For Michelle Heaton, the past fortnight has passed in a haze of hospital visits. She has undergone an MRI scan, listened to the stories of breast cancer patients and sat through graphic discussions with specialists about reconstructive surgery following a mastectomy.
But Michelle has been diagnosed with a mutated gene called BRCA2, which gives her an 80 per cent chance of developing breast cancer and a 30 per cent chance of ovarian cancer. To be virtually certain she will never get the cancers, there is just one option available to her – a double mastectomy and having her ovaries removed.
Choosing to put herself through such major, transformative surgery is an agonising decision – particularly for a young, attractive woman working in an industry that places such importance on appearance. It is one that must be made on the basis of a possibility Michelle knows may never become reality.
But, as a wife and mother to a nine-month-old baby, Faith, she is aware that she must tackle the most urgent issue – that of her high risk of contracting breast cancer – soon.
‘The experts have told me a double mastectomy is the only option for reducing the risk of breast cancer to one per cent,’ she says. ‘Regular scans can pick up anything worrying early, but they’re not going to prevent it.
‘It is really difficult and very emotionally draining to decide to allow your breasts to be removed when you’re fit and healthy. And it’s a lottery – I may never develop cancer, and in that case I’d have put myself through major surgery for nothing.
‘I still have to make the final decision with my husband, but now that I have Faith, everything I do is for her. My main concern has to be not putting her at any risk of being without a mum.’
Michelle rose to fame in 2002 with the group Liberty X, who emerged from the TV talent show Popstars.
She found out she had the BRCA2 gene after a test at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in May. The BRCA genes 1 and 2 account for an estimated five to ten per cent of breast cancers and ten to 15 per cent of ovarian cancers – and cancers tend to affect women at a particularly young age.
Michelle gave birth to Faith, her first child with her husband Hugh Hanley, a fitness and nutrition expert, in January. But her discovery a few months later cast a shadow over what should have been a joyful time. ‘It’s been very tough,’ she says. ‘The worst thing has been thinking I might not be there for Faith. As a mother, the last thing you want is for your baby not to have a mum.’
Michelle was made aware she could have the gene three years ago. Her paternal grandmother had both ovarian and breast cancer during her lifetime, as did the grandmother’s mother and sister. Her father was tested and found to be a carrier of the gene and, as his only daughter, Michelle automatically qualified to be tested.
In 2009, she received a letter from the genetics department of the Life Science Centre in Newcastle upon Tyne, where her father had been tested, asking if she would like to be tested too. ‘But I didn’t want to,’ she says. ‘I didn’t really know what the issues were. Now I know that knowledge is power, but at the time, my attitude was that ignorance was bliss.’
It was a chance encounter with a midwife while she was in hospital giving birth to Faith that finally prompted her to take the test. ‘She mentioned one of her relatives had the cancer gene and told me it was important to find out if I had it because I might have passed it on to Faith. That’s when it hit home. I knew I had to be tested for my daughter.
‘But I wasn’t expecting it to come back positive. I was 32 at the time and healthy. I’ve never smoked, I eat well and work out often, and neither of my parents has had cancer, so I thought I would be fine. When the gene specialist at Great Ormond Street said, “I’m really sorry to tell you you’ve tested positive,” my husband and I both cried. I was just stunned.