living with dying
Lynda Bellingham opens up to Hannah Stephenson about fighting cancer and how she plans to say goodbye to her family and friends
Lynda Bellingham is hoping to make it to Christmas to celebrate her favourite part of the year for one last time, surrounded by her family.
The 66-year-old actress and presenter has just revealed that she has terminal bowel cancer, and plans to stop chemotherapy in November, so that she can have some quality of life in the time she has left.
Meeting her today, the former Loose Women panellist and Oxo mum looks a shadow of her former self. The weight has dropped off, and the hair is now wispy and white, not the full head of lustrous brown locks she once had. She has painful ulcers in her mouth and throat, and has lost her sense of taste.
She has also become breathless - although she hides it well, shows me her blackened fingers which give her constant pins and needles, a side-effect of the chemo, and tells me that in the past week her legs have weakened.
"I want Christmas Day more than anything else - it means everything to me. I missed it last year. Knowing that I've made the decision to die and I am in control of it... I accept it. There's nothing to be frightened of.
"We may do Christmas lunch out, but I want presents and pudding in my house around the tree."
Then she adds: "My oncologist said, 'My fear is that I won't keep you alive until Christmas'."
Her third husband, property developer Michael Pattemore, who has been her constant companion and carer throughout the ordeal, is with her, checking she has everything she needs.
"We finally found each other late in life, and the saddest thing for me is that we'd planned to work hard for the next five years, and then travel and enjoy the rest of our lives together. He's finding it very hard to hide the stress from me," she says.
Lynda's body may be weak but her mind is still willing, and she has now written what is likely to be her final memoir, There's Something I've Been Dying To Tell You, charting her painful journey since she was diagnosed in July last year.
The bowel cancer was already stage four when it was found - so why would she want to devote the last year to writing about the whole tragic story?
"The book helped me to keep a focus on life," she says now.
While the details of her illness are heart-wrenching, Lynda's memoir is peppered with humour, from naming her cancer FU2, to a hilarious episode where she ended up kneeling in the loos at Buckingham Palace in an effort to empty her stoma bag.
"Bowel cancer isn't sexy. So I thought I would get it out there and make it funny," she reflects.
She had suffered from bouts of terrible indigestion and diarrhoea, but despite tests, remained undiagnosed for some time. When the tumour was found, she was immediately referred to the London Oncology Clinic.
"When we got to the clinic, you walk through those doors and you're in that world of cancer. There were people with headscarves, people who were weak or defiant. I suddenly thought, 'Oh my God, I'm really ill'.
"When I was diagnosed, it was such a shock, the first thing you do is think negatively, you think death. But I want this book to be about somebody giving you a new life, a bit like the Invictus Games."
The oncologist believes Lynda, who has worked for several cancer charities, had cancer for around 18 months before it was finally diagnosed, and initially predicted she would survive between two to five years.
However, last December she was rushed to hospital in agony, as the tumour had perforated her bowel, requiring emergency surgery. This major setback reduced her predicted survival time, she recalls.
"I accepted that I was going to die, but at that point, time is bizarre. I accepted there was a horizon. I didn't fool myself into thinking there was going to be a miracle cure."
Lynda, who has two grown-up sons, Michael and Robbie, and stepson Bradley, says: "I have tried very hard not to cry in front of the boys, and I am also aware that Michael is trying to stay positive as well, but every now and then, things just well up."
She's not scared of dying, but more concerned with how she'll say goodbye. She wants to die at home and has made provision for Macmillan nurses to be there.
"I'm quite nervous about saying goodbye but I don't fear death. I'm not religious but I am a Christian, and I like to think there's somewhere else to go."
She would like Michael to find a companion after she's gone, she says.
"He'll never marry again, but I would love him to find somebody. I know he says he won't, but I think it's lovely to have somebody to share things with."
She's finished her second novel, The Boy I Love, about a band of actors in the early Eighties, which is to be published in January.
In the meantime, she's hoping to go on one final holiday.
She hopes her legacy will be to pass her energy on to her sons, to enable them to get the most out of their lives and move forward.
"If you feel like giving up or lying down under the duvet, don't you dare, because I will be round every corner haunting you!"
There's Something I've Been Dying To Tell You by Lynda Bellingham is published by Coronet on October 9