Can­cer has haunted my life – but I am ready for it

Broad­caster Kay Bur­ley, who has lost fam­ily and friends to breast can­cer, re­veals why she believes it is com­ing for her, too

The Sunday Telegraph - - Features - Befo f r t ti bi th h

Hid­ing out on a boat, off the Devon coast, I had plenty of time to think about life. I was sup­posed to be fo­cus­ing on how to evade the elite team of track­ers from Chan­nel 4 show Celebrity Hunted, but in­stead I found my­self dwelling on my re­cent be­reave­ments.

In the six weeks prior to film­ing, last sum­mer, I had lost three close girl­friends to can­cer. It sud­denly hit me that I should have been sit­ting on board that boat with them, drink­ing and laugh­ing, talk­ing about life – as close friends do. For a mo­ment, I was com­pletely over­whelmed with grief.

Tessa Jow­ell, the hugely re­spected Labour politi­cian who I had known for the best part of 15 years, had suc­cumbed to a brain tu­mour at the age of 70 on May 12, just a year af­ter di­ag­no­sis. It seemed im­pos­si­ble, hor­ren­dous; I re­mem­bered so clearly be­ing in Florence to­gether for her 60th, hav­ing a lovely girlie week­end.

My friend Rochelle also had a tu­mour on her brain. She died a week af­ter Tessa. Rochelle was naughty and mis­chievous and lived like she was still 25, de­spite be­ing in her 60s. She had been des­per­ately hold­ing on to life, hop­ing to meet her new grand­child, but suc­cumbed be­fore that could hap­pen. Just a few weeks af­ter that, on July 6, we lost Jo Bra­zier; mother-of-six and wife of my Sky News col­league Colin. Jo had fought breast can­cer for years, en­dur­ing a gru­elling round of chemo over 18 weeks, but she too could not hold out against this aw­ful disease.

I gazed out across the wide blue sea and thought of what Tessa, Rochelle and Jo would have said to me at that mo­ment: each would have told me to ac­cept that can­cer had once again in­fil­trated my life, and to get on with liv­ing.

Look­ing back now, ahead of the pro­gramme air­ing this week, I can see that it was good to have that time to process my emo­tions – even if it was while film­ing a re­al­ity TV show. But the truth is, I can never al­low my­self to for­get this cruel disease – one that has haunted my en­tire life, tak­ing my grand­mother, aunt and mother, all too young. With that ge­netic in­her­i­tance, I have an 80 per cent chance that it will claim me too, one day.

Of course, I am not alone in be­ing af­fected by can­cer. It will catch one in two of us in the UK and our strug­gle is still very much on­go­ing. Al­though we have be­come sig­nif­i­cantly more ac­com­plished at de­tect­ing and treat­ing tu­mours than when my mother was di­ag­nosed, the re­al­ity is that, ac­cord­ing to Can­cer Re­search UK, more than 360,000 new cases are recorded ev­ery year. And in­ci­dence is still climb­ing: since the early Nineties, rates in men have in­creased by three per cent and rates in women are up by about nine per cent.

I never met my grand­mother, who was 42 when she died of breast can­cer. But I do know that my mother Kath was just 18 at the time. It must have been a des­per­ate time for her – as it was for my sis­ter Jacque­line and I, when mum her­self died at the age of 59, in 1993, also from breast can­cer. We were older than she had been: I was 32 and es­tab­lished in my ca­reer as an an­chor at Sky News; my sis­ter was 30. But I had just given birth to my son, Alexan­der, eight months ear­lier and not hav­ing my mum to turn to made me feel acutely vul­ner­a­ble.

I re­mem­ber push­ing my new baby, in his buggy, around the Wi­gan es­tate where Mum lived. It was Novem­ber, and freez­ing cold. That’s when she told me her shock­ing di­ag­no­sis. She also said that she wanted me to look af­ter my dad – who had been ill for some time with heart prob­lems – af­ter she died. That was typ­i­cal of my mum; al­ways more con­cerned about oth­ers.

“I can’t live without you,” I re­mem­ber say­ing, and she replied: “I am so sorry, but you are go­ing to have to.” Even think­ing about it now can re­duce me to tears.

It was around that time that I went for ge­netic screen­ing at the Royal Mars­den Hospi­tal to see whether I too had the BRCA gene mu­ta­tion, the most well-known for breast can­cer. About one in 500 peo­ple are car­ri­ers, and it is as­so­ci­ated with an 85 to 90 per cent life­time risk of breast can­cer in women.

Jacque­line and I tested neg­a­tive but our con­sul­tant warned that, al­though they could not iden­tify a spe­cific faulty gene, which he likened to try­ing to find a spell­ing mis­take in a dic­tio­nary, it was clear that our fam­ily his­tory put our risk of con­tract­ing breast can­cer at 80 per cent. This be­came painfully ob­vi­ous when my aunt Rosa also died from the disease, aged just 62. It was an­other dev­as­tat­ing blow for our whole fam­ily, es­pe­cially her two sons.

My re­sponse to these tragedies has al­ways been to gain more knowl­edge. Once I knew about the high odds of de­vel­op­ing can­cer, I con­sid­ered a dou­ble mas­tec­tomy. But af­ter var­i­ous con­sul­ta­tions, I have cho­sen watch­ful wait­ing in­stead. I have al­ter­nat­ing mam­mo­grams and ul­tra­sounds ev­ery six months. That way I know any­thing that does de­velop will be caught swiftly, in time for treat­ment.

I also like to think that I can lengthen my own odds by be­ing healthy. I con­sciously don’t smoke (Can­cer Re­search UK fig­ures show that it causes over a quar­ter of can­cer deaths in the UK and three in 20 can­cer cases). I keep fit through run­ning and don’t al­low my­self to carry too much weight – al­though I do drink al­co­hol. I con­sider my­self aware of the risks and how to man­age them.

I’ve had the odd mo­ment of worry and sev­eral cal­ci­fied lumps re­moved from my breasts. It never gets eas­ier. The fear of “Is it hap­pen­ing this time?” still takes hold, un­til the doc­tor re­as­sures me. My big­gest scare came three years ago when, just be­fore I was due to host a fundraiser for breast can­cer re­search, my doc­tor told me there was a shadow on my scan that he wasn’t happy with. He took a sam­ple of tis­sue via a long nee­dle, in a biopsy pro­ce­dure.

I was wor­ried – it was trau­matic, tra to be hon­est. I rang my won­der­ful friend, Meri­beth, Me who spoke re­as­sur­ingly rea as I sobbed down the th he phone. But, I had made a prom­ise, pr ro so I put on my frock and an nd went to the fundraiser as though th I hadn’t a care in the world. w A few days later, I got the th all-clear.

I wish that had been true for my friends, too. They were all mag­nif­i­cent women. I hope they would be proud of how I have taken on the chal­lenge of Celebrity Hunted to raise funds for the char­ity Stand Up To Can­cer. I couldn’t – and still can’t – bear that Tessa, Rochelle R and Jo have been lost to it; that it cheated them of years with their fam­i­lies. That’s what I fear most – de­vel­op­ing the disease be­fore I see Alexan­der, now 25, start a fam­ily. I des­per­ately want to be around for my own grand­chil­dren.

That’s what I think in the still watch of the night. I don’t worry about can­cer com­ing to get me; I do think of it though and re­mind my­self that, if or when it does, I will be ready. And yes, there are dark days.

I know the like­li­hood is I will con­tract it. But thanks to my mag­nif­i­cent fam­ily and friends, I will meet it head on.

For this, I was born ready.

On the run: Kay Bur­ley with MP Johnny Mercer for ‘Celebrity Hunted’ Los­ing loved ones: Kay, left, and with her mother and Tessa Jow­ell, be­lowwhich is part of the Stand Up To Can­cer cam­paign, be­gins on Chan­nel 4 on Tues Oct 16, 9.15pm

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