‘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

The Observer - The New Review - - INTERVIEW - BY KATE KELL­AWAY POR­TRAIT BY PAL HANSEN

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

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