THE Sun’s beloved agony aunt, who devoted 40 years to readers’ problems, has revealed she has breast cancer.
The 77-year-old, who retired at the end of 2020, is sharing her devastating diagnosis to make sure other women get checked and do not skip their breast-screening appointment – as it could save their life.
“CANCER is such a scary word,” said Holly Willoughby, giving me a hug.
So true, but it is so important — life-saving even — that we do not shrink away from getting any worrying symptoms checked out as soon as they appear.
This is labelled high-grade, which means it is the sort that would grow and spread aggressively — had it not been discovered so early.
My little cancer story starts with me feeling achy back in the summer.
I tend to have tense shoulders but I realised the ache seemed to be spreading into my right breast.
I must have let at least a month pass while I wondered, “Is it anything to worry about? Is it just muscular? I am 77, after all, is it just the aches and pains of getting older?”.
I finally got round to calling our GP practice a fortnight before I was due to go on holiday.
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But I am so lucky that both the practice and the breast clinic at Addenbrooke’s, our massive local teaching hospital in Cambridge, are models of how the NHS can work when it is being brilliant.
I talked to the advanced nurse practitioner over the phone that morning.
She saw me in person that afternoon, thought she could feel a difference in the right breast and put me on the NHS two-week cancer pathway (the referral process where anyone suspected of having cancer is seen within two weeks for a hospital diagnosis).
I wondered whether we would have to call off our holiday but the breast clinic team are clearly determined to stay on top of their waiting lists.
I was booked in just ten days later when they put on an extra clinic the Saturday before we went away.
And maybe I should stress that they had no idea of my TV and newspaper connections at this point!
56,000 – the number of new breast cancer cases in the UK every year.
I had a mammogram and an ultrasound scan and this is when it became clear there was something to worry about.
They told me to go away and enjoy my holiday, but I was booked in for a biopsy — taking a sample of the cluster of cells they could see — as soon as I got back.
The cells were malignant and I now have NHS surgery booked to remove the carcinoma this Saturday.
“How long is it since you had a mammogram?” the consultant asked at that initial appointment.
The answer was nearly ten years, because I happen to be among a cohort of several thousand women who, by error, did not get invited for a mammogram when they turned 70.
We were offered it a couple of years later, but by then I reckoned I must be too old to need it any more as the NHS stops inviting you for a screening after that age. Hah!
24% of all new cases are diagnosed in people aged 75 or over.
The Government website says: “As women get older, over-diagnosis becomes more common.
“This means screening finds a cancer that would never have become life-threatening.
“So it is more likely that women aged 71 or over could end up having treatment they do not need.”
Well, if something is found that is not likely to develop into a serious threat to your health, such as a low-grade carcinoma, surely you and the medical team can decide to wait and see?
That’s what they often do these days regarding older men’s prostate cancer.
“It is your choice whether or not to be screened,” the official guidance goes on.
“You can continue to be screened every three years if you want.”
I know what I would choose now.
That is why I will be telling my story on This Morning today (ITV, 10am to 12.30pm), urging all women to go for breast screening when invited, and women over 70 to use their right to request screening every three years.
- If you have cancer-related concerns, contact Macmillan Cancer Support on 0808 808 0000 or see macmillan.org.uk.