Bad Girls vs Breast Cancer

A personal note from Bad Girls co-creator Maureen Chadwick

If Tony Blair would like to spend the defence budget to protect us from a real weapon of mass destruction, he can find one in the UK statistics for breast cancer:

  • One in nine women will develop breast cancer at some point during their lifetime
  • An estimated 39,000 are diagnosed with breast cancer each year
  • A woman is diagnosed with breast cancer every 15 minutes
  • Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in the UK
  • More than 1,000 women die of breast cancer every month
  • More than 200 men are diagnosed with breast cancer

The scandal is that he’s even failed to target the money already allocated for cancer care. Why? Maybe the horrifying reality behind the numbers hasn’t hit home for him yet, but it has for me: the death toll for April 2003 includes my sister, Shelagh Anne Venning.

She was 41 when she discovered the lump in her breast wasn’t one of the ‘good ones’ – it wasn’t even one of the least bad ones because the cancer had already spread to so many lymph nodes. The diagnosis was unbelievable. There was no previous history of breast cancer in our family and Shelagh had otherwise been fit and healthy, full of enthusiasm for life and passionately dedicated to her career as a primary school teacher – how could she suddenly be so ill?

The prognosis was utterly devastating and brutally delivered. Shelagh was told that there was no cure, and the best she could hope for if she underwent the long and frightening course of treatment – involving a lumpectomy, radiotherapy and chemotherapy – was a 30% chance of surviving two years.

At that time, we were ignorant of many facts about breast cancer, but there was an even worse shock to come – realising that standards of cancer care in the UK aren’t even guaranteed not to do you more harm…

Shelagh endured an appalling experience of chemotherapy, during which her health suffered further setbacks caused directly by the incompetence of inadequately trained staff attached to an under-funded and over-stretched cancer care unit. But she fought against the odds, over and over again, with her characteristic spirit of fun and feisty feminism and a courage I can’t even imagine – until her illness finally succeeded in killing her, a few days before her 49th birthday.

My sister’s life and work were all about using her own experience of overcoming disadvantage to help empower others, and her charisma was strengthened by her conviction that ‘the personal is political’. Her response to her illness was to become an active fund-raiser for Breakthrough Breast Cancer and to inspire and inform Julie S’s story in Bad Girls.

It was thanks to watching a TV documentary about breast cancer (in a series called ‘Lady Killers’) that Shelagh had found her own breast lump in time to avoid an even earlier death. But she was bitterly disappointed by the superficial treatment of breast cancer storylines she saw in TV drama and wanted Bad Girls to do a better job of telling it like it is, in the hope of saving more women from having to find out for themselves, as she had.

Shelagh didn’t live to see the results but she knew how totally committed Vicky Alcock and Kika Mirylees were to doing the story justice. And there is already evidence that Shelagh didn’t die in vain:

Breakthrough Breast Cancer received over 600 calls in response to the two episodes of Bad Girls after which ITV promoted their information line details. A third of those callers asked for further information. This is regarded as an unprecedented achievement for a TV drama.

The scary statistics mean that somebody in everybody’s family is more and more likely to get breast cancer unless much more is done to fight it and protect us. One way we can all do something positive with our fear and anger is to support Breakthrough’s campaign to achieve a future free from this terrible disease.

For further information and support for those affected by breast cancer, please visit the Breakthrough website.

This page was originally found on The Official Bad Girls website, and is displayed here for archival purposes.

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