When singer and mum-of-two Michelle Heaton discovered she had a potentially fatal cancer gene, she was determined to take action for the sake of her family. She talks to M&B about her life as a mum.
From popstar to TV star, singer Michelle Heaton, 35, has been grabbing the headlines since 2001 when Liberty X formed after Simon Cowell’s first Popstars series.
But after having her daughter, Faith, she found herself in the news for all the wrong reasons. What should have been the happiest time of her life turned into a nightmare when she discovered she had a 85% chance of developing cancer. Michelle tells M&B how she managed to cope and go on to have a son, AJ, last year…
How did you find out you had a potentially fatal faulty gene?
My husband Hugh and I aren’t an ‘ignorance is bliss’ couple, we’re ‘knowledge is power’
Faith was five months old when I got a letter from the NHS saying I had a 50-50 chance of carrying a faulty gene. My dad’s mum and her mum both had ovarian and breast cancer. They passed on the faulty BRAC2 gene to my dad, who in turn passed it on to me. There was no question in my mind when it came to being tested. My husband Hugh and I aren’t an ‘ignorance is bliss’ couple, we’re ‘knowledge is power’. So, a month later I had a blood test at Great Ormond Street Hospital.
How did you feel when the results came?
I knew it wasn’t good when I was asked to bring someone with me to get the results. During the meeting I was told I had a 85% chance of developing breast cancer and a 30% chance of developing ovarian cancer. It wasn’t a matter of if, it was when. It was hard to take it all in and the worst went through my mind. I didn’t want to die – I didn’t want to leave my children without a mother.
So, you decided to have a preventative double mastectomy…
With a 85% risk, it would have been madness not to do something. Having a mastectomy meant I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed again, but I hadn’t found that easy with Faith anyway. From being given the news to having surgery took less than three months. The operation took just under five and a half hours. It was a good six weeks afterwards until I felt able to lift Faith, who was 10 months by then. It was hard not being able to pick her up when she had her arms outstretched for me.
Did the scare affect your plans to have more children?
I’ve always had a very maternal side, wanting to make sure everyone’s taken care of
Hugh and I knew we wanted several children early on. I’ve always had a very maternal side, wanting to make sure everyone’s taken care of. Because of the chances of ovarian cancer, we knew I would need a hysterectomy. But we were told I could wait until I was in my late 30s. Unexpectedly, I fell pregnant in late spring 2013. Exactly six months after AJ was born, I had the hysterectomy. That was in October last year. The hardest thing was getting my head around the fact that I couldn’t have any more children. But I’m not one for regrets.
How did you cope when AJ contracted meningitis at six weeks old?
Everything I was going through paled in significance and all my health concerns were put to the side. It took AJ several weeks to pull through and it has put him about two months behind in his development, but nothing he can’t catch up on.
How did you manage with Faith through all this upheaval?
Luckily, she hasn’t a clue as to what’s gone on. She’s too young still, but obviously someone will probably say something in the school playground when she’s a bit older or she’ll come across it on the internet. Because of this, we’ll have to have that talk with her earlier in life than I would have liked. Luckily, she never asks about my scars. She just points and says, ‘Mummy’s little belly’ because I still have a pouch from having a hysterectomy.
Did AJ notice anything different?
He managed to bite my fake boob when he was tiny. Because of the lack of sensation in my reconstructed boobs, I didn’t feel him bite. He went away disappointed when he didn’t get milk!
Has your outlook as a mum changed?
It’s made me a lot stronger and forced me not to take things for granted. Hugh and I are grateful for the family we have, especially when so many couples have trouble conceiving. Now that I’ve come through it all, I’m just getting on with my life. I’ve got a good husband and two children to focus on. I haven’t had time to wallow and that’s been good.
Why was it so important for you to get involved in the ‘Tell Your Daughter’ campaign for Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month in March?
Ovarian cancer is called the silent killer, as it affects so many women. It creeps up without them knowing because the signs and symptoms are very similar to IBS. We need to educate young women, in fact all women, about it.
I will tell Faith about everything when she’s older. I worry I might have passed the gene on to her. I want to encourage mothers to have the chat about ovarian with their daughters.
What’s the best parenting advice you’ve been given?
Every child is different. I’ve found that to be so true. Faith and AJ have been like night and day. What I learnt with Faith, I had to ignore with AJ. He’s a great sleeper, whereas she never was. He’s a good eater, whereas she was really fussy. Sometimes I could leave AJ to cry for a minute and he’d drop off. If I’d done that with Faith, that minute would have turned into hours!
Michelle is supporting the ovarian cancer charity Ovacome, visit ovacome.org.uk
Photo: Nils Jorgensen/REX