Discovering I Had Breast Cancer

I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 47. I was terrified. I was the BBC’s Green Goddess, the nation’s gym mistress. I felt desperately alone. John and I had separated a year before. I was on the crest of a wave with my campaign on BBC Breakfast: ‘Get Britain Fit’. Cancer happens to other people, we all know that. My thought at that moment was, ‘I don’t want my life to stop. I’ve got so much more I want to do. And the biggest thing at that moment was, ‘I want to see my boys with partners and I want to see some grandchildren.’

I decided to keep it a secret. I told a close friend. I told my agent. They made me tell my sons, and the boys told John. So now there were just six of us who knew. Eventually, after two weeks’ of deliberating, I went back to see the surgeons to say I wasn’t going to have anything done but by the time I came out I had conceded to their recommendations of a bilateral mastectomy followed by immediate reconstruction, about which I knew zilch.

I was booked into the hospital under my maiden name. The operation was a very big shock. I felt mutilated. I was proud of my body but, more than that, it was part of the tools of my trade. I had high levels of fitness and that got me over the operation, but mentally I was in a mess. I couldn’t talk to people. I now know you must talk to people, which is why I encourage people to talk about their problems.

I was spiritual; I talked to my God quite a lot, and eventually I found the best way to cope with my problem was to write it all down. So every day I wrote down what was happening to me physically, but also spiritually and mentally. I was coping because of an inner strength brought out in me as a small child by my disciplined and disciplining father, who taught me to stand on my own two feet.

Harold Evans, then Editor of ‘The Sunday Times’, heard from a mutual friend I had had cancer and had been keeping a very detailed diary. He said a diary like that would be important to share with other cancer patients and that’s how I came to publish the book which I called ‘A More Difficult Exercise’ – the diary of six months of my life. It was launched in the lecture theatre of the Royal Marsden Hospital, because the surgeons were thrilled that somebody was finally coming out so positively about having had cancer. Some of the press coverage was hurtful. A male journalist in ‘The Mirror’ wrote: ‘Green Goddess has breast cancer. If that’s what keeping fit does for you, I’ll stick to walking my dog.’

Immediately it was out in the open, I started my work with cancer charities. I am celebrity ambassador for Breast Cancer Care, for Breakthrough Cancer, patron of the Breast Cancer Campaign and of the Cancer Counselling Trust. And there are many more.

I now know that the support you get from other women who’ve been on this journey is vital. Before we start the Breast Cancer Care ‘Ribbon Walks’, I do a mass workout; thousands of women in front of me, bending and shaking to my command! We have four this year. We all support one another because we’ve all gone through the experience of breast cancer – usually ourselves but also in memory, or thanks, for somebody close to us.

I relax by painting, whenever possible out in the fresh air. I sit by the river and capture light. I’ve painted on and off during my life, probably when I’ve had my most down moments, when I’ve had some time as well. That’s when I resort to the paint. It has to be oil, it has to be thick; it can be put on with a knife as well as brushes; it’s not delicate stuff, it’s strong stuff, and it’s absolutely passionate. When I paint I don’t eat, I don’t see anything or anybody; I’m absolutely in a world of my own and I’m never happier!

Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)

Today more and more people are on the move. But the huge increase in world travel, particularly long distance air travel, carries with it the potential health risk of a deep vein thrombosis commonly known as DVT. DVT was not previously recognised as a serious travel risk. However, it has now been proven to affect thousands of air travellers each year and can occur often in conjunction with an established illness or condition, where the natural tendency of the blood to clot is increased.

Long periods of immobility, particularly on long haul flights can cause circulatory problems. Enforced inactivity, sitting in cramped conditions for long periods of time, creates blood flow problems. An inefficient, sluggish blood flow increases the risk of a thrombosis. A thrombosis is a blood clot, which forms when the platelets of the blood stick together, and also stick to the sidewall of veins occurring most commonly in the veins of the calf. Other factors which increase this tendency, include being over 40 years of age, smoking, obesity, pregnancy, taking the contraceptive pill, or having recently undergone major surgery.

DVT is particularly serious when the blood clot gradually increases in size causing an eventual blockage in the vein. Occasionally bits of the clot will break free, and with a tail of debris behind it, can travel up the body to the right side of the heart, where it is pumped on into the lungs, causing serious breathing problems, or a pulmonary embolism. Many passengers suffer minor symptoms, such as fluid collecting in the lower limbs causing swollen legs and ankles, but others experience more serious symptoms including a rapid heartbeat, palpitations, and breathlessness or coughing. If a problem does occur, during or after a flight, it is essential to seek medical advice as quickly as possible, in order to avoid complications or possible death from cardiac or respiratory failure.

To prevent deep vein thrombosis, commonly known as “economy class syndrome” (because of the tight cramped seating arrangements in many planes), it is essential to walk up and down the aisles of the aircraft whenever possible during a long flight. One way to help avoid DVT is to do some simple leg and feet exercises throughout the duration of the flight. Others are to wear loose comfortable clothing during the flight and avoid crossing the legs, especially when sleeping. Long haul flights carry the most risk, but exercise and walking around whenever possible will improve circulation by encouraging action of the leg muscles. The calf muscles at the back of the lower leg pump and encourages the return of blood from the legs and feet back to the heart. On a long journey the air inside the plane’s cabin can become very dry, so it is advisable to drink plenty of fluids during the flight (and to avoid excess alcohol) in order to prevent the body becoming dehydrated. Dehydration can cause the blood to thicken.

One in 20 people, and I am included in this number, carry a gene factor known as Factor V Leiden. This gene mutation affects the blood’s clotting capabilities, and puts the carrier at a higher risk of flight related DVT. Most people are not aware that they are carriers or at greater risk, and my own vulnerability came a surprise to me. It was discovered after I had breast cancer, and was a result of medical testing to establish whether I carried the breast cancer gene. I have many young girls in my family who might have been at a higher risk of presenting with breast cancer had I their close relative, been found to carry the gene. Fortunately the tests concluded that I do not carry the breast cancer gene, but discovered that I do carry the Factor V Leiden gene. I was advised to take an aspirin prior to flying to lessen my risk of DVT.

Taking a simple aspirin before a long flight is a simple precaution, which can help thin the blood and discourage the blood from clotting. However aspirin is not advisable for anyone who has an established medical condition such as a stomach ulcer. If you are concerned about the risks involved with flying long distances, it is a good idea to talk to your GP, particularly if you have had phlebitis or a previous thrombosis.

BETRAYAL – When I Realised I’d Married A Cheat.

I knew I had married the wrong man in 1993 but I should have realised a lot sooner that he was not the perfect husband I thought him to be.  For as I lay convalesing in our Dorset seaside home after breast surgery my 4 and a half year marriage to my second husband was to end abruptly with the publication in a national daily newspaper of details and photographs of him with his mistress.

I was devastated by the revelations and immediately made plans to be driven back to my London flat where my husband had been staying each week.  He worked in central London returning to Dorset for weekends.

Intending to confront my husband with the content of the newspaper article I discovered on arrival at my flat that he had fled.  He had taken all his belongings to a secret address obviously realising his shabby secret had been exposed.  He was, and remains today too cowardly to contact with me.  I have never spoken to him or received an apology for his hurtful behaviour.  Divorce followed immediately.

But how could I have made such a mistake and picked a wronger?  I had thought we loved one another and had a strong marriage; we had been friends and lived together for a previous 5 years before tying the knot. Looking back I now realise that the signs of my husband’s infidelities had probably been apparent, but weakened by my medical state, and being of a trusting nature I had allowed myself to be deceived.

With hindsight I realise I should have acted sooner.  Shortly before my birthday in 1993 I had found a Harrods receipt for a very expensive matching leather handbag and shoes.  I pretended I had not seen the receipt and looked forward to receiving my surprise birthday present. When a few days later my birthday came and went I was surprised but also disappointed to be given a small metal ornament measuring 1” in diameter depicting a cat in a basket.   I wasn’t thrilled and smelt a rat!

I phoned Harrods and asked about the receipt and was told by the assistant concerned that she remembered me coming in with my husband. Trouble was it wasn’t me who had shopped with him! On his return home that evening I questioned him. He mumbled something about having bought the goods for a fellow property dealer who had done him a favour and this was his was of thanking her.

This put doubts in my mind.  It was the first but not my last inkling that there were, at least, to quote a phrase “3 of us in this marriage”. Odd behaviour, bad tempers followed.  The marriage was not to last much longer! Betrayal became obvious and I suddenly found on that fateful day in Dorset that my husband was less than the Perfect Pete I had thought he was – in fact he was, as the newspapers subsequently to name him, an adulterous Cheat Pete. I remain happily single!

Ageism in 21st Century

The baby boomers, those people born immediately after the second world war, have grown up and joined the rapidly swelling ranks of the UK’s over 50’s. I was born at the start of the war in 1939, but by including myself in their number, I can state that being both over 50 and female, at this time in history, is exciting and a challenge.

Generally speaking, older adults in the UK today are healthier, have experience, knowledge, and more disposable income than previous generations. Personally I feel comfortable with my maturity, and I’ve finally come around to accepting who and what I am. I love this time of my life and regard it as bonus time. However, within the 50+ group there does appear to be a division regarding ageing with the majority of people plannning positively for the future, but a minority still feeling extremely negative about it. Positive agers relish their individualism, are open-minded and eager to embrace all opportunities life still has to offer.

One in 10 persons in the world today is over the age of sixty. By the year 2050 this proportion will have doubled to one in five. Along with others of my age, I didn’t reach this stage of my life without some experiences. Up to date not all these experiences have been good, in fact, many of them have been downright horrid. However, they all taught me a thing or two, and I have acquired knowledge, understanding and a little wisdom. Exposure to difficulties in the past makes it easier to cope with present day problems.

Knowledge acquired throughout life is invaluable, and it shouldn’t be allowed to go to waste. It could be said that we mature folk are chronologically advantaged, because we have so much to offer. Traditionally in past generations, and still in many societies throughout the world today, old age is positively coveted. Many young people seek knowledge and guidance from older family members or community elders and find them a source of great wisdom and inspiration. These young people respect their elders for their individuality, independence and inspiration.

Sadly, here in the UK today, it appears that respect for older persons in our society is disappearing, with too many young people tending to belittle mature folk. This is a major problem which older people in the community need to readdress before it gets out of hand. Ageism is becoming a fact of modern day living and we need to do something to stop it. Older people need to reclaim their position in society, and should be treated with the honour, respect and reverence they deserve. They need to empower themselves, and to re-establish themselves as people who matter – as people who have a great deal to give to today’s society – not least of which is experience.

In recent generations successful women have become more visible and prominent in our society, in business, politics, teaching, the media, and the law. In retirement many of these women, along with the men who have had successful careers, will have time – as well as money to spend. Retired folk are generally better off today, and free from the constraints of paid work and family commitment, they are able to indulge themselves. With a positive attitude to ageing, many people view retirement as a time of life in which to experiment, experience and explore new horizons.

I am a single, independent woman who feels, happy, confident and comfortable with herself. I am physically, mentally and sexually active and love the challenge that modern life offers a mature woman. I travel and meet new friends, and reacquaint and spend time with old ones. Being fit, I can play tennis, tend my garden, mess about in boats, lose myself in oil painting, or spend time with my four grandchildren. I am a superactive 70 year-old and I have finally come around to accepting who and what I am.

18 months ago I, felt confident, buoyant and optimistic in my attitude to reaching the ripe old age of 70. I was excited at becoming a mature person in the 21st century, so set about writing a book to encourage other people to feel the same way. I felt my project, although much of it applied to men, was of particular interest to women, so I gave it the working title of “A Mature Girl’s Guide”. My book encompassed all aspects of mature life, from nutrition, physical and mental fitness, to financial matters, relationships and sex. Yes – despite what the young might think, many of us over 60 still indulge in sex!

The research and writing has been all absorbing and has convinced me that we are at a turning point in man’s history, in both attitude and aptitude to maturity. I also became increasingly aware of the need for older people to fight for power and recognition in a world that has become obsessed by youth culture. With my book completed and safely in the hands of a literary agent I eagerly awaited response from interested publishers. After all, I had written 7 previous books and had a good track record. I decided to take my project further by preparing a “treatment” for a possible television or radio series, and was pleased with the outcome.

But sadly that was where the idyll ended and reality began. I soon became aware that many Publishers, Commissioning Editors and Channel Controllers, the people who have the power within the media today, are brilliant, talented young people – but half my age. Superb and technically superior as they are in their chosen profession, many of them do not accept the need to cater for the requirements of people over the age of 40, yet alone 60 plus. One TV Director told me that to any treatment submitted, which uses the word “ageing”, doesn’t stand a chance of consideration. With so much emphasis on youth, anyone over the age of 60 is likely to be dismissed as “over the hills and past it.” I do wonder if these young people realise that they too will reach the age of 60 one day? For sure, they can’t begin to imagine just how soon that will be.

By the year 2031, out of a total population of 62.8 million people in the UK – 16.5 million will be older people of pensionable age. That is over 26% of the UK population whose needs should be catered for. The image of age has changed, and pre-conceptions of ageing must be cast aside, and older viewers and readers given what they want. More motivational, informative programmes and articles that are interesting and appropriate to the age groups. And not just “fuddy duddy” – older people can be vibrant and fun.

Older people do matter, and are a force to be reckoned with. Mature people tend to select carefully and spend their money wisely. The media will increasingly need their custom as the older population grows in numbers and strength. So I challenge you bright, intelligent, and young media Commissioners, Controllers and Editors to consider these needs – or – to ignore them at your peril. Happily for me my book was eventually published – under the title “Live Longer, Look Younger, Look Great” (Hamlyn) and has proved a huge success….

Reflections On Ageing

At 19 I started working voluntarily with a charity for older people in Bristol. For the past 22 years I’ve been a member of Stage for Age, the show business arm of Help the Aged, and work voluntarily to raise funds and awareness of older people’s issues. We live longer these days, but we need to be as healthy as possible to enjoy those extra years, so the work of Help the Aged/Research into Ageing plays a vital role.

Sadly, my mother died prematurely when I was young but I received support, comfort and advice from older family members and friends. Two strong women in particular were to influence me. The first was my lady boss and personnel and welfare officer, a devote Christian who was a mentor to me. The second was an older vibrant lady called Betty. who came into my life by chance when I had breast cancer 22 years ago. She had survived the disease and gave me encouragement and new hope that I too would survive and resume my life again. There was a stigma about cancer back then and people didn’t talk about it, but happily since then people have started to discuss cancer openly and attitudes are now very supportive…

People do still feel uncomfortable talking about many age-related illnesses. Of course we need to talk about all the conditions that affect us as we get older. For some older people in the UK the problems they face are having to battle with isolation and depression, while Overseas the problems can be to even access medical care. Poverty and health are vital issues too wherever we are in the World we all need to feel valued and cared for as we get older. Having recently celebrated my 70th birthday I’m thankful to be healthy and to have the confidence to be myself. My lifestyle consists of keeping active – both physically and mentally and I eat a varied diet with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. I spend as much time as possible in the company of my 4 grandchildren and am thankful to be conversant with computers which keep me in touch with them and the world at large. I find being on the same wavelength as younger people stops me becoming bigoted and broadens my horizons.