Bonkers: My Life in Laughs - Jennifer Saunders (2013)
After the Australia and New Zealand summer 2009 tour with Dawn, and retiring ‘the act’, I had planned a year off. A year of just living and experiencing life and thinking what to do next. I’m here to tell you that didn’t happen. Instead I got breast cancer.
I had always had regular mammograms and was aware I was overdue my latest, but only by about seven months. That October I spent a few days in Spain with my old friend JoBo, who had just been through breast cancer treatment. We sat by her pool and talked about it, and she showed me her scars. She had had chemo and radiotherapy and had kept both breasts. She had come through.
JoBo - who could embellish any story into a drama - was very matter-of-fact and, I thought, stoical.
One of her doctors once told JoBo that he thought she must be in denial because she never broke down. She said she was just ‘getting on with it’, which I understood and thought was admirable. Sometimes she would come into London and we would go out shopping or to a gallery. She would arrive at the house with her bald head, but then, in the car, before going out in public, would pull what looked like a dead cat out of her coat pocket, fluff it up and pull it on to her head. The wig made her look weirder than just being bald, but it was hilarious. She was remarkable throughout, and I never heard her complain.
So, on returning home from Spain, I knew I had to book my mammogram, or ‘mammoliogram’, as Edina would say.
I don’t know why I always find it so hard to get around to organizing these things. It’s a phone call and then an hour at most of your time, but I would always put it off and put it off.
Eventually, I found myself at the clinic. At this point, can I just say that I will never understand why they make you take off your clothes and put on a gown that does up at the back. I can’t do bows on my back. I can’t reach my back. And I’m not sure about you, but my tits are at the front.
I put them in the boob press. Never an entirely pleasant experience, but over soon enough. Off I went, confident that they would be clear. They always were. I had no family history of breast cancer. I had breastfed, which I sort of thought exempted you.
Next day was a Saturday, so I was surprised, and in fact still in bed, when my GP rang. Odd. He said that something - a small lump - had shown up on the mammogram. My heart started to thump. It was a very small lump, but would I go in and see him?
Ade was away rehearsing for a panto in Canterbury, so I was on my own. I lay there for a while and settled it in my head. Time seems to move slowly at moments like these. I wanted to think everything through; it was something quite serious but, like all illness, it was also a bit of a bore.
Oh, please don’t let me be ill … I haven’t got time to be ill! I have no time to sit in hospitals! I have work and children and I want to do stuff and be in control of my own life, even if that just means watching Homes Under the Hammer.
In his office, my GP, Martin, tells me all the facts. It’s tiny; so small a lump it’s only just big enough to have been detected. (I was surprised they found anything in my breasts at all. They’re still big now, but back then they were HUGE. I had always worn a DD-cup bra, but in truth, and having watched Gok Wan’s How to Look Good Naked, I knew I was at least an F.)
My doctor attempts to find the lump by hand, but fails, and we conclude that the lump must indeed be really small.
So all is good. But I need another mammo, just to be sure, and then I’ll need to see a surgeon.
Yes, yes. I will.
He seems to have thought of everything, which is great. There is a plan. Marvellous. Here’s the plan: mammogram. See surgeon. Biopsy. See surgeon.
The surgeon’s name is Mr Gui (pronounced Gooey). A funny name, yes, Jennifer, but totally the best man. Good. So that’s that. There’s a plan.
Am I OK?
Yes, I am.
Good. Anything I’d like to ask him?
Well, yes. I’ve had a problem with my shoulder. An ongoing pain. Could he recommend a specialist?
Yes. I really need to get it sorted.
He gives me the name of a man to see. Good. You see, my thinking was that I really did need to get that sorted as well, and why waste a trip to the doctor? In for a penny, and all that. And you’re taking the time off anyway.
I left his office with numbers and appointments and then sat in my car for a while to take it all in.
At home, I set about telling my family. I had been quite glad - in a way - that I was on my own, so it wasn’t necessary to start putting other people’s minds at rest immediately. I had time to get the story straight in my own head. I told Ade I was fine, that we’d know more after the next screening, and that I was happy and reassured by the doctor. Telling other people is actually one of the hardest things, because you don’t want them to worry, but you also don’t want them to find out from someone else. So I would always say it like this:
‘OK. I’ve got something to tell you, but just remember that it has a happy ending.’
Cancer was like having a job without having to do any work. Someone else does the planning and you just have to turn up. Everything is mapped out for you.
Ade was calm, which I like. The last thing I wanted was to have to deal with someone else’s shit, to have to be the rallier.
When I gave birth to my girls, it was always reassuring that, no matter how much pain I was in, or screaming or near-death throes I did, I could look at Ade, sometimes nodding off, sometimes reading or making a cup of tea, and think, Well, it can’t be that bad. Ade doesn’t seem worried …
I tried to have my last two babies at home. Succeeded with the first, Beattie, who was born just above Luigi’s Deli on the Fulham Road and grew up on some of the finest Italian baby food known to man. Not so easy with Freya, who refused to be born. Hours and hours I bellowed in the bedroom, to very little effect, with a midwife - determined Freya would be born before she went off her shift - sticking her fingers in and trying to dilate me by force. So painful. More bellowing, more gas and air.
At one point, Ade left the room to find one of the girls on the stairs outside.
Looking slightly worried, she said, ‘Daddy, is there a dragon in the house?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘That’s just Mummy.’
The dragon was eventually taken to hospital and relaxed with an epidural.
So, I was back at the clinic to have yet another scan, in the gown that does up at the back so everybody can see your pants as you walk along to the mammogram room.
The results, plus me fully dressed again, thank God, were then sent post-haste to Mr Gui.
He was studying them as I walked into his office. It seemed there were now two small lumps in the left breast, but he was reassuring. They were small and could have been there a long time. No rush, but let’s operate quite soon. Why don’t you go now this minute and have a biopsy?
So I did.
I was now slightly regretting that I had neglected to bring anyone with me for these appointments. Not just for support, but to share the story and have a laugh with.
To do the biopsy, the doctor used ultrasound to locate the lumps and then, guided by that, he plunged an enormous needle into the breast to extract a tissue sample. Not at all pleasant, but being able to watch it happen on a screen was fascinating.
I also have to declare at this point that I am pathetically competitive, even when there’s no one to compete with. My family long ago banned me from playing board games. I will negotiate winning even before I begin to play Monopoly. If I go bankrupt, I have to be lent money so I can continue with the game and eventually win. Equally, I want to be the bravest. I will not complain unless it’s absolutely killing and, at the same time, I want the doctor to feel happy and will attempt to make them laugh, if at all possible.
So, back to the biopsy.
DOCTOR: Tell me if this hurts.
ME: I certainly will.
DOCTOR: Anything yet?
ME: I didn’t realize you’d started, ha ha.
DOCTOR: You can have more local if it’s painful.
ME:No, no, I’m fine. Would you like some painkiller? Ha ha.
DOCTOR: OK, I’m putting the needle a bit further in now.
ME: Actually, yes. Yes, a bit more if it’s going. Sorry. So sorry.
When the results of the biopsy were in, I had an appointment to see Mr Gui at the Royal Marsden. Ade was by now giving his Captain Hook in Canterbury, so I took my friend Betty with me.
It is very sobering to be in a waiting room with people you know are a lot worse off than you. Sitting there, I couldn’t fall back on my default behaviour of ‘make light, make jokes’. I knew I was lucky. It had been caught early and the prognosis was good.
We sat with Mr Gui and a breast nurse. Breast nurses are fantastic people. If ever you need to talk about your breasts, they are at the end of a phone.
‘After this appointment, you may like to speak to one of the breast nurses.’
‘Yes, I will. Thank you very much.’
Mr Gui had the results of the biopsy. As expected, it was cancer, but it didn’t appear to be fast-growing. Hurrah! So he had a plan of action. Double hurrah!
The two lumps were quite deep in the tissue of the left breast, which was good because when he operated, he thought he could remove enough healthy tissue around them without having to remove the breast. This is the only time I have been thankful for enormous knockers. So this meant that the left breast would be considerably smaller.
‘Basically, it would be reduced, and lifted.’
‘I see.’ I’m quite interested now.
‘If I do that, would you want the other breast done at the same time?’
‘Or … ?’
‘Have different-sized breasts. Or have the other one done at a later date?’
‘Are you mad?’
Mr Gui drew it out for us on a scrap of paper. It was very basic. One big tit and one small, pert, lifted tit. Doing both at once would mean a longer operation and recovery time, but that was what I wanted and, as far as I was concerned, Mr Gui was a god.
I could feel Betty getting anxious that I wasn’t thinking through all the information I had been given, and instead was just getting overexcited at the prospect of a tit lift. Which I was. This was a result.
Betty, however, was brilliant. Trying to stem my rising hysterical pleasure, she explored all the options, and the advantages and disadvantages of each. What happens to the nipple, etc., etc. (By the way, it’s always worth taking someone with you to appointments. They will ask questions and get the facts when you’re just trying to be brave and not a bother, and they will remember things later when your mind is a blank.)
A couple of weeks later, I was in hospital waiting for a breastlift - sorry, lumpectomy.
I had only ever had one anaesthetic before, and that was for a back operation many years previously. We were living in Richmond and I had just started recording a French and Saunders show. Outside our house was a car parking place covered in too much gravel. Thick, unstable, stupid gravel.
Ade had a lovely Moto Guzzi motorbike parked there, and every time I pulled in fast to park, the gravel would shift and his bike would crash over. The last time it happened I was too embarrassed to go in and tell him, so I attempted to pick it up myself. While straining, I felt a distinct popping sensation in my back followed by pain. A lot of pain.
I had slipped a disc, but decided I didn’t have time to have a slipped disc and soldiered on. We were taking the kids to Euro Disney with our friends Betty and David and their children, and I wasn’t going to miss that. However, it was a mistake. The Runaway Train and Thunder Mountain took their toll on my spine and I had to go and see a doctor, who prescribed intensive physiotherapy and some pretty fabulous painkillers.
I was fine. I could record a French and Saunders, no trouble.
Yes, I was fine. I was fine until just after we’d recorded a Pan’s People sketch with Kathy Burke and Raw Sex. I jumped off the raised stage on to a concrete studio floor wearing some 1970s high heels. That totally did it. The protruding disc was now crushed, and bits were floating about inside and jabbing into any nerves they could find.
I was put to bed with more painkillers and a pile of pillows under my legs. I looked like a dead beetle and was told not to move.
Days came and went. I was supposed to be rehearsing the next week’s show, but I was totally incapable and drugged to the eyeballs. However, I was still convinced that I would be able to make it to the studio on the night. At one point, through a druggy haze, Dawn and the director appeared at my bedside with Geraldine McEwan in tow. Surely not. Miss Marple in my bedroom and I hadn’t even showered or hoovered?
She had been brought to me so we could rehearse a sketch for that week. What must she have thought? She was in the bedroom of a drugged-up dead beetle who couldn’t see the lines, let alone read them.
I didn’t manage to get in for that studio recording, and Dawn managed far too well on her own. I made a slurred phone call to Dawn that was played to the audience over a PA in the studio. Tragic.
Back to the matter in hand.
Before I was ready for the operation, there were two more procedures. They had to locate my main lymph nodes, so one could be tested during the operation. This is done by visiting a nuclear facility that is situated behind lead walls in the hospital. You are injected with radioactive stuff (slightly unclear on the exact details here, as you can tell), then everyone leaves the room and a scanner traces the movement of the stuff as it finds the lymph nodes (you get the gist).
Then, in another facility, thin wires are put into the breast so that they touch the lumps. This is done using ultrasound, and the wires are used as a guide for the surgeon. So I went home the night before the op looking as if I had been impaled by two E strings in a bad guitar smash.
I wasn’t feeling quite so clever this time.
DOCTOR: Tell me if you need more local anaesthetic.
ME: Yes I do. Thank you.
No more messing about.
I am very nice to the anaesthetist when she comes in to see me on the morning of the op to go through the procedure and get me to sign all the forms. So many forms. Sign here, please. Check all the details. Is this you? Date of birth? Profession?
Profession. Always a hard one. I used to put ‘Actress’. Then ‘Actor’. Then ‘Comedienne’. Then ‘Actor/Writer’. Now I just put ‘Entertainer’ and hope I’m not asked to make balloon animals.
I’m especially nice to the anaesthetist because someone once told me that it doesn’t matter so much who your surgeon is. It’s the anaesthetist who keeps you alive. Get the best one.
Mr Gui then arrives on his rounds, followed by a phalanx of nurses. I’m due for the op that morning, so he has come to give me a pep talk and mark me up. I open my gown, and he marks up my breast with a rather sharp felt-tip pen. This is possibly more painful than anything that is to follow. He draws smallened tits on present large tits freehand. He’s no Picasso, and I pray he’s more skilled with a scalpel. I am reminded that surgeons are called Mr because in the early days they weren’t doctors, but actually butchers brought in to do the chopping up.
I am reassured by all the nurses, who love Mr Gui and say he really does the very best ‘cuts’.
A few hours later, my time has come. I am walked in gown and hospital slippers down to the lift and then down to the theatre. I am shocked to learn that the lovely cocktail of drugs called the pre-med is no longer given. Damn. I was looking forward to that. No pre-med? What is the world coming to?
Here goes. On to the operating trolley and straight to needle in arm from the anaesthetist, whom I am still being very nice to, and out for the count.