Victoria Derbyshire has just come off air from her award-winning weekday news show on BBC2 and in a noisy coffee bar in Broadcasting House we are discussing how she feels about stripping off on screen to raise awareness of breast cancer.
“I’m completely apprehensive, of course I am,” says the 49-year-old, who had a right-side mastectomy and reconstruction after being diagnosed with stage 2 lobular breast cancer in 2015.
“I’m not ashamed of how I look, but I do look different to other women, and the idea of revealing that is absolutely nerve-racking. “In my house I don’t have body issues. I have a partner and two boys [radio producer Mark Sandell and sons Oliver, 13, and Joe, 11], I walk around naked in front of them and it’s no big deal. I am happy for them to see what a mum of two who’s had breast cancer looks like. They don’t bat an eyelid. Of course they don’t. I’m their mum.
“But what we are planning to do [on television] is on a different scale altogether.” She gives a half-bold, half-nervous laugh.
Some context. Last year, a troupe of male celebrities under the direction of Diversity supremo Ashley Banjo reprised the climactic routine from the stripping-steelworker flick The Full Monty to raise awareness of prostate cancer, and mark 20 years since the film’s release.
It was so successful ITV are repeating it this year, with Banjo directing both male and female troupes. Derbyshire will be joined by seven other women including Coleen Nolan, who has seen three of her sisters treated for cancer, and former Liberty X singer Michelle Heaton, who had a preventative double mastectomy in 2012 after being diagnosed with the faulty BRCA2 gene – its cousin, the BRCA1 gene, prompted Angelina Jolie to have a similar medical intervention.
The oldest member of the group is 74-year-old Ruth Madoc and the youngest is Towie star Megan McKenna, 25. “We come from across the age spectrum, different backgrounds, different jobs,” says Derbyshire, “but the bond is that all of our lives have been touched by cancer.”
When the producers first approached her about the project, Derbyshire told them, “No way. No way! But we carried on having the conversation and I watched the men’s version from last year, which was incredible: more than four million people watched it and the prostate cancer website crashed at the end of the programme. Millions of people logged on to get information; I thought maybe we could do the same for breast cancer.
“I do a lot of stuff with various charities to get the message about breast cancer out – that you should check your breasts, that if there’s a change you should go straight to the doctor’s – and this presented an opportunity to get the message across to an audience of women who would never go to a charity event, who might think they don’t fit the profile, that they are too young, or not at risk. We are going to create a really noisy event to attract attention.”
The process hasn’t been without its emotional difficulties. She admits she broke down in tears at one point during rehearsals. “I was thinking, ‘This is the start of the experience, at the end of which I’m going to reveal some of my body.’ What was in my head was, ‘I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I’m gonna cry,’ and then I couldn’t stop,” she says.
“I’m proud of the way I have dealt with cancer, but suddenly you get a rush of emotion from who knows where and you think, ‘Wow, it’s still all in there.’”
The final routine will, she confirms, involve “a process of disrobing” but she won’t tell me how far they all plan to go, or what piece of music they will use. It’s not going to be a titillating striptease, though, is it, I say. “Oh my God, no way!” Derbyshire almost shouts.
“Bloody hell, I’m horrified by that phrase. I’m 49, I’ve had breast cancer, I’m a mum. I’ve got two boys at school who are going to watch it. I need to explain that what we are doing is public service and dignified and grown up and meaningful.”
Do you mean it will be empowering? “Well, I haven’t done it yet, so I don’t know,” she says, “I know why I want to do it, but I don’t know how I will feel afterwards.” But, I continue – desperately trying to dig myself out of a hole and just mansplaining myself further into one – nudity is a charged and problematic mix of the erotic, the comic and the political right now, isn’t it, with the likes of Kim Kardashian and Emily Ratajkowski claiming nude selfies as a feminist act? “This couldn’t be further away from an Instagram post by Kim Kardashian,” says Derbyshire firmly.
“It’s not just nudity for the sake of it, or for looking glamorous. It’s nudity for a purpose – to say this is what can happen when you get a diagnosis of breast cancer. And this is why it can be OK. And this is what we can do to talk to you about trying to make sure you don’t get breast cancer. And if you are diagnosed with breast cancer, depending on the diagnosis, you might be able to get through it, like me.
“I don’t gloss over the facts. There are some people who will die from breast cancer. But not all of us. And the point is, the survival rate has increased dramatically over the past few decades. It doesn’t have to be a death sentence, depending on the diagnosis. It can be doable. In my case, it was doable.”
Derbyshire is an impressive mix of empathy, toughness and professionalism. She was born in Ramsbottom, Lancashire, the eldest of three children to an abusive father she no longer sees, and an adored mother who remarried a much nicer man. After grammar school, an English degree, and a journalism diploma she moved from local radio to BBC Radio 5 Live, diversifying into presenting Watchdog, Newsnight, Have I Got News for You and her own interview slot on the BBC News channel.
She received her cancer diagnosis three months after starting her eponymous current affairs show in 2015, after noticing that her right nipple appeared to be sinking into her breast.
When newspapers heard about it she announced her diagnosis on Twitter and then began documenting her treatment by the NHS in self-made videos, including one where she removed the wig she was wearing on television to disguise the hair loss caused by chemotherapy.
“I did five in total and across various platforms they have been viewed 17 million times,” she says. “Which suggests there is a massive appetite for information delivered in a low-key and straightforward way. If you see what someone who has had a mastectomy looks like, it might, if you have had a breast cancer diagnosis, take some of the fear away.”
She was honest, admitting the loss of her hair was worse than the loss of her breast: “The breast represented cancer: it was like, get it off me, get it out, get it away. The hair is an integral part of your identity.”
Today, she doesn’t really want to talk about anything that might detract from the message that cancer can be surviveable. At the Royal Television Society Awards, two weeks before we met, she won network presenter of the year, and interview of the year for her programme with footballers Andy Woodward, Chris Unsworth, Steve Walters and Jason Dunford, about the abuse they suffered as young players. She doesn’t even mention the first award, and says the latter was “incredible recognition from my peers that those guys changed the nature of the conversation around adults speaking on daytime television about some really horrific experiences”.
A few days after that, she was among 200 BBC workers who signed a letter calling for the broadcaster to publish individual salaries and benefits of its workers. “I would say we have got a lot of work to do, and by that I mean both management and the women and men within the BBC who are pushing for equal pay for equal work.”
She deflects questions on fake news and ageism at the BBC, but talks about how she and Sandell make their home life work, whether they will marry (“one day, definitely, because life is short”) and her on-going cancer care.
Surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy have left her tired and only exercise alleviates the rheumaticky aches brought on as a side effect of using the drug Tamoxifen. She has check-ups every six months but says she doesn’t get nervous beforehand. “I can’t be bothered to spend any energy worrying about stuff like that,” she says.
“If there is something to deal with, I will deal with it when it happens, if it happens. In between times, I am living, you know. I can’t be spending time on negative stuff.”
The Real Full Monty: Ladies’ Night is on Thursday 9.00pm ITV
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