Victoria Derbyshire: ‘Cancer is a lottery in terms of whether you survive or not.’ Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer
On Monday 27 July 2015, at 4.35am, Victoria Derbyshire was in her kitchen, with the kettle on, Googling “inverted nipple” before leaving home to present her daily BBC2 current affairs programme. Google came up with a list of explanations, one of which was breast cancer. It is usually best to ignore online diagnoses but, in this instance, her preliminary search was right. By 29 July she was having a biopsy, by 31 July it was confirmed she had breast cancer, and on 24 September she had a single mastectomy. And at this point she did something unusual: she made a video of herself, sitting up in her hospital bed in an NHS gown, after coming round from the operation. Pale, then suddenly smiling, she held up two pieces of card. On one, she had written: “THIS MORNING I HAD BREAST CANCER.” Then she showed us the second: “THIS EVENING I DON’T!”
Watching the video, you notice she talks as if she feels she has had a narrow escape. She takes little breaths between words, as though resisting speechlessness. “Today I had a mastectomy and I feel – all right – I can’t believe it.” There is relief in her pronunciation of that slightly questioning “all right”. She looks from side to side, as if bad news might be lurking in the room. She describes the NHS team as inspiring, shows us the black arrow inked on to her right wrist (to make sure the surgeons did not operate on the wrong breast), and has an impressive shot at explaining breast reconstruction – the tucking in of the implant, the pulling down of skin, the hammocky mesh over which skin will eventually grow – although she casts around for the word “reconstruction”, almost lost to morphine.
It is extraordinarily plucky and self-possessed to turn a vulnerable, private experience into reportage. She announces that she wants to do it not only because she is a “pretty open person” but because more than one in three people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lives. “Obviously, I have looked up those stats,” she adds, like the journalist she is. The video was the first of an illuminating series (all on YouTube) documenting her chemotherapy, radiotherapy and emotional reactions to treatment in an attempt to “demystify” the disease, learning as she went.
The public response, with messages from the medical profession as well as fellow cancer patients, has been overwhelming. Derbyshire has inspired countless tweets, emails and column inches. And now there is a book: Dear Cancer, Love Victoria. Once past the title (who thought that was a good idea?), it’s as easy to read as it must, at times, have been hard to live.
Cancer writing has become an industry, but this is a book that is more reportage than memoir; it distinguishes itself with its informative immediacy, taking the temperature of every moment. It does not belong on the same literary shelf as the columns of Ruth Picardie, Christopher Hitchens or Jenny Diski, for whom writing came first – cancer simply a subject that could not be ignored. In intention, Derbyshire’s book is closer to Sophie Sabbage’s wonderful The Cancer Whisperer. Sabbage resolved, on the advice of a consultant, never to allow herself to become a “patient”. Derbyshire is similarly determined to hang on to being a journalist. The result is unusually upbeat, not least because she seems, with any luck, to have seen cancer off.
When she walks into her publisher’s offices, she is precisely as she appears on television. She is 48. Piquant face, pointed chin, bright smile, glossy hair. Being herself is her forte on TV. And she is natural in her videos too, talking to the camera as though to a friend. This morning she has come straight from presenting her programme, wearing a crisp, candy-striped T-shirt and smart blue trousers. She has changed only her shoes, swapping heels for white plimsolls. She is chirpy, smiling, focused. I watch as she gracefully adjusts to being interviewee, not interviewer (she has done her homework, asking a friendly opening question about my sons).
You might assume, if you didn’t know better, that talking to her would be like chatting to a neighbour. But you have only to watch, to take just one example, her recent handling of a meeting between housing minister, Alok Sharma, and the residents of Grenfell Tower to recognise that this Bafta-winning journalist is an impeccable professional – and fearless. She tells the minister to stop talking in “platitudes”. She calmly keeps the peace, hushing the shouting, raging, heartbroken residents. Seeing that she is on their side makes you feel on hers. You also detect the steel in her, a steel tested by cancer.
As she sits down, I ask if she were to make a 10-minute video diary right now, what she would say? “I’d start with a health update because I had my check-up yesterday – and all is good, touch wood. That is a big hurdle, every six months. Talking off the top of my head, I can’t believe I’ve had cancer. I’m here now – alive, happy, healthy. It’s almost like it never happened, yet it’s absolutely vivid in the front of my mind. And then, depending on your diagnosis [she seems to assume her viewers all have cancer], I’d say, ‘If I can get through this, so can you.’ That wouldn’t last 10 minutes, but that would be my opening gambit.”
When she started out on her treatment, she tells me, she knew nothing about cancer. She is about to say more but interrupts herself with a statement that sounds planned: “Everything I say has a caveat, which is that every diagnosis, cancer and treatment is different. I’m not speaking on behalf of everyone. This is purely my experience.” She continues: “What matters is the mundanifying of cancer – although that is not even a word.” It is now, I say, and she laughs: “But you know what I mean? The normalising of it. Cancer shouldn’t have this uber-powerful status. Cancer can be manageable, you can go to work, have a drink if you want to, pick kids up from school. I didn’t know you could do all those things when you had cancer. I’d no idea, so that was the big surprise for me.”
What most needs demystifying, she believes, is cancer surgery and breast reconstruction. She remembers exactly how she felt making her mastectomy video: “I was recording through the night, I was on such a high.” Morphine? “Partly, but mainly I was on a high because I was alive.”
Not everyone has been equally admiring of that video. In her book, Derbyshire draws attention to Deborah Orr’s critical Guardian column in which she suggests that Derbyshire oversimplifies cancer. Disarmingly, she wonders, in the book, whether Orr is right. Orr, who has had breast cancer, chafes against what she defines as the “tyranny of positivity”. Does Derbyshire recognise that positivity can be negative?
“I felt stung by her column because I’d given an honest account post-mastectomy. I wasn’t faking it. And, hey, guess what? When I started chemo it was a bit more shit, and I didn’t gloss over that either.” And I then remind her how, pre-surgery, she felt a morbid fearfulness that was anything but positive. She even took the precaution of writing individual letters to her young sons – Oliver (now 11) and Joe (eight) – in case she didn’t make it through the operation. She adds: “I’ve no idea if being positive has any impact on recovering from breast cancer.”
Turning her experience of cancer into journalism was helpful to her because it gave her “another purpose, apart from being a cancer patient. It felt a natural decision, partly because, over the decades, people have shared some unbelievably personal experiences with me.” As you watch her chemo videos, it becomes clear that the most personal physical issue is her hair – she is far more obsessed with losing her hair than losing a breast.
“Losing your hair makes you look like a cancer patient. I didn’t want to look like a cancer patient. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me. I’m not saying I wanted people to be unkind, because many people were gorgeous to me. I just didn’t want to be pitied.”
I had never seen a “cold cap” (a hat designed to prevent or reduce hair loss during chemotherapy) before watching her video – demystification in action. Not that it’s reassuring. It looks like a penitential helmet, seems to be far more painful than the chemo itself and, when she takes it off, leaves shards of ice in her hair. In retrospect, was it a mistake to persevere with it? “No, it was worth it psychologically… I kept about a third of my hair and could say to myself, ‘I still have some hair, I’m vaguely in control.’” She also demystifies wigs, even showing how to shampoo one. But I tell her I have a friend, being treated for breast cancer, who, after watching the video in which Derbyshire takes off her glossy, convincing wig to reveal the return of her own hair, felt indignant because Derbyshire’s new hair looks fantastic, better than the wig. “That is her perception, isn’t it? But my whole life, I’d had long hair… ” So you were not aware how great your new hair looked? “No way! Are you joking? Viewers sent me amazing messages saying, ‘It must be nice to have a new haircut.’” But she explains there is nothing nice about a haircut “imposed on you by cancer and chemotherapy”.
Would she describe herself as vain? She exclaims in an endearing whisper: “No, I wouldn’t! To be honest, if you look at some of those video diaries, there is no way you could say I was vain. Jesus Christ! I think about myself going to work with a swollen face because of medication, my eyes and nose streaming because of chemotherapy, no eyebrows, no eyelashes, wearing a bloody wig and going on national TV.”
It is one of the nice things about Derbyshire that she never takes offence. And, in spite of her professional steel, I can see that in private she is soft as a marshmallow. In a video made on 1 May 2016, after her 13th radiotherapy session, she looks anxious. “I don’t know why but I’m having a real wobble today,” she says, “I’m just thinking about – and I’m sure this is completely normal, I’m sure everybody who has ever had a cancer diagnosis will think this – I’m thinking about what if this cancer comes back?… I don’t know why this is in my head today, I don’t know what the reason is. I can’t think of anything rational.”
It’s a commentary that stops one short: why does she say her fear is irrational? Surely she is looking into the eye of a particularly frightening truth? Momentarily she looks dismayed, then rallies: “I didn’t acknowledge it at the time, but you have just made me see that and you’re right.” She was “irritated with myself”, she elaborates, for “wasting time” with depressing thoughts while her treatment was still ongoing.
At one point, talking about her working life, she highlights the importance of “going with the unpredictable”. This was her approach to cancer, too. And it is one of the most powerful things about Derbyshire’s videos that they reveal that, just when you might expect to feel elated or when it might be convenient to feel extra-calm, you might find yourself ambushed by gloom. Preparing for her final chemo session, she remembers: “I felt different to what I was expecting. I’d built up to the last session. I woke at six, thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s the last chemotherapy; I’ll never have to wear that cold cap again. Thank goodness, this is another major part of the treatment that is going to be behind me by lunchtime.’ But when the timer went off, I was in shock. I raised my arms in the air… Oh God, I’m going to cry – sorry.” She wipes her eyes. “And I just put this blanket over my face because tears started to come. I didn’t say anything. Mark [Sandell, her partner] was sitting opposite me, and once I’d got up to hug him he said – typical him – ‘It feels like just yesterday you were diagnosed.’” And that made them both laugh because it was the opposite of the truth.
There is, potentially, a limbo at the end of cancer treatment. “I’d spent seven months concentrating on the day ahead every day,” says Derbyshire, “focusing on the next bit of treatment and, suddenly, the major part of it is over and it’s just processing it in your head.” She was saying to herself: “What the f- and whoa… I can’t believe we’ve just got through that.” She drove home with Mark, holding hands. “We were saying with disbelief, ‘We did it.’ And then he went to pick the children up and I couldn’t stop crying, I was texting everyone.” She couldn’t wait for the kids to come home, started to make tea for them and then suddenly realised: “There were no more tears. I’d cried all the tears out of me.”
Mark, a former editor of the World Service’s World Have Your Say programme and now an executive producer, was “amazing throughout, caring and funny – which was brilliant”. He was doing the practical stuff “like a single dad”. The toughest times were after chemo because “I was in bed and knackered and grumpy”. Her understanding of her boys and their emotions is moving. After telling them about her diagnosis, she writes: “Both boys are now looking at us. Neither asks any questions, which is very unusual for them. It could be because we’ve been too casual or because they understand completely or because they don’t quite understand enough.” Later, there were “definitely stresses”. “Joe cried in class, and when he and Oliver came to see me after surgery I had these drains coming out of me and they were so quiet. They just asked, ‘How are you Mummy?’”
And how are they, these days? “They appear unscathed but I’ve no idea in the long term. They were pretty robust – they took their lead from us.” She was as honest with them as with us: “I introduced them to the nurses and doctors. They went into the chemotherapy suite so they could see it was light and airy and not a scary place.” I suggest that if her handling of the Grenfell meeting is anything to go by, she must be a super-calm mum? “Pretty much, although not when the boys come in from football and tread mud into the carpet – it feels like Groundhog Day. I do lose it, but no more than most parents I hope. I’m pretty straightforward.”
Derbyshire was born in Bury, Greater Manchester, the eldest of three children, and has talked openly about growing up with a physically and verbally violent father with whom she is no longer in touch. Having a violent parent, she now says, “definitely had an impact. There is an example and you decide: we’re not going to follow it because it’s shit. I think that is partly what has given me the absolute determination I’ve always had that our family unit would be strong, that we’d be together. Mark’s parents separated when he was 11. So did mine – I was 16. My mum was the significant person in my life, and thank God for her and the love she gave me and my brother and my sister.”
There is no mistaking how crucial family support has been to her experience of cancer, and she makes a point of not forgetting Gracie, the family’s black spaniel. Purchased a month after diagnosis, Gracie makes guest appearances in some videos, frolicking across the green grass of Middlesex: “Whether I was on a high or experiencing a crushing low, Gracie would be determined to lick my face.”
Derbyshire is a worker – she made her name on Radio 5 Live as co-presenter of the breakfast show for 16 years before moving, in 2015, to BBC2 and the BBC News Channel. Cancer has not altered her attitude to her job. She describes herself as a good listener and a compassionate person with a “nothing-to-lose” attitude to journalism. She is forensic, “sweats the small stuff” professionally, but will concede that she now has a “sense of perspective that means I’m not wasting any time on pointless anxieties, annoying people or on things that go slightly wrong – it’s all fine”. She laughs. “I’ve always lived to the full but now I’m squeezing life out of every second. I want to spend more time with family and friends – they’re the most important part of my life. But I’m saying yes to more things. I want to embrace everything.”
Embracing everything includes the gym twice a week to offset the side-effects of Tamoxifen – she had a rough start with the hormone-based drug. “I’d wake up feeling like an old woman – not good. I was never a gym person but I’ve worked out that exercise helps alleviate joint pain. Now I feel about 35; I’ve so much energy – and no pain.” I ask if she worries about people less lucky than herself in terms of their diagnosis or support.
“Cancer is a lottery,” she concludes, “in terms of whether you survive or not. I know that and am so grateful. There aren’t enough words to express my gratitude. I have friends who have died of cancer. It’s outrageous and unfair.” But who is she grateful to? When she thanks NHS staff for saving her, does she not reflect that they work as unflaggingly for patients they can’t save? She opens her arms wide, somewhere between rueful shrug and appreciative surrender: “I’m grateful to… the ether… to Lady Luck… I’m grateful to… whoever rolled the dice for me.”