“Is it life threatening?” I asked. “No, it’s breast threatening,” came the reply. I had been unexpectedly called at work by a cancer nurse at London’s University College Hospital, who had been asked to ring me by my wife, Sian. It was December 2014 and she’d gone in for what we both thought was a routine discussion about a recent biopsy.
I am used to hearing bad news. I have spent over three decades as a television journalist covering death, disaster, war. Little cuts me to the core or strikes a visceral fear.
My super fit, marathon running, green tea drinking, vitamin popping Sian, with cancer. The malignancy, some of it high grade, was not yet thought to be invasive but was in both breasts. How? Why her?
I had actually married three women, when I married Sian.
The first, a highly accomplished and talented broadcast journalist who’s great under pressure.
The second, an extraordinarily strong, independent and resourceful woman who can do “perfectly well on my own, thank you”.
And the third, a very private, self-deprecating, vulnerable soul, desperately wanting to please everyone and upset none.
“She’s going to have an MRI scan and she wants you to be there.”
I arrived 30 minutes later, with my heart pounding, to find the third incarnation of my wife draped in an unflattering hospital gown looking lost, frightened and fighting back the tears. Yet, typically, she seemed more concerned about me, offering gentle reassurance and hope.
We were told Sian would need a double mastectomy as soon as possible and that radiotherapy might be required afterwards. Her form of cancer, Ductal Carcinoma in situ (DCIS) didn’t respond to chemotherapy or drugs.
My initial reaction was to give an appearance of strength despite feeling utterly powerless; to try not to betray the profound inner terror that had engulfed me.
I was instantly catapulted back to our son Seth’s tortuous birth and how I almost lost Sian to a colossal postpartum haemorrhage in the dead of night. Almost a decade on, I couldn’t bear to countenance the thought of a life without her.
During a year of living with a cancer that was not mine, I was to blub a lot.
Perhaps we should have put our lives on hold to concentrate on how to face this without other pressing and previously planned distractions. However, we were committed to putting the house on the market, moving from London to Kent, enrolling our two youngest, Seth, then 8, and Eve, 6 into a new school in time for the start of the January term and finding somewhere to live.
So, we ploughed ahead. We both tried to maintain an air of normality, not least for the children.
I knew that if ever this fiercely independent woman needed my full support, it was now. I wanted to attend all the pre-op appointments and consultations, to share every development and to simply hold her hand.
Sian’s two eldest sons, Joss, 24 and Al, 22 were equally keen to be present at some of those crucial meetings. Al is studying medicine at Oxford and Joss has an equally inquisitive mind. Both are extraordinary and sensitive young men, wise beyond their years and deeply protective of their mother.
Whenever they went anywhere with us they would always stand each side of her, like Grenadier Guards protecting the monarch. I would be squeezed out and, like the Duke of Edinburgh, walk a few paces behind being rude to everybody.
There were a couple of occasions where it was decided they, rather than I, would go to an appointment with her and report back to me. Sian saw it as important that they were informed and included. But, irrationally, I felt excluded and conveyed my grumpy annoyance.
On the day of the operation, I tried to remain stoic. Following last whispers of love and muted reassurances that “everything would be alright” Sian walked off down the corridor towards the operating theatre without looking back.
The operation took much longer than anticipated and the unexplained extension filled me with trepidation. The reason was that it had apparently been ‘challenging’.
When I was eventually allowed into the recovery room I found Sian, small and battered and broken. Seeing me she glanced down at her torso, its mutilation shrouded by bandages. Tears of despair and pain welled in her eyes, I tried to mask mine and once again I felt utterly and woefully ineffectual.
Sian stayed in hospital for several days and I had already moved with Seth and Eve to a cottage in East Sussex. They were desperately missing their mother’s soothing presence. It was at times like these that the full prospect of a life without Sian winded me.
After dropping them off each morning I would travel up to London by train, spend a few hours at Sian’s bedside and issue daily, upbeat updates by text on her condition to friends and family.
Then I would have to dash back down south to pick up the children, give them their supper and put them to bed while Joss and Al took my place and kept their mother company.
Often Sian would say, “There’s no need for you to come, honestly I am fine”. “Are you sure?” I’d ask. “Yes, absolutely”, she would reply and she’d be most insistent.
But I was exceptionally poor at reading the signals and never knew if she really, really meant it, or wanted me to go but thought it would be better if I didn’t for some reason, or if she definitely didn’t want me to go, period.
So, there were days when she would be on her own and something would happen and she would end up in floods of tears on the phone and I knew I had failed her and should have been there.
Sitting up in her hospital bed just a few days after her double mastectomy, Sian asked if I wanted to have a look. I promised myself that when the time came I wouldn’t wince. She took off the bandages and, much as I tried not to, I did. But it was the only time. From then on I viewed the little ridges and indentations as the battle scars of a triumphant and courageous survivor.
The draining ‘ports’ were clearly visible beneath the skin but her scars were healing well. Fully clothed, Sian looked perfectly normal, even if she didn’t feel it during the early stages of her recovery.
I think she thought herself to be less of a woman but I have always found her incredibly physically attractive and although she, genuinely, is hardly aware of it, so do many others. Nothing had changed one iota.
Typically, she tried to speed up her recovery in order to resume some sort of normality. I encouraged her, wishing her to be her old self, to feel complete.
She began running again, working on a book about trauma, making Radio 4 documentaries about the complexities of the brain, presenting corporate events and fronting a lengthy series of hour-long debate shows on BBC One on a Sunday. It would have been quite an astonishing workload for a totally healthy person, let alone one who had only recently gone through such brutal surgery.
It’s also extremely telling that for someone working in the ‘look at me, look at me’ business, where ‘celebrities’ choose to parade every aspect of their private lives in order to feed their insatiable appetite for recognition, that Sian chose to say nothing, until now, except to family and a few close friends.
Although offered radiotherapy, on advice, Sian decided not to take it. Her last three month check was clear. There’s more surgery soon but that’s reconstruction, not taking out more cancer.
Sian will never be quite the same again. How could she be after what she has been through and is still going through? Yet in many ways she has grown remarkably stronger and more resilient in adversity and I have come to adore and admire her all the more.
Some journey, some roller coaster ride, some woman.
Paul has donated his fee for this article to Macmillan Cancer Support, which aims to ensure no one faces cancer alone: macmillan.org.uk#NotAlone
Rise: Surviving and Thriving After Trauma by Sian Williams is published by Orion (£18.99, hardback, £9.99, ebook) on 2 June. To order click here.
This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 27 May 2016.