SARAH BEENEY: My mother didn’t make 40, so when I hit 50 I thought I was safe. Then breast cancer came for me too…
- Sarah Beeny was diagnosed with breast cancer six months after her 50th birthday
- READ MORE: Sarah Beeny discusses her personal battle with breast cancer and admits she feared the disease would kill her after losing her mother
People often ask me what it is about property that I have always found so engaging. I guess it’s the blend of history, people, relationships, engineering, dealing and trading that all go into making up the fabric of a building.
Certainly, I’ve always had an insatiable desire to own property. Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be able to control the environment I was in. To work for myself and know that the roof over my head belonged to me.
I guess you could chalk it up to something that started soon after my mother died when I was ten.
The first night without her, my father, my older brother Diccon, and I dragged a mattress into the spare room of our cottage in rural Hampshire, and for the next six months we all slept there together until the house was sold.
Moving was a fresh start. It meant we didn’t have to live in a house with a hole in it, both emotionally and physically.
Sarah was diagnosed with breast cancer six months after her 50th birthday. Now that she has completed treatment, she is embracing slowing down
Six years before she died, my mother had what I now know is called a radical mastectomy, which effectively leaves your chest almost concave and a scar from under your arm well into your cleavage.
Despite this, somehow, I hadn’t realised she had cancer. I was four and my brother was six when she was diagnosed, and it was a different era, but six years later, when she was just 39, her breast cancer had spread to her brain.
She passed away peacefully in my parents’ bed a few hours after she fell asleep to me reading her a book.
Diccon and I were taken to a farmhouse owned by friends up the road, a welcoming place where there was always a couple of cauldrons of stew and mashed potato on the go.
You could tell from the sympathetic eyes that things were not OK. For me, ‘pity’ eyes have always been hard to handle.
But I loved this family who looked after me when I needed it — and maybe it’s this positive association that made me want a big family of my own. I have always felt happiest in the midst of the household chaos that surround them.
My mother was something of a pushy parent, or that’s how it might have seemed from the outside.
Much of my first ten years were based around music and poetry recital competitions, which she entered Diccon and me into.
We often won, not because we were the most gifted but because of the hours and hours she put into encouraging us to practise the piano or the flute or the trumpet.
When I thought about this later, I assumed that she knew she was dying and was trying to pack all her parenting into the short time she had with her children.
My husband Graham says I’ve always been in a hurry to get things done myself. Maybe there is a bit of attention deficit disorder that lurks within or maybe I am simply greedy for the ‘next thing’.
Whatever it is, I was just 18 when I bought my first property — a former local authority Simca van, which I filled with a few layers of old underlay, carpet and cushions, drove to London and lived in for months.
By then, my father had met my first stepmother and — after watching his heartache, feeling absurdly responsible for his pain, as children do — he was at last settled.
I could concentrate on my own life. It was 1990, the same year I met Graham, whose sister was going out with (and is now married to) my brother.
Much loved: Toddler Sarah, left, with mum Ann and Diccon in 1974
Not long after meeting, we began our 30-year career in property development, persuading the bank to lend us the money for a semi-derelict flat in Battersea, South-West London, which we did up and sold on for a £20,000 profit. There were far fewer checks on mortgages in those days!
Many houses and flats followed, including the stately home Rise Hall, East Yorkshire, which we bought in 2000 for £375,000 — all 40,000 sq ft, 97 rooms and 32 bedrooms of it.
It didn’t even have running water when we moved in, and still had the multi-stall bathrooms from its days as a girls’ school.
But Graham and I had long dreamed of restoring such a place. I was 28 and thought maybe, just maybe, the sepia version of my life — a mix of The Waltons and a costume drama — might magically materialise if we were to live there.
What is the point of a dream if you don’t ever try to make it happen? It was a lot of hard work but weekends at Rise were always filled with fun and laughter.
Friends would jump on a train on a Friday night and stay until Sunday: there was generally a ‘project’ on the go, and everyone would get stuck in for a few hours before someone would open a bottle of wine.
Slowly, the house filled up with babies. My four boys loved it there. Rise Hall provided for my kids the kind of anarchic, busy family life I so craved, with a whole generation of children treating it as a great playground, whizzing around the corridors on skateboards and rollerblades. It was a fantastic party house.
On one memorable New Year’s Eve we had 150 adults and 80 children to celebrate with us. The glorious memories we made there more than make up for the hard work.
I had my 40th birthday at Rise Hall, which was wonderful but also a strange experience.
When your mother didn’t make it to 40, turning that age yourself can’t help but feel odd. Was it her loss that gave me rocket fuel in terms of impatience? Certainly packing in a lifetime before that birthday was essential to me.
When I turned 40 I entered a part of my life I didn’t really expect to have. And when I turned 50 last year — this time in our new home in Somerset, which we moved to in 2019 — I thought I was well out of the water . . .
Until I was diagnosed with breast cancer about six months later. In some ways, I’d been expecting it. That doesn’t make it any easier to accept.
When a doctor says ‘You have cancer’, what you actually hear is: ‘What colour coffin would you like?’ And yet in the past year of treatment, I have realised how disproportionate to the actual risk that reaction is.
It took the spectacularly patient breast surgeon and breast care nurse some time to bring me round, but my odds were always very good, with an 80 per cent chance of a 100 per cent cure.
That’s because I was incredibly lucky to have the diagnosis I did and treatment has seen such spectacular advances in the past 40 years, and that, in turn, is partially due to my mother and people like her, who were unable to watch their children grow up.
Because of them and the research they helped produce, I will see my grandchildren.
Because of my mother, I was tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, which if you carry, you have an increased chance of getting a new breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
I was told that, should I test positive, then the option of removing the other ‘healthy’ breast would be something we should discuss, but it was unlikely that any surgeon would consider just chopping it off otherwise.
In the end, I tested negative for BRCA genes but positive for a less well-known one called PALB2, opening up a whole new can of worms.
Someone with a the PALB2 gene mutation, which is rarer than the BCRA mutations and a relatively recent discovery, has a 30-60 per cent chance of developing breast cancer over their lifetime, and a 50-50 chance of passing it on to their children.
For me, the advantage of testing was that I could now opt for that bilateral mastectomy, knowing my risk of getting cancer in the other breast was slightly raised too. I figured I’d be under the knife anyway, so might as well have both done.
PALB2 also gives me a marginal increased risk of ovarian cancer. As I have had quite enough children and my ovaries are no longer functioning, I am due to have my ovaries removed too.
The complication if my children test positive for PALB2 is not currently relevant. While boys can get breast cancer, a PALB2 diagnosis takes the chances from infinitesimally unlikely to a bit more than infinitesimally unlikely.
Anyway, they can’t be tested for the gene until they’re over 18 (at 19, Billy is the only one who is; Charlie is 17, Raffey 15, and Laurie 13). Thankfully, my brother tested negative for the gene mutation altogether.
Chemotherapy was boring and painful, of course. Parts of your body you never give much thought to — your fingernails, the inside of your mouth — hurt and throb. I lost my hair, but found that less distressing than many women do.
I had always slightly wondered what it would be like to have a smooth, hair-free head!
Similarly, I’ve never thought ageing is a bad thing. Young faces are so beautiful and clear but have no wisdom laid on them; that is all to come.
I do wear make-up, and will continue to dye my now-returned hair, but intend to work ‘with’ nature, not against it (although I make no judgment of anyone who does).
Now my treatment is over, and having been in such a hurry all my life, I’m beginning to embrace slowing down. I can’t imagine retirement, but my New Year’s resolution this year was to take up pottering.
That can include doing jigsaw puzzles, the crossword and reading history books simply ‘because’. It can also include sorting out pencil pots or re-ordering my sock drawer.
In short, what I once called ‘wasting time’. You see, I have learnt that there is something really and truly glorious about just ‘being’.
I’ve felt guilty about time passing. Well, now I’m tackling that guilt head-on and at last coming to the conclusion you don’t have to fill every waking hour with an achievement to not be a failure.
Forty years after the death of my mother, I consider myself enormously lucky. I have a husband and four children who I wouldn’t change for the world; extended family I cherish; a career in TV; several businesses under my belt and a beautiful home.
Here, though, is the nub of it. I wouldn’t change a thing even if it meant that my mother was still around today.
For one thing’s for certain: life would definitely not be the same if she were here, and though it might conceivably be better, I simply wouldn’t want to gamble with what I’ve got now.
My main mantra in life has always been: Positive Things Happen To Positive People.
And with this in mind I fully expect the second half of my life to be more fulfilling and more interesting, if rather less busy, than the first.
- Adapted from The Simple Life: How I Found Home by Sarah Beeny (Seven Dials, £20) to be published on August 31. © Sarah Beeny 2023. To order a copy for £18 (offer valid until September 11, 2023; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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