Why 44,000 women are cheering Kylie

That's how many women in this country are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. And they have every reason to applaud Kylie Minogue's comeback after her illness. Anthony Barnes and Kathy Marks report
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Indy Lifestyle Online

When Kylie Minogue took to the stage last night in ostrich feathers and sequins for her first show since being diagnosed with breast cancer, her family, friends and millions of fans were delighted.

In front of 10,000 screaming supporters in Sydney, she joined the growing ranks of stars who prove there is life after breast cancer. In recent years the American singers Anastacia and Melissa Etheridge have proved it is possible to continue with a high-profile career in spite of the illness.

Just last week the singer and actress Marianne Faithfull revealed she had made a full recovery following surgery after the disease had been caught in its early stages. After some recuperation time she is preparing to tour next year.

But it is Kylie who has become a focus for the disease, which is diagnosed in more than 44,000 women in the UK each year. Improved detection rates and treatment have meant that those affected have a much improved outlook.

Kylie's comeback also symbolised to millions of fellow sufferers that there is life after diagnosis for a disease, which kills about 12,000 women each year in the UK.

Eighteen months ago, just two days before she was to begin the Australian leg of her world tour, she received the devastating news that she had the disease. Approximately 1,500 British women in her age group (35-39) are diagnosed each year.

After a brief statement about her illness, she all but disappeared from public life, and after successful surgery in her home town of Melbourne, she holed up in Paris where she shares a home with her boyfriend, the French actor Olivier Martinez, to recover.

She emerged with a short blond crop, a children's book she had written called The Showgirl Princess and a renewed zest for life. In her first interview since her treatment, she said: "I just want to do everything. I just can't help but see things differently."

Kylie's struggle may also have helped others. A study by Breakthrough Breast Cancer found the singer's diagnosis had heightened awareness of the disease among two-thirds of women aged 25 to 44.

Those who do get breast cancer have a better chance than ever of enjoying a near normal life, as survival rates continue to rise due to greater awareness of signs of the disease and improvements in screening and treatment. Four-fifths of women can expect to live for at least another five years if they are diagnosed in time, yet just 30 years ago only half of sufferers could expect to survive that long.

Treatments are improving all the time. Within months a new drug, Tykerb, is expected to be available, which can be taken at home daily and can halve the speed of tumour growth, giving extra months to those in the later stages of the disease.

Improvements in recontructive surgery are also helping to lessen the psychological effects of breast removal. In some instances fat and tissue can be taken from the bottom and used to create a more natural-looking bust.

New techniques for early detection are continually helping the fight against the disease. Scientists at the University of Michigan are working on a device that will detect breast cancer through patients' breath.

Martin Ledwick, manager of a team of cancer information nurses for the charity Cancer Research, said that many women find that throwing themselves back into their old work routine as Kylie has done can be a great aid to recovery for some women, although there is no universal prescription.

"You have to listen to your own body. Women mustn't feel guilt-tripped into going back to work too soon. It can be very inspiring to see a celebrity coming through the same thing as they have. It shows that there is an end to it. But it's important not to feel guilty if they don't feel like that.

"It is a life-changing experience. Some people are driven to completely change their lives. Other people react less dramatically, but still re-prioritise. After a cancer fright, people focus on what is important."

Kylie has told how the support of her family and boyfriend have been intrinsic to her recovery. That sort of back-up can clearly be crucial to other sufferers too. Dr Emma Pennery, nurse consultant at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said: "Friends and family can be hugely important in a woman's recovery from breast cancer. For a partner it's very important to allow her to talk when she wants to and to be with her emotionally - recognising that she will be emotionally volatile, and that she'll have good days as well as bad ones.

"Reaffirming your love for someone is very important if she's got an altered body image. If a woman has lost a breast it might be hard for her to feel attractive. If you can regain your self-confidence and self-esteem, you are more likely to get back to normal life and stay healthy."

Kylie's plight has also been of some reassurance to younger women with the disease that they are not alone. The vast majority of cases (80 per cent) tend to be in women of 50 upwards.

"Far fewer women in their 30s are treated for cancer, and it's possible for someone to go through treatment without meeting anyone her age," said Dr Pennery. "To meet other women in their 20s and 30s [who have had cancer] suddenly you don't feel like a freak, and you realise that you are not alone."

Although self-examination has been encouraged to catch signs of cancer as early as possible, The Independent on Sunday highlighted last year that one leading doctor believed that doing so could in some ways be damaging.

Professor Michael Baum, emeritus professor of surgery at University College London, warned that checking for lumps can lead to unnecessary invasive surgery and false diagnoses.

Treatment for breast cancer normally involves a combination of surgery - the removal of a lump or the whole breast - together with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. But for all the success stories, for many sufferers there is the added burden that the disease may have spread to another part of the body, or that it will return within the next few years.

Mr Ledwick said: "However successful the treatment has been, there is a chance that the cancer may come back. The hardest thing to come to terms with is learning to live with uncertainty."

Additional reporting by Martin Hodgson and Lara Woods

THE STATISTICS

44,000 women in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer each year

16% of all cancer cases diagnosed in the UK are cases of breast cancer

80% survival rate for women with breast cancer in England and Wales in 2003

12,400+ deaths caused by breast cancer every year

30-40% less chance of getting breast cancer if you exercise for a few hours a week

300 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year

Marianne Faithfull

Age: 59

Diagnosed: September 2006

Treatment: Surgery in France, September 2006

What is she doing now? Three-month tour of Europe and North America planned for 2007

She says: "It has been an extraordinary experience and, in many ways, extremely positive. I didn't realise how many true friends I had. I feel so lucky and loved and thank everybody for all their good thoughts."

Melissa Etheridge

Age: 45

Diagnosed: October 2004

Treatment: Chemotherapy

What is she doing now? Planning series of concerts in 2007

She says: "It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. Chemotherapy tests your sanity. Yet there is an amazing clarity to it that I'm grateful for."

Anastacia

Age: 33

Diagnosed: Early 2003

Treatment: Radiotherapy and operation to reconstruct breast

What is she doing now? Planning marriage to her former bodyguard in 2007

She says: "Don't buy the shoes, honey. Put that money towards getting a mammo. It could save your life, the way it saved mine."

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