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Only six percent of women are aware of the symptoms of lung cancer – despite it being the UK’s biggest cancer killer. Actress Lynda Bellingham tells us about losing a sister to lung cancer.
Interview by Alison Davies.
...when my sister, Barbara, was diagnosed.
Like all women I’m aware of breast cancer. I get the tests, check for lumps, read all the publicity. But I thought of lung cancer as a man’s disease, and I certainly had no idea of what symptoms to look out for.
Sisters Jean, Barbara and Lynda (left to right) on holiday.
Then a cough that she couldn’t shake off, and a shortness of breath. When it was still lingering after the Christmas holidays, it was our other sister Jean, who’d been a nurse, who told her to get it checked out.
It would never have occurred to me that there was anything so seriously wrong. After all, in my mind, she’d given up smoking 20 years earlier so what was the risk? I know now that these are some of the classic symptoms.
Thankfully Barbara had a fantastic GP who referred her to the hospital immediately where tests confirmed cancer. She had a large tumour in her lung, hard to spot as it was hidden behind her heart. The news was so shocking and sad, even though we didn’t see so much of each other in our adult lives.
It would never have occurred to me that there was anything so seriously wrong. After all, in my mind, she’d given up smoking 20 years earlier. So what was the risk? Lynda didn't realise her sister was showing symptoms of lung cancer.
It would never have occurred to me that there was anything so seriously wrong. After all, in my mind, she’d given up smoking 20 years earlier. So what was the risk?
Lynda didn't realise her sister was showing symptoms of lung cancer.
Our childhood had been idyllic, Barbara and Jean were my best pals and when our father, a pilot, retired we moved to a farmhouse in the Buckinghamshire countryside and lived out the 'good life' dream. As we grew older I realised not only did my looks differ but so did my temperament. I was always the one who wanted to be the centre of attention. When I learnt that I’d been adopted the puzzle pieces fell into place and so, not surprisingly, my life took off on a very different path, onto the stage.
Barbara’s diagnosis was terminal but still, she took all the treatment she was offered, I imagine for the sake of her dear husband David and their two children. The news must have broken their world.
Time to put all her things in order as she loved to be in control. She even organised her funeral. Not because she admitted to herself or anyone else that she was going to die but to have everything in place.
Jean was the only one who could talk to Barbara about her illness. The rest of us found it so hard to speak about it and we all got our answers through Jean.
In Barbara’s last few months, I visited as much as I could. Often on a Sunday between theatre tours. But as a single mum and a jobbing actress I was battling my own battles trying to earn a living.
So it was Jean, the backbone of the Bellingham family, who gave up her job to care for her at home, along with the help of district nurses organised by the GP. Being a carer is the toughest role, it deserves huge respect, and obviously David could not do it alone.
They brought Barbara's bed down into the living room and that’s where she spent her final weeks, with her family and friends around her. It was six months from diagnosis to death.
It was so unexpected. The only connection we had was through my older cousin Ruth, who I’m proud to say was a Macmillan nurse in the 1980s.
I have very fond memories of sitting in her kitchen just after she’d come back from a family visit, explaining to me how she was able to support them in all sorts of ways, not just with the physical needs of the patient but the emotional ones of the family, too.
The idea that there were trained nurses who specialised in helping cancer patients was very new to me. I was so impressed, I thought it was fantastic and I suppose it was the start of my support for Macmillan. Sadly Ruth later died of stomach cancer.
That you should never be complacent when it comes to health.
I’m now married to Michael - it’s taken three goes to find the right husband, but I say never give up! We try and keep a healthy lifestyle, we don’t drink or smoke, we eat good food with lots of fish, fruit, nothing fried. We’ve got a walking machine, and when I’m on tour I pick hotels with swimming pools - though I wait for all the business men to go off to work first before I get in there.
Over the years, I’ve done my fair share of drinking and smoking excesses. I’ve given up both at times, but smoking has always been the really hard one and when stressed, I’ve lit up again.
It took a specialist to really scare me. He said I’d lose my voice if I didn’t stop and what actor isn’t terrified of losing their voice? That was a reality check.
Barbara died on the last day of October, ironically just a day before the start of November’s Lung Cancer Awareness Month. So my message to women is know the facts, what signs and symptoms to look out for, and if in doubt go and see your GP. Diagnosis at an earlier stage could save your life.
Interview by Alison Davies.
If you've lost a loved ones to cancer, we can help. For answers, support or just a chat, call the Macmillan Support Line free on 0808 808 00 00, Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm.
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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