18 weeks pregnant and diagnosed with breast cancer

Tania Farrell Yelland was 30 and 18 weeks pregnant when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Today, she and her son are well, and she is determined to put her experience to positive use, she tells Brian Viner
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Champagne and canapés at a swish London hotel, Richard Branson rubbing shoulders with William Hague rubbing shoulders with Clare Short... the launch party for Tania Farrell Yelland's first book was quite a do. That her husband is David Yelland, the editor of The Sun, probably helped. That the book is about breast cancer, its profits to be donated to the charity Breakthrough, probably helped more. Whatever, there was not a dry eye in the house when Tania gave her thank-you speech. She clung on to her composure while talking about the importance of funding breast cancer research, but when she paid tribute to David, and to their two-year-old son Max, the tears flowed freely. For her husband was her inspiration, and her then-unborn child her motivation, while Tania fought the breast cancer diagnosed when she was 18 weeks pregnant.

Champagne and canapés at a swish London hotel, Richard Branson rubbing shoulders with William Hague rubbing shoulders with Clare Short... the launch party for Tania Farrell Yelland's first book was quite a do. That her husband is David Yelland, the editor of The Sun, probably helped. That the book is about breast cancer, its profits to be donated to the charity Breakthrough, probably helped more. Whatever, there was not a dry eye in the house when Tania gave her thank-you speech. She clung on to her composure while talking about the importance of funding breast cancer research, but when she paid tribute to David, and to their two-year-old son Max, the tears flowed freely. For her husband was her inspiration, and her then-unborn child her motivation, while Tania fought the breast cancer diagnosed when she was 18 weeks pregnant.

Removed from the emotional upheaval of that evening, 32-year-old Tania comes across as serene and sensible, qualities that were greatly needed during a saga that began in April 1998 in New York. While routinely checking herself in the shower, she found a lump in one of her breasts. She was duly diagnosed with breast cancer and strongly advised to terminate the pregnancy. But this being New York, she was also offered a second opinion. Which was: yes, she had breast cancer. And yes, she needed a mastectomy. But no, there was no immediate need for an abortion.

"I was lucky," she says, "because the man I was referred to, Michael Osborne, had actually done his research into pregnancy and cancer. And in New York all the top cancer specialists have a weekly symposium where they discuss one or two cases. They discussed me, and agreed that I was getting the right treatment. But I decided against chemotherapy until after the birth. It is not supposed to get through the placenta, but I still didn't want to take the risk." Within a week of the diagnosis, Tania underwent a single mastectomy with partial reconstruction.

Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch had unexpectedly appointed David editor of The Sun, and he left for Wapping at the end of May 1998, leaving her to sell their new house in Westchester County and pack up their belongings. Was Murdoch aware of her tribulations? "Yes, and he was very supportive. He allowed David to travel back and forth on Concorde, every two weeks. But also, there was so much going on that there was no time for self-pity."

Tania herself crossed the Atlantic at the beginning of August, when she was 32 weeks pregnant. Shortly after landing in Paris, she went into labour. By pumping her full of hormones, doctors in a French hospital managed to stop the contractions. She finally got back to London and continued going in and out of labour for the next two weeks, until Max was safely born by Caesarean section at Queen Charlotte's Hospital on August 17. At the same time, she volunteered for ovarian cryopreservation, whereby part of her ovary was removed and frozen. That way, if the subsequent chemotherapy left her infertile, her ovary could be thawed and used to produce eggs. The frozen bit of her ovary remains in the reliable hands of Professor Lord Robert Winston at Hammersmith Hospital.

She still doesn't know whether or not the chemotherapy rendered her infertile. "I would like two children," she says, matter-of-factly, "because if the worst did happen, and I was given, say, 15 years, then Max would only be 15 and I would want him to have a sibling." Chemotherapy did, however, make her hair fall out, a trauma her famously bald husband, who suffered from alopecia as a child, could relate to. They have a photograph of themselves, with Max, looking "like shiny-headed triplets". Tania resisted the temptation to use the picture in the book. "It always makes us chuckle, but it is very personal," she says.

Besides, the book, All Woman: Life After Breast Cancer, features many women other than Tania. "I wanted it to be a book about genuine role models. I get so fed up reading about women who are supposedly role models yet haven't really done anything to admire."

Indeed. The book contains moving first-person accounts of surviving breast cancer from the likes of Eileen Atkins, Francine Stock, Carly Simon, Liza Goddard and Olivia Newton-John. Before we talk about the book, though, I feel I have to square what Tania has said with the fact that she is married to the editor of The Sun. After all, few newspapers have done more to promote the empty cult of celebrity.

"Mmmm, but if you read the paper you'll notice that the culture is changing," she insists. "David is using the platform he has to do things that are more worthy. Celebrity is the fun part of the paper, I just don't think celebrities should necessarily be put forward as people we're supposed to admire." And what about page three? Is it not mildly grotesque for a woman who has had a mastectomy to see perfect breasts showcased daily? "It doesn't bother me in the slightest. As I've said, cancer changes one's priorities, and a pair of bare breasts does not seem remotely important."

Tania's book is not without humour. Sometimes the humour is painful. For instance, the TV presenter Sally Taylor learnt, on the day she had to appear on Noel's House Party, that she required a mastectomy. Life doesn't offer many greater incongruities than that. But there is uplifting humour too, as when Eileen Atkins describes finding a lump in her breast while in New York, where she was appearing in a Cocteau play on Broadway. She was in the middle of making arrangements to see a specialist (coincidentally the man who later treated Tania) when a fax arrived, reading: "Caroline is getting married and Pat found Hayley's knickers in John's bed." It was a summary of what had been happening in The Archers, from Judi Dench.

Tania herself was inspired by all her contributors' stories. "Whether they went through more or less than me, it meant so much just to know that other women had been there. And they gave me so much intimate personal information so readily. It took amazing leaps of faith on their part." Did anyone decline to take part? "Yes, a couple of women in their seventies and eighties said that it had happened to them 30 years earlier and didn't seem part of their lives any more. They said they hadn't a story to tell. I tried to tell them that the fact they were still around was a story."

Tania is now on six-monthly check-ups, and the prognosis seems hopeful. But in the light of statistics showing that breast cancer deaths are much reduced in Britain, she warns against complacency. After all, there are still so many mysteries about breast cancer, not least its extraordinarily high prevalence in the West compared with other parts of the world.

"My oncologist in New York was convinced that my cancer was caused environmentally," she says. "Perhaps by exposure to electro-magnetic fields as a child, or by diet, or by the fact that I had come from Britain to America, where they have different farming methods. In Japan, apparently, there is a very low incidence of breast cancer. But when Japanese women move to America, the incidence goes sky-high. So we still don't know nearly enough about it."

Reading her book, for me at any rate, is a move in the right direction.

'All Woman' is published by Metro Books, £9.99. Credit card hotline: 0500 418419. Breakthrough: 020-7557 6611

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