Female identity isn’t the number one priority for most women faced with breast cancer, but what if you’re a TV news host? Rod McPhee met Christine Talbot.
It’s been just over two weeks since she returned to our TV screens, with no outward signs betraying the torture she’s just endured.
It was Christmas Eve 2011 when Christine noticed a lump on her breast and, like most of us who notice minor physical changes, thought little of it. She certainly wasn’t about to spend the holiday period in a casualty waiting room just to get it checked out.
So it was another week before the Calendar presenter found the time to visit her GP, and it was lucky that she did because, as soon as he examined Christine, the doctor instantly diagnosed cancer.
Unfortunately she then had to struggle through the normally joyous New Year period fearing she was terminally ill.
“It felt like I was at the bottom of a well, on my own,” says Christine, 46, “and I could hear everyone chattering and laughing at the top, having fun and living their lives normally. But I felt like I was never going to get out of there.
“It was so bleak, not just for me but for my husband, my mum, my daughter - it was such an awful time. And the first thing you think is: am I going to die? You don’t think, ‘What about my job?’ or anything else. All your priorities come into much sharper focus.
“But once we got on the path of knowing what we were dealing with and getting on with the treatment I was a lot more positive, mainly because the doctors were telling me that if I had the treatment, I’d be fine.”
Christine disappeared from our televisions in January 2012 and, after her illness was announced to the public on Calendar, she began five months of chemotherapy with each session taking place every three weeks.
Then came the radiotherapy and surgery which appears to have removed all of the tumour and, despite it being an aggressive strain, the cancer had not spread elsewhere in her body.
It was a traumatic period for Christine who feared she might not live to see her daughter grow up, since she was just 14 at the time.
But a relatively minor consideration became quite profound for the woman who was seen nightly on Yorkshire screens: her appearance.
Despite wearing a cold cap during chemotherapy (an ice filled device which freezes the hair follicles, helping to limit alopecia) her trademark blonde hair started to thin and putting on that perfectly applied make up became increasingly difficult when her eyelashes and eyebrows fell out.
She says: “It’s important that you don’t lose yourself in all this (the illness) and you want to keep your identity, you know, I still wanted to be me, so I still wanted to look like me.
“So I just learned all the tricks. I bought some hair extensions from Leeds Market!” she laughs “And I learned how to put on eyeliner or apply fake eyelashes, all sorts of thing. You just have to battle on really.
“Because I knew the treatment and illness would take some kind of physical toll on me. I realised I’d probably put a bit of weight on, and I would always try to do as much exercise as I could.
“But it wasn’t easy and, at times, it was just impossible, particularly during the chemo.When you’re having chemo it feels like you have flu all the time and walking is like wading through treacle.
“You have about a week to ten days of feeling dreadful and then, just as you start to come around again, you’re onto your next session.”
But Christine also had to deal with one of the biggest potential blows to her femininity: the threat of a mastectomy. Yet, curiously, she took this in her stride.
“I had expected to have drastic surgery,” she admits “and I was initially told that might be the case.
“But first your reaction when you get this is almost, ‘Right, just take EVERYTHING away, I just don’t care. I didn’t want any risk of any recurrence or anything . I just wanted to do what was needed and then I’d just deal with it. Whatever.
“But because the chemo worked so well I didn’t need a mastectomy, they just did a lumpectomoy. I was very lucky, because although the cancer was at phase three, they’d caught it early.”
Now she is reassessing her life. After returning on January 14 to Calendar for three days a week, she intends to bump that up to four days soon. But the fact that she was so busy to notice the ominous bump (or have it checked out quickly) isn’t lost on her.
Plus, she isn’t officially in the clear for five years. Although doctors are satisfied they have removed the clear and present danger, she will have to have constant checks every few months to ensure the cancer hasn’t returned. She is also on the powerful anti-cancer drug, herceptin.
But although Christine is determined to get her work/life balance on a level, returning to Calendar has been part and parcel of returning to a normal life.
She says: “I do genuinely love my work and I’m privileged to have this job. I was also very lucky because from the moment my illness became public I had so many letters of support and encouragement while I was having my treatment.
“And suddenly all sorts of people I’d known for years started telling me that they’d been through what I was going through at the time. Not only did it help hugely that they were telling me I’d be fine, but they were also living proof that you can survive something like breast cancer.
“So, I would just like to say a massive thank you to all those people out there who got me through a very difficult time in my life.”