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
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