WOMAN, March 3, 1997
As millions of viewers watched Pauline Fowler try to cope with her husband Arthur's tragic death last year, their hearts went out to her.
But what most people didn't know was that while those emotional scenes were being filmed, actress Wendy Richard was privately going through the biggest trauma of her life.
Last February, Wendy was given the devastating news that she had breast cancer. She then had to have surgery and that was followed by seven weeks of radiotherapy, which left her feeling physically and emotionally drained.
The very word "cancer" still strikes fear into people's hearts and that's why she agreed to present a two-part BBC programme, The Big C. The title reflects the fact that, even now, some people can't bring themselves to say the word.
Wendy, who's been playing downtrodden Pauline for more than 10 years, has little in common with her screen character. Pauline has barely smiled in the last decade and faces up to her troubles wearing a beige cardigan and a sorry expression, while Wendy has a dazzling smile -- and a wardrobe to match.
But as Wendy talks about her illness, it's obvious she and Pauline do have something in common -- they're both survivors.
A year after her diagnosis, and with a clean bill of health, it would have been understandable for 50-year-old Wendy to want to forget about her illness.
But she seized the opportunity to get involved with a programme about cancer -- a documentary which stirred painful memories for her.
"I found the lump in my right breast one Saturday morning and I had a gut feeling that it was serious," she recalls.
The following Wednesday, Valentine's Day, Wendy had a mammogram at the Princess Grace Hospital in London. "There was something in the nurse's eyes that told me it was bad," she says.
Doctors later confirmed Wendy's worst fears -- the lump was cancerous. She immediately rang up her friend, Carole, who works at a London hospital.
"I arranged to meet Carole in a pub. I just stared at the wallpaper and said to her: 'I've got cancer.' I felt numb," she says.
Carole spent the rest of the day with her. The next day, another friend, Joy, went along with her to see a surgeon. "I don't have any family," explains Wendy. "My friends have been marvelous and they've helped me through.
"When we went to see my surgeon, Mr. Gilmore, I said: 'I'm not having anything cut off. I fid it difficult enough to pull blokes as it is.' Having a mastectomy was my biggest fear. I think it's probably every woman's dread.
"He said: 'I'm not going to cut anything off. Here is your X-ray and here is the cancer. You're not very well and we're going to make you better. All right?'
"My worst moment was sitting alone in my room before the operation. I felt frightened, but I told myself I'd get through it. I refused to believe I was going to doe. I know that I'm going to die one day, but not yet."
After the operation, her surgeon said the lump had been removed and the cancer hadn't spread.
"Mr. Gilmore referred me to an oncologist -- a cancer specialist -- and for radiotherapy. I was due to go to Jersey for an EastEnders shoot and it was agreed I'd have the radiotherapy when I got back.
The BBC pulled out all the stops. They hired a caravan so I could have a rest and there was a nice chap who made sure nobody bothered me if I had a sleep. It wasn't until I went back to work at Elstree and started my radiotherapy that I realized it had been a mistake going back to work after having only five days off. Unless you've had radiotherapy, you can't understand what the tiredness is like. I'd work in the morning, then go for my hospital treatment in the afternoon -- I don't know how I managed. I only got weepy once. My boyfriend, John Burns, told me: 'Come on, you've been so brave and you're halfway through the treatment. It'll soon be over.' I just had to pull myself together and get on with it."
Wendy had only known John for two months before she learnt she had cancer. "He's only 33 and I think any other young man would have run off screaming. But he didn't. He sat with me every night, watching videos and talking."
John and Wendy took her beloved Cairn terrier, Shirley, for walks. And he was there for her as she played out Pauline's grief for Arthur on screen. "I was very depressed," she recalls. "But when I got home in the evening, John or my friends were there to cheer me up."
She says her treatment was scary at times. "I was afraid when i first saw the radiotherapy machine -- it's like something from outer space. I took a photo of it. I want to always remember it so I can appreciate how lucky I am. I felt guilty because at the hospital I saw people far worse off than me. They had families and were probably a lot more important to other people than I am. I said this to one of the girls at work and she said: 'A lot of us feel guilty because you've been ill and we haven't.'
"When I went into a radiotherapy suite to film The Big C, I felt like crying. It was so emotional. There were wonderful moments, too. I saw a lady who'd had a lumpectomy tell her partner she'd be fine and I got choked up -- I was so pleased for her.
"I feel cancer was sent to teach me a lesson. I'm not sure what the lesson is yet, but I was surprised by my strength of character and determination. And people I didn't know very well turned out to be great friends.
"I'm confident about the future. I don't want people to think I'm going on about my lump. But if anyone can benefit from my experience, it's worthwhile. I'm grateful for having had cancer. It happened for a reason -- and one day I'll know what the reason is."