'I am not afraid' Tessa Jowell and her selfless fight against brain cancer and NHS policy
In a profoundly moving interview Baroness Jowell, 70, made it clear that she was determined to use her experience to help others by fighting for the rights of NHS patients to trial more innovative cancer treatments available in other countries.
“I feel every single bit of my determination to go on creating better opportunities for people managing cancer,” said Jowell.
“I am not afraid. Shall I tell you something? I am absolutely 100 per cent trying to stay alive.”
At times, however, the New Labour peer, whose greatest political achievement was masterminding Britain’s success in winning the 2012 Olympic Games, found it hard to find the words to express her opinions.
“The tumour bloody well does this to you and then if you have an hour of being quiet and so forth you get it back again and you’re fine,” she said of her uncharacteristic stumbles.
I am not afraid. Shall I tell you something? I am absolutely 100 per cent trying to stay alive
Jowell, who was present in the Today studio when the prerecorded interview was broadcast, got a round of applause from other guests after it was played.
Symptoms of her high-grade tumour, known as glioblastoma, include headaches, nausea, confusion, memory loss and a decline in brain function.
Given that only 20 per cent of patients with the condition survive longer than a year and that the life expectancy with treatment is just 12-15 months, she knows there is not a second to be lost in her bid to help others.
Despite being so ill she took her campaign to the House of Lords yesterday where she called for improved methods of cancer diagnosis and a new approach to treating cancers of all types.
Baroness Tessa Jowell is not just fighting cancer but also NHS policy
It is the sheer speed at which cancer attacks that underlines the urgency of her commitment to enhancing the way the NHS treats what used to be known as the Big C.
“It comes as the result of new developments and the opportunity to connect between different hospitals and different countries,” she said.
Jowell argues that the UK should introduce innovative trial treatments and allow patients to stop anything that is not working and adapt immediately to another approach: “That is the kind of risk that patients should be free to take.
“It should be a risk that they have the chance to take and it’s certainly what somebody like me wants.”
It was in May last year that Jowell collapsed without warning on her way to visit a children’s centre.
Jowell was Tony Blair’s Culture Secretary
“It came with absolutely no expectation,” she recalled of the discovery that she had a rare brain tumour.
“I had not a single apparent symptom [before] I had a seizure and I was unconscious for four days.”
When she woke up and was told she had been diagnosed with a high-grade brain tumour, she said it was distressing but not at that time overwhelming.
“I’m not sure it was something I couldn’t begin to think about,” she said.
“I felt strangely competent to deal with what was likely to happen.”
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She had initially assumed that the tumour would be operated on “and that would be it”.
“I don’t think I immediately leapt to the inevitability of cancer,” she explained.
But the cancer didn’t go away.
“It got to the point in the NHS in London where I couldn’t be given any more treatment but it was very clear that if I went to Germany then I had a chance of immunotherapy, a new experiment.
“I was, and I am, prepared to try that.”
Jowell posted a birthday message on Twitter pledging to help others with the disease
News of her condition emerged on her 70th birthday last September when Ella Mills, the food blogger known as Deliciously Ella who is married to Jowell’s son Matthew, posted a picture of herself with her mother-in-law and praised Jowell’s “bravery and optimism”.
Jowell herself also posted a birthday message on Twitter pledging to help others with the disease: “More people living long better lives with cancer is my birthday pledge.”
But she admitted that navigating the hinterland of hope after conventional treatment options have been exhausted is proving the greatest challenge so far.
“It’s actually much harder now because now my life is day by day affected by the tumour and affected by the uncertainty of what my cancer is actually going to mean for how long,” she said.
However she remains buoyed up by the support she is receiving from those who love her, as well as by thousands of letters from well-wishers.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt promised to ‘look carefully at Jowell’s suggestions on cancer car’
“I have so much love in my family, my children, my close friends.
“It is the most extraordinary, blessed and recreating sense, and I feel that I want that to be experienced by so many other people as well.”
Following yesterday’s interview, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt promised to “look carefully at her suggestions on cancer care and treatment” and to meet Jowell, who finds comfort in continuing to try to help others.
“I was deeply touched by [the poet] Seamus Heaney’s last words when he said, ‘Do not be afraid’,” she explained yesterday.
“I am not afraid. I feel very clear about my sense of purpose and what I want to do.”