a health update because I had my check-up yesterday – and all is good, touch wood. That is a big hurdle, every six months. Talking off the top of my head, I can’t believe I’ve had cancer. I’m here now – alive, happy, healthy. It’s almost like it never happened, yet it’s absolutely vivid in the front of my mind. And then, depending on your diagnosis [she seems to assume her viewers all have cancer], I’d say, ‘If I can get through this, so can you.’ That wouldn’t last 10 minutes, but that would be my opening gambit.”
When she started out on her treatment, she tells me, she knew nothing about cancer. She is about to say more but interrupts herself with a statement that sounds planned: “Everything I say has a caveat, which is that every diagnosis, cancer and treatment is different. I’m not speaking on behalf of everyone. This is purely my experience.” She continues: “What matters is the mundanifying of cancer – although that is not even a word.” It is now, I say, and she laughs: “But you know what I mean? The normalising of it. Cancer shouldn’t have this uber-powerful status. Cancer can be manageable, you can go to work, have a drink if you want to, pick kids up from school. I didn’t know you could do all those things when you had cancer. I’d no idea, so that was the big surprise for me.”
What most needs demystifying, she believes, is cancer surgery and breast reconstruction. She remembers exactly how she felt making her mastectomy video: “I was recording through the