Sarah Beeny: I have the cancer that killed my mother
I can relate to so much of these words... wishing Sarah and her family every strength at this very difficult time. I know that love and laughter will help you through.
In a Telegraph exclusive to Anita Singh, the presenter talks about having the disease that killed her mother and the repressed emotions it unlocks.
Sarah Beeny knew she was going to be given a diagnosis of breast cancer as soon as she walked into the doctor’s office. “Even though we’d all got masks on, you can look at people’s eyes. And I thought, ‘Oh, I know what those eyes are saying,’ ” she recalls.
“Then I turned around and there was this lovely lady there who was a breast cancer support nurse, sitting on the chair next to me. I looked at her and thought, well, you’re not here because you’re bored or looking for a nice, cool room to sit in. I just said, ‘Look, I’ve got cancer, haven’t I?’ And they just said yes.”
It has been three weeks since Beeny, 50, was given the news after finding a lump in her breast. An initial mammogram showed nothing untoward, but a biopsy confirmed it was cancer. On Friday, she began a course of chemotherapy; she will have a mastectomy in the new year, followed by radiotherapy.
The presenter is a familiar face on our TV screens, beginning 20 years ago with Property Ladder and most recently in Sarah Beeny’s New Life in the Country for Channel 4, which documents her family’s move to a dream home in Somerset. Viewers will know her as someone who calmly approaches problems with resilience and humour, and she is doing her best to deal with cancer in the same way.
At the weekend, Beeny cut off her hair rather than wait for it to fall out as a result of the chemo. It was a family effort, with her husband, Graham Swift, and sons Billy, 18, Charlie, 16, Rafferty, 14, and Laurie, 12, doing the honours.
“To be honest, I wouldn’t recommend getting four teenage boys to cut off your hair,” she laughs. “Graham was trying to cut it nicely, but the boys – well, they’re not going to be famous hairdressers. They said I looked like Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones – I mean, she’s beautiful so I was sort of flattered, but my hair is now in some places about a centimetre long and in some places it’s an inch long.”
There was laughter as they did it, and Beeny says she felt a sense of elation afterwards, but there were tears beforehand. “I was really, really sad before. I think because losing your hair is so real: before that, you can sort of pretend it’s not happening.”
There is another reason why Beeny expected her diagnosis when she attended that hospital appointment. Her mother had breast cancer which spread to her brain and she died aged 39, when Beeny was 10. After Beeny was given her own news she had “a little bit of a breakdown” in the consultation room. “The nurse was so sweet and they were really nice to me but I thought, ‘You don’t understand. I have waited 40 years to hear those words.’ I knew I was going to hear it one day.”
Beeny’s character has been shaped by losing her mother so young. “I guess resilience is the main thing it’s taught me,” she says. “When someone dies when you’re young, you don’t really understand the impact completely, but there are holes later on. You think, ‘Oh, that’s where my mum would be,’ like when you have a child.
“The fear makes you pack a lot in. My husband always says I’m so impatient in life and I think I’m impatient because it might run out; you might not have any more time. So I guess that’s how it’s impacted me a lot.”
Her mother’s memory has always been alive in her family – “Everyone talks about Grandma Ann” – but the diagnosis has brought back some of that grief. “It has opened a tinderbox of stuff that I’ve carefully swept under the carpet for a really long time.”
Beeny was too young to understand her mother’s illness, and was not told it was terminal. “I knew she’d had a mastectomy but I didn’t know what a mastectomy was. I didn’t know what cancer was. I didn’t know until the day she died. She died at home. I overheard the doctor say she wouldn’t wake up and I thought, ‘What? Why?’ It had never occurred to me.”
Her own children are older than she was then, and she has been upfront with them from the beginning. “I’m lucky because I live in a family where we all talk,” she says. “My eldest came in and I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. He said, ‘Are you all right? You haven’t got cancer or something, have you?’ I said, ‘Um, I have, actually.’ He said, ‘Sorry?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I have.’ ” Then the others came in, we had a little chat and it was kind of fine.
“They just said, ‘You will be honest?’ and I said, ‘I promise you that I’m going to be around for a jolly long time yet. It’s going to be a bit difficult. But I promise I won’t lie.’ And I think they were OK once I said that.”
Graham and the boys have a band, The Entitled Sons, and played last weekend at Chris Evans’s CarFest. “It is the first thing they’ve done since nursery that I have ever missed. I really felt that, sitting at home post-chemo session,” she says. On stage, the boys dedicated a song titled Unconditional to her.
Her husband has been “amazing” in his support, but she was not with him when she received her diagnosis.
“He didn’t come because I said I didn’t want him to. That’s weird in a way, isn’t it?” she wonders aloud. “There was a little moment where I thought, maybe I won’t tell anyone. I won’t even tell him. I don’t know why; maybe I thought if I did that it wouldn’t become real. That didn’t last very long,” she says.
“But sometimes you have to find something inside yourself; you have to focus and centre to find your inner strength, and say, ‘Come on!’ We all have our own coping mechanisms, don’t we, and mine is to kind of go into myself a bit and then come out.”
She insists that she is lucky in so many ways. The cancer has not spread, and doctors have told her there is “an 80 per cent chance of cure”.
“I’ve got a really treatable cancer. I’m lucky to have this type of cancer, in this place, at my age, with the support I’ve got around me,” she says, praising the “mind-blowingly brilliant” NHS staff at Yeovil District Hospital where she is receiving treatment.
Of course, she has had dark moments. “They’re not so good. But I can deal with it. I’m lucky that I’ve got the tools to be able to deal with this well. One thing I do feel is that when you get diagnosed with cancer, everyone that loves you feels it too. I’m really aware that at least I can go through what I’m going through – they just have to watch and that’s really, really hard.”
Beeny has always had a close relationship with her father Richard but he suffered a stroke five years ago and now has “forgetfulness”, as she likes to call it. She will not tell him about her diagnosis.
“He sometimes knows who I am, then sometimes he doesn’t remember. He knows that his first wife died of breast cancer [he was married again for 25 years to Beeny’s first stepmother, who died eight years ago, and is now remarried to Jane, giving Beeny a large and loving extended family]. He gets lots of things muddled up and my fear is that I tell him, and tell him I’m going to be fine, but he’d remember the fact that I’d got it but not that I was going to get better. He’d think I was my mother.”
Article in The Telegraph By Anita Singh
29 Aug 2022 - 11:42PM BST