By: Sadie Nicholas

The four women pictured share a miraculous secret: they were all given a terminal cancer diagnosis and, in some cases, just a matter of weeks to live. Yet years later — against all the odds — they are still here and living life to the full. Here, as they meet for the first time for a special Mail photo shoot, they share their inspirational stories of survival.

Jane Plant says the moment she realised she had defeated the disease was six years after her tumor disappeared

Jane Plant, is professor of geochemistry at Imperial College, London, and lives in Richmond with her husband Peter Simpson, also a professor. They have three children and six grandchildren. She says:

Considering I had been given two months to live 17 years earlier, when my kids were still children themselves, it felt like a remarkable achievement to be holding yet another grandchild in my arms. I was first diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 42. I thought I’d beaten it, but five years later it returned with a vengeance. I carried on fighting, but when it recurred for the fifth time I asked my doctor to end my life for me there and then — I didn’t see how I could go on battling a disease that seemed ­hell-bent on finishing me off.

But as I wept I heard my little boy, then just six years old, crying out for me in another room. I knew then I could never again allow myself to feel as though it was an option to leave him. Five weeks later, when I was told that I had, at the very most, two months to live, I wasn’t upset, angry or frightened — I’d already hit rock bottom a few weeks earlier. I was on the way back up now and had already begun to search my own scientific mind for a way out of this mess. I was gripped with a great sense of urgency that I had to find an answer quickly if I was to stand any chance of surviving.

That night, in my office, Peter and I looked at a map that showed the ­incidence of various types of cancer across the world. In China the breast cancer rate was one in 100,000 compared to one in ten here. Further research convinced me that it had to be diet-related, and so I adopted the kind of diet predominant in China — low in animal protein, with no dairy produce but lots of fruit, ­vegetables, nuts and pulses. Six weeks later my tumor had gone — my oncologist told me it had simply responded to chemotherapy and that it would return when my treatment finished.

It was a blow to hear that, but I stayed on the diet and lived the best life I could. It was a very precarious existence, endlessly checking for lumps and forever wondering how much time I had left. But I was lucky — the tumor didn’t come back. Six years later I stepped off a train in Reading, where I was giving a lecture, and I was struck with this epiphany: ‘I’m not dead — I’m still not dead.’ Those words repeated in my head over and over for the rest of the day. And I knew I could finally allow myself to believe I had beaten cancer. Unlike most women, the ageing process causes me no anguish. I look at every new wrinkle as a mark of victory — my wonderful prize for having beaten cancer when my doctors were certain it had beaten me.

Angela Profit lives in Solihull, West Midlands, with husband John, a retired managing director. They have four sons between them from their first marriages and seven grandchildren. She says:

I saw the first snowdrop of the year in my garden. It’s amazing to think that’s the ninth time I’ve seen them push through the soil, heralding the start of yet another unexpected year of my life. I planted the bulbs in 2001, not long after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. No one thought I’d live to see them flower, but now they are a ­symbol of my survival.

When I cast my mind back to the days immediately after my diagnosis, hope was the last thing I had. I had known for 18 months that something wasn’t right. At first I was told I had irritable bowel syndrome, but when my stomach swelled up, making me look heavily pregnant, I was admitted to hospital for tests. Not for a moment did I expect to be diagnosed with cancer, but two days later I was told that’s what I had and, worse, it had spread to my lungs and was terminal.

My oncologist said he would operate to remove my ovaries, but that he wasn’t hopeful for me. My first thoughts were of my parents. They were in their 80s and I wondered if they would survive the shock of my death. Then I became angry that I would never be a grandmother, or get to visit Venice — a place I’d always longed to see. I was also filled with regret that I would never marry John, the man I love.

After my operation I begged my family to take me home, certain that if I stayed in hospital, I would die. Family and friends kept telling me I could beat it. After a while, I started to believe them. I spent time in my garden, appreciating the beauty of things I’d never had time to notice before. This gave me the resolve to get through the chemo. I knew — even if my doctors didn’t — that I had more fight left in me.

A year after diagnosis, my first grandson was born, I married John and we went to Venice.

In realising those three ambitions, I saw the importance of setting new goals to keep myself going. It’s something I’ve done ever since, with the help of conventional medicine and alternative therapies such as reflexology and meditation. It hasn’t been plain sailing. The cancer has returned three times to my groin and lymph nodes. But that hasn’t stopped me travelling the world, and starting a new career — as a supporter of the Eve Appeal and a spokesperson for people living with cancer.

I am living with it, and hoping every day that the drugs will keep it at bay. If they don’t, I will have more chemo and another dose of positive thinking. But, until then, I’ll continue to enjoy the lease of life this supposed death sentence has given me.

Sue Wigg a special needs teacher, lives near Brighton with her husband Michael who retired from the electronics industry. They have two sons, aged 29 and 31. She says:

Years ago I was referred to a dermatologist after an irritating skin condition failed to clear up. It turned out I had an extremely rare and lethal form of internal skin cancer. I was relieved I had a diagnosis and they knew how to treat it. At that stage, no one was talking life and death. The real blow came when my doctors discovered a huge secondary tumor in my liver. I couldn’t believe I had known nothing about it.

I had surgery to deal with the primary tumor, and chemotherapy for the secondary. And I clung to the hope that I would survive.

After three rounds of chemotherapy I started suffering headaches and fits. They found a new tumor in my brain and my treatment was halted. The prospect of losing my cognitive faculties frightened me more than anything. I asked my doctors how long I’d got, and at first they wouldn’t say. Then they said the cancer was growing faster than they could contain it and that I was unlikely to ­survive more than a few weeks.

I was engulfed by sadness. I wouldn’t see my boys through university or watch them marry and become ­parents. But after laser surgery on my brain, the impossible happened: the cancer started to retreat. Little by little my confidence grew. I felt better and I dared to make plans for the future.

There have been setbacks — a ­cancerous mole removed from my leg, and, cancerous lymph nodes were taken from my groin. But I no longer wonder when cancer is going to ‘get me’ and just live my life.

In my mind I have two ages: I am 56 and also 13 — the number of years I’ve enjoyed since my terminal ­diagnosis. Those years have been richer and fuller than any others in my life.

 

Jane Plant, Angela Profit, Sue Wigg and Anne Freeley
Jane Plant, Angela Profit, Sue Wigg and Anne Freeley

Anne Feeley owned a bakery for 15 years, and lives in London with her husband, Jonathan a retired lawyer. They have two daughters, Molly, 23, and Sadie, 20. She says:

There was no stiff-upper-lip ­bravery from me when my consultant told me my condition was terminal. I sat in his office, convulsed by tears. At one point I was struggling to breathe I was so distraught. I had a fast-growing, recurring brain tumor — a condition that usually claims the life of the victim within a year. My husband broke my dreadful prognosis to our children, and my anguish was temporarily quashed at the sight of theirs.

In those first few weeks I was often immobilised with self-pity and shock. But as those despairing feelings wore off, so my determination to steal more time grew stronger. Jonathan and I retired so that we could focus on keeping me alive for as long as possible, and enjoy whatever family time we had left. I had surgery to remove the bulk of the tumor, followed by radiotherapy and chemotherapy. After the operation, I hired a personal trainer to help me get stronger and — together with my treatment — I slowly started to get better.

The turning point came four months later when my daughter, Molly, who’d won a place at University in Chicago, said she couldn’t bear to leave me in case my condition deteriorated. I insisted she went and told her I wouldn’t have her turn down golden opportunities for me. I set myself the goal of living another two years. I focused on enjoying simple pleasures with my family: like cooking and eating together and taking our dog for long walks. The tumor was still there, but regular check-ups showed that, contrary to expectations, it wasn’t getting any worse.

So I started to set myself little challenges. The following year I completed a half marathon. Jonathan and the girls came with me and were cheering for me at the finish line. I also cycled 3,702 miles across America and raised almost £2 million for Macmillan and the neuro-oncology department at the Royal Marsden, where I was treated.

When the two-year mark since my diagnosis approached, and I hadn’t relapsed, my husband, ever the lawyer, said to me: ‘So, you’re still here — time to re-negotiate!’ And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. It’s been years since I was told my death was imminent, yet the cancer remains ­contained in one part of my brain, and I don’t feel any more ready to leave my family than I did then.’

 

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