In­spired to be a health minister – af­ter beat­ing cancer TWICE

Jo is a mother of four who told her hus­band to re­marry if she died. Now, from her po­si­tion of power, she wants to help others beat the odds

Scottish Daily Mail - - Good Health - In­ter­view by JACK DOYLE

AF­TEr re­ceiv­ing her sec­ond cancer di­ag­no­sis in her mid40s, ju­nior health minister Jo Churchill de­cided to plan for the worst. Not know­ing whether she would sur­vive, she told her hus­band Peter when to call a halt to treat­ment, planned her fu­neral and wrote let­ters she would give to their four teenage daugh­ters.

Then she told him that if she died, he should look for an­other wife — not just for him but for the sake of the girls.

‘I wanted him, if he found some­body to love, to love them and move on,’ she says. ‘As I told him: “You’re a use­less bloke, there needs to be a woman around to help these girls choose a wed­ding dress if I’m not here.”

‘But he said he would never marry again … he couldn’t ever face that con­ver­sa­tion.’

Now, 24 years af­ter her di­ag­no­sis with thy­roid cancer, and a decade since she was di­ag­nosed with breast cancer, Jo, now 55 is still go­ing strong and has been cancer-free for the best part of a decade.

It was her first cancer di­ag­no­sis, in 1995, that ‘lit a bon­fire’ un­der her and drove her into pol­i­tics to im­prove treat­ment for others. In 2015, she was elected Tory MP for Bury St Ed­munds and this sum­mer — af­ter cam­paign­ing on cancer and other health is­sues from the back­benches — was ap­pointed by Boris John­son to the De­part­ment of Health.

The cancer struck when Jo was just 31. She felt run down and was di­ag­nosed with an over­ac­tive thy­roid. A biopsy re­vealed a can­cer­ous tu­mour.

At the time, Jo and Peter al­ready had two daugh­ters. He worked for his fam­ily’s scaf­fold­ing busi­ness near Grimsby and Jo was the firm’s fi­nance di­rec­tor.

‘It was hor­ren­dous,’ she re­calls. ‘I re­mem­ber I went to my GP and he said the hospi­tal had called me back in. He told me I had to pre­pare my­self.

‘As a cancer pa­tient, it’s an emo­tional tsunami. You don’t ask for cancer: it finds you and it’s fright­en­ing.’

The op­er­a­tion to re­move most of her thy­roid was a suc­cess. She then had to take daily thy­rox­ine, a syn­thetic ver­sion of the hor­mone nor­mally made by the thy­roid which helps to con­trol, among other things, metabolism and body tem­per­a­ture.

WHEN Jo got the all-clear, the cou­ple de­cided they’d ‘have a go’ at a third child, think­ing it might be a boy. It wasn’t. ‘I said just one more and maybe it would be a boy — and my hus­band gave me twin girls! We couldn’t even fit two cots in the third bed­room; but we sur­vived, as any fam­ily with four kids un­der five sur­vives.’

A cou­ple of years passed and Jo re­mained healthy. The fam­ily moved to Gran­tham and she stud­ied for a busi­ness and psy­chol­ogy de­gree, and later a masters.

Then, ten years ago, in 2009, came the sec­ond thun­der­bolt when Jo was di­ag­nosed with breast cancer.

‘I’d lost a bit of weight and I was hav­ing a bath or a shower and I thought “That feels a bit odd”,’ Jo re­calls.

A scan re­vealed a tu­mour in her right breast, close to the chest wall. A ‘sec­ond pri­mary’, it was un­re­lated to the thy­roid cancer. This di­ag­no­sis was much harder, says Jo, es­pe­cially for her hus­band.

‘Most men like to sort things out, solve prob­lems. If it’s a wall that needs build­ing, you dig the hole and build the wall. But he felt he couldn’t do any­thing to help me.’

At the time, her daugh­ters were aged 17, 16 and the twins, 13.

‘It sounds harder when your chil­dren are one and two, but it wasn’t. I re­mem­ber one of the twins go­ing down to the lounge and just sob­bing.

‘You do your own cry­ing in the night largely, and — as a mum — you keep a brave face on it.’

Jo laughs and smiles eas­ily, but the tears are com­ing now. ‘This is hard — I didn’t think it would be this hard,’ she says, as she re­calls this time.

‘As a wife and a mother you’d do any­thing to stop your fam­ily hurt­ing, but not telling them the truth doesn’t help in my view.

‘It was im­por­tant to me I was hon­est. I told my girls I had cancer and I told them I didn’t know where we would go from there.

‘I didn’t think about be­ing a sur­vivor, I didn’t think about life be­yond cancer. I thought about deal­ing with ev­ery hur­dle when I got to it.

‘I couldn’t tell where I was go­ing. I spoke to my hus­band about let­ters I wrote to my chil­dren about how I wanted to die. I didn’t want treat­ment be­yond a cer­tain point if that be­came part of it.’

Peter didn’t want to con­front the prospect of his wife dy­ing.

‘He used to say don’t talk about it, don’t talk about it, be­cause then it won’t hap­pen,’ says Jo. ‘But I needed to talk about it be­cause I was fright­ened I’d get to a point where I didn’t have the en­ergy or ca­pac­ity to talk about it.’

Weeks later, she had surgery but the sur­geon didn’t take enough ‘clear­ance’ tis­sue around the tu­mour and she had to have a sec­ond op­er­a­tion.

Sev­eral months of ra­dio­ther­apy fol­lowed, with Jo con­tin­u­ing to work. She says she had no choice.

‘I car­ried on work­ing through­out, be­cause you can’t get in­sur­ance for cancer once you’ve had cancer. I had to carry on work­ing for fi­nan­cial rea­sons.

‘I can­not ex­plain how tired I felt. At din­ner par­ties, I could fall asleep into the food.’

Friends ral­lied around, leav­ing fam­ily meals or cake to help out.

A year later, in 2010, Jo thought she was in the clear but then doc­tors found pre-can­cer­ous tu­mours in her left breast and she needed an­other op­er­a­tion.

‘By that point I was ready to nut peo­ple,’ she con­fesses.

Af­ter such an or­deal, she would have been for­given for want­ing a quiet life. In­stead, she de­cided she wanted to im­prove the sys­tem she had seen first-hand.

She was an­gry, she ad­mits, about the cards she had been dealt and started to chan­nel the fury into health cam­paign­ing.

Af­ter join­ing a cancer char­ity and a lo­cal health and well-be­ing board, she wanted to do more.

‘I thought, “I’ll see how you get to be one of these MPs”,’ she says. ‘The pri­mary rea­son I came to Par­lia­ment was be­cause of the can­cers. I had the all-clear prior to me be­ing se­lected as an MP back in 2014.’

Now she’s in­side the ma­chine, she’s got a lengthy to-do list.

She wants to help har­ness pa­tient data to im­prove early di­ag­no­sis and treat­ment, with huge in­creases in screen­ing to help im­prove sur­vival rates.

Screen­ing a whole pop­u­la­tion is a con­tro­ver­sial area in medicine but Jo stresses: ‘We al­ways have to be one step ahead of this dis­ease.’

She says ev­ery­one should check them­selves — women their breasts and men what she eu­phemisti­cally calls their ‘mates’.

She also wants more cancer clin­i­cal nurse spe­cial­ists, re­call­ing a nurse who sat with her ‘through the night’ and ‘gave me some faith that it was go­ing to be OK’.

‘I used to look out of the win­dow at the seag­ulls and think who’s go­ing to look af­ter my kids?

‘That nurse did that one spe­cial thing and took time, which is hugely im­por­tant when you’re fright­ened.’

JO WANTS more ra­dio­g­ra­phers, too. And she’s not afraid to chal­lenge the pub­lic to change their diet and life­style. ‘Obe­sity is such a pre­cur­sor to a lot of the can­cers, and for me it is a big win if we can get peo­ple look­ing out for their health,’ she says.

‘I would never say to some­one don’t have a drink. But if you want to give your­self bet­ter life chances, then look af­ter your­self.

‘I don’t think that’s nan­ny­ing. We’re pumping an­other £33.9 bil­lion into the NHS over the next five years but peo­ple have to do their bit.’

The cancer has, how­ever, led to few of her own life­style changes.

‘I have al­ways tried to keep fit. My on­col­o­gists have said watch your weight, stay healthy and it can mean cancer is up to half as likely to re­turn,’ she says.

‘I eat most things and I like a glass of wine oc­ca­sion­ally but it’s all about mod­er­a­tion.’

It’s clear that Jo is de­ter­mined to find the pos­i­tives in what hap­pened to her — af­ter all, some pa­tients she met dur­ing treat­ment aren’t here any more.

‘It gives you some re­silience and I am re­ally lucky,’ she says. ‘I’ve been dou­bly lucky to have a strong mar­riage.

‘I have had cancer twice, and I’ve lived be­yond it twice. I’m pos­si­bly the luck­i­est woman on Earth.’

Fight­ing fit: Ju­nior health minister Jo Churchill with hus­band Peter and their four grown-up daugh­ters

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