Every year, Breast Cancer Care put on a fundraising fashion show in which all the models have had a breast cancer diagnosis. I talked my friend Rachel into applying, and she was selected. I bought my ticket. Marianne, a friend I’ve talked to a lot online but never met in person, agreed to come with me. So at 6.30am last Thursday, I got on a Megabus (don’t ask, the trains were expensive and involved rail replacement bus services) and headed to London. Three hours later, as we were due to arrive in Victoria, I looked around and realised we were nowhere near it. I spent the next hour panicking, as I realised I wasn’t going to have time to get to the place where I was staying to shower and change, and trying to come up with alternative solutions. Paul, who’d been up since 4.30am with Joseph and was trying to work, found a gym where he could book me a day pass online. ‘But you’ll have to find somewhere to buy a towel,’ he said.
In the end, Marianne was the voice of reason, suggesting I phone the hotel where the event was taking place. I was doubtful, thinking they wouldn’t let me use one of their rooms, but luckily they had a spa and kindly said I could use the showers there. Having got used to the idea of showering somewhere I didn’t want to put my feet on the floor, I was pretty pleased to end up using Elemis products and having endless towels to use, a locker for my case and a hairdryer.
I met up with Marianne and we discovered that we hadn’t been seated together. I was on table 24 and she was on table 74. We asked for help, and I was squeezed onto her table. We posted a selfie in the Younger Breast Cancer Network’s (YBCN) Facebook group, said where we were sitting, and a little later, a whole entourage of other YBCN ladies turned up to meet us.
It was a fun afternoon. Tony Christie, nice food and a whole lot of money raised. But the show itself. I started crying as soon as the models appeared, and I just couldn’t stop. They were so confident, so incredible. About thirty women and two very brave men. When Rachel first came out, dressed in swimwear, I couldn’t see her for tears. I have so little confidence left in my body, which is covered in scars and quite a bit bigger than it used to be. These people had been through everything I had, and they looked like they were having fun, and owning the world at the same time.
Every time I started to pull myself together, something would happen to set me off again. One model’s mum was at the table in front of ours. Whenever her daughter appeared on stage, she leapt up and I could see the pride drawn clearly on her face. She hadn’t lost her daughter to cancer. Her daughter was right there in front of her, strutting down a catwalk and more alive than ever. On the walk back down the catwalk, one model caught hold of another model’s hand and just before they disappeared backstage, they raised their arms and held their hands aloft. Defiant. Triumphant.
When it was all over, we met up with Rachel and the other YBCN women and had drinks in the hotel bar’s VIP area. There was a buzz of excitement. It felt a little like we’d taken on the world, and won. And we have, in a way. And yet. Talk turned, as it always does, to the things we’re scared of. How well our children are coping. What symptoms remain. What we’re left with, now the cancer has been cut out of us. One woman mentioned a friend she’d lost to this disease, and the façade we’d built came tumbling down.
The event raised over £370,000. That’s massive. And I was a tiny part of that. Rachel was a much bigger part, and I’m so proud of her. I’m not a huge fan of the fighting, battling metaphors for cancer, but Rachel is someone who’s handled her diagnosis and treatment with a fierce kind of grace. As Rachel, Marianne and I said goodbye, it struck me that I feel more comfortable with these women than I do with some people I’ve known for half my life. It’s because they know, of course. They understand. I’m so lucky to have them.