Making the breast of things: West End star Debbie Chazen on her real-life cancer drama
Until last November, Debbie Chazen was just an up-and-coming young actress with starring roles in 'tittybangbang' and 'calendar girls'. then a terrifying diagnosis turned her life upside down
Saturday 20 February 2010
Friday 6 November 2009
To misquote Bogey: "Of all the roles in all the plays in all the West End to be playing when you've just been told you've got breast cancer, I had to be baring my chest in Calendar Girls" – a play about a topless charity calendar, inspired by the death of a Women's Institute member's husband from leukaemia. And to quote Harry Hill: "What are the chances of that happening?"
It's half past three on a Friday afternoon, and my partner Michael and I are sitting in a hospital office with a blank-faced consultant, having just heard the sentence: "I'm afraid it's not good news. The lump is cancerous."
My first thought is: "In approximately five hours, I am supposed to be flashing my cancerous boob in front of a theatre full of people. They're not going to chop it off straightaway, are they, 'cos I've got a show to do?!"
Michael and I look at each other, shock written on our faces. We weren't expecting that. We really weren't expecting that, as every step of the way since I first had a leaky nipple back in August, we have heard things like: "It's nothing, it's just nipple trauma." And: "It's benign, it's a cyst." The ticking time bomb I've been secretly waiting for since my mother died of ovarian cancer in 1995 and my father died of leukaemia in 2002 has just exploded. Rather earlier than expected, but there we go. I've got The Big C – can't quite bring myself to name it completely yet. In fact, since our parents died, my sister and I have avoided any references to the word "cancer" at all, in case merely mentioning it brings it on.
Ever since I was a child, in times of stress or high drama, I have always imagined myself as a character in a film or a book. I had an imaginary film set that followed me around. I still do. Try as I might, I can't help seeing one of those big old movie cameras out the corner of my eye, you know, the ones with the two cans of film on top that look like Mickey Mouse's ears? I can hear the whirring noise it makes, and sometimes an orchestra plays a sweeping soundtrack in the background. And Cecil B DeMille is standing next to it, encouraging me to give the performance of my life.
The role I am seeing myself in now is that of Cousin Helen in What Katy Did. When Katy falls off a swing and is bedridden from a bruised spine, only her disabled Cousin Helen is able to bring her out of her pain and sulky bitterness, by teaching her that cheerfulness, patience, hopefulness and making the best of things are far more fulfilling and more endearing to those around her than wallowing in self-pity. My late mother, lovely and kind as she was, was not a good patient. During her year-and-a-half-long illness, if ever the phone rang and I made the mistake of answering the caller with a "Yes, Mum's fine, thank you," she would call out: "No, I'm not, I've got cancer." My late father, on the other hand, did not tell my sister and I that he was ill until he could hide it no longer. We only had three weeks after that until he died. In the movie of my life, I am determined to strike a balance between the two – to be cheerful, honest, never complain, inspire others with my joie de vivre and good humour and, most of all, survive to tell the tale.
A nurse sets us up with appointments for more tests next week. I could have had them then and there, but I'm not ready for that, and secondly, as both Ethel Merman and Freddie Mercury agreed, the show must go on.
We leave the hospital in a daze. Michael and I hold on to each other for dear life, and say: "Everything's going to be fine." "Of course it is," we both reply.
It's raining, fittingly. (My imaginary film set only works with the best imaginary set designers.) We hail a cab to the Noël Coward Theatre in Leicester Square and I prepare to make the most difficult call of my life. Telling my sister. I would rather do it face to face, but I know I won't be able to do that for a couple of days, and Michael persuades me to do it sooner rather than later.
We arrive at the theatre, where the rest of the cast are rehearsing a change to a scene that wasn't quite working. Everybody knows I've been to get the results of my biopsy, and are waiting to hear me say that everything is fine. "Ladies of the WI," I begin, stealing a line out of the play – how I wish I had a script in front of me now – "the results are in from the Finnish jury, and they're not good. Nul points, I'm afraid." Kelly, who lost her father to lung cancer a couple of years ago, starts to cry. Julie, who was told she only had two years to live after being diagnosed with cervical cancer 20 years ago, shakes her head in disbelief. Their shocked reactions make me want to cry, but I can't, for fear the floodgates will open and never close again. We all come together in a group hug, and I am overwhelmed by the kindness of relative strangers. After all, we have only known each other for less than a month.
Back in my dressing room, I perform my nightly routine of applying make-up to the big hole and bruise on my breast from the biopsy of a week before. A tiny, unwelcome thought enters my head – that soon I may not have a breast there at all – but I banish it crossly by singing "Don't Worry, Be Happy" to myself. Various dressers and theatre workers pop in to tell me how sorry they are, and each and every one tells me of a mother, or an aunt, or a sister, or, in one case, nine friends who had breast cancer and survived. I keep saying to everybody (and to myself): "I'm going to be absolutely fine." "Of course you are," they all reply.
Standing backstage, waiting to go on for the beginning of the play, we share another hug and vow to do the show of our lives. The curtain rises. I project myself into my character, Ruth, more fully than ever before. Everyone's performance seems heightened, shining, determined not to let the bastards get us down.
At the end of Act One is the scene where the ladies of the WI remove their tops and have their photos taken for the charity calendar. Now, I never thought in a million years that someone like me (a "character" actress, ie short and fat) would ever be called upon to remove her clothes for a part. Following a rehearsal joke that went down so well the director persuaded me to keep it in, I am showing a lot more than I ever intended. Tonight, as I reach the point where I am supposed to momentarily reveal all, the devil in me takes over, and I find myself jumping up and down, my good boob and my naughty boob bouncing in unison like the balls in a children's soft-play area. The cast and the audience erupts, the latter little knowing the reason behind my Masai dance. "FUCK YOU, CANCER!" I shout as the curtain comes down, flicking V-signs in the air. "FUCK YOU, CANCER!" repeat the ladies of the WI.
Saturday 7 November
Neither of us slept well last night. And we both wake up to the cold, grey dawn of reality. As we start to make breakfast, Michael says, "You've got to get better, I can't look after myself." This is true. I may not have children to worry about, but unless I force Michael to eat Oatiflakes with berries and organic yoghurt in the morning, he would happily fill his face with crisps and peanut butter. And suddenly, there in the kitchen, we're both sobbing the tears that we haven't been able to shed until now.
Michael has long called me Pollyanna for my sometimes irritating ability to look on the bright side of everything, but I'm thinking I may need a little extra help today – so he takes the day off work and comes with me to the theatre. While I am on stage, he plans to go to some local esoteric shops; Michael is a gifted psychic, and he wants to buy me a talisman and healing crystals.
We arrive at my dressing room to find a sweet card from Kelly, a bottle of bubbly and a note from Julie and some helpful information downloaded from the internet by Helen and her GP husband. Carl knocks on the door and presents me with a hug and a stuffed bunny. Janie, who's studying reflexology, comes to say hello and offers to work on my feet any time I like. People are so kind.
After the hysteria and solidarity of yesterday's performance, the reality of my situation begins to hit me, and over the course of the matinee every reference to cancer and death in the play (and there are many of them) lands on me like a hammer blow. Although I present Pollyanna on the outside, my imagination starts going into overdrive. By the end of the show, I have seen myself with a bald chemotherapy head like the character John's in the play, have made an incredibly moving dying speech like him to all my family and friends, and had a wing of a hospital named in my memory, just like he did.
The truth is, I am not scared of dying. If there is a world beyond this one, then it's the start of a new adventure, one where I will see my beloved parents again. I might be reincarnated, and have the chance to do it all over again (as a tall, thin person, if there is any justice). Or if the only thing that happens is we just drift into a dreamless sleep and never wake up, then I'll never know I'm gone. It's the people we leave behind who fear our death the most, as they have to go on living without us. No, the only thing I'm scared of is not having lived enough.
I have had a mostly great, lucky, blessed life so far. Happy childhood, wonderful family, fantastic friends, excellent education, great career, gorgeous flat, amazing holidays, the best boyfriend in the world and a Skoda Fabia. Like most lives, there have been highs and lows, but apart from a six-month driving ban for speeding, Non, je ne regrette rien. What right have I to rage against the dying of the light when children are starving out there?
Sunday 8 November
We spend Sunday afternoon with Michael's family, who have always treated me as one of their own, then have dinner with my sister and her Rabbi husband. This is the first time I've seen her since I told her the news. Luckily, the presence of my nephews, who are too young to be burdened with such information, ensures that the evening remains upbeat. As we say goodbye at the end of the night, my brother-in-law (who gives great hug) tells me that he will have a word with God and tell Him to look after me. "Yeah, I'm a bit cross with God at the moment," I (half) joke. "He hasn't done that well by my family at all!"
Monday 9 November
As Michael has had to go to work today, I am left alone for the first time since Friday. My plan is to start writing this diary and numb my brain with TV. I watch several episodes each of Frasier, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond and Fawlty Towers and force myself to laugh at every gag, even though there's a big black cloud hovering within my peripheral vision. A friend said recently that the worst thing about having cancer is knowing you have it. I completely understand what she meant – it's all- consuming, however hard you try to ignore it.
Tuesday 10 November
My sister Lynette and I meet at 12pm to go for a swim. Normally, we meet weekly for lunch, but henceforth my body is my temple (one of those massive ones in the Far East, some might observe) and swimming will do it far better than the local all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. There's a large pool at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore that has public swimming sessions. Seeing a group of carers push waterproof wheelchairs down the ramp into the water, and people of all ages with varying degrees of mental and physical disabilities splashing around in delight – well, it really is a great leveller. I am reminded of a video I have seen on YouTube that shows the relative sizes of stars in the universe. The largest one known to astronomers is called VY Canis Majoris, the Red Hypergiant. Our Earth is the size of a pinprick by comparison. And VY Canis Majoris, the video says, is only a tiny dot among the several hundred billion stars forming our galaxy, which is one of a hundred billion galaxies out there. Note to self: YOU ARE NOT THE CENTRE OF THE UNIVERSE!
Despite my bravura, my over-active imagination starts playing up again today. I think it's because tomorrow I am having the MRI scan done, which will tell us if there are any other lumps in my breasts, and I'm not exactly looking forward to it. By the end of the show that night, every twinge and bodily function has become significant. A short bout of hiccups is obviously a sign of stomach cancer. A frog in my throat is probably emphysema. A slight and brief headache points to a possible brain tumour. Much to my annoyance, as I have never had time for hypochondria in myself or others, Pollyanna steadily gives way to Cassandra, and by the time I reach home I'm convinced I may not make it through the night. Michael opens the front door to me and the mere sight of him brings forth racking sobs. We have a cuddle and a chat, and, as always, he soon makes me feel better.
Wednesday 11 November
I dreamt last night that I was going on a long journey that I wasn't ready for. It doesn't take Mr Freud to work that one out. Come on subconscious, put some effort in.
My sister comes to pick us up in a taxi at 8 o'clock, and we make it to the hospital half an hour early. We sit and wait in the MRI department. A nurse comes along and tells me to change into an unflattering open-backed gown, which, when standing, leaves nothing to the imagination. The nurse tells me that there is some debate as to whether I will actually fit in the MRI machine. I laugh, but God, how humiliating. The staff have probably all taken bets. So we go down the corridor to test it out. I lie face down on the table, my boobs dangling below into pockets, and my arms pointing forwards past my head. Slowly, the nurse slides the table into the tube. All is well until we're up to my big fat bum, which scrapes along the roof. I hold my breath. My buttocks may resemble two space hoppers, but they're very squashy, and the nurse decides we're good to go. She slides me out again and a cannula is stuck into my wrist, through which the iodine dye will travel along my veins. I have never been good with needles – but I suppose I had better start getting used to them now.
Back on to the table I go. There is no hole for my face to poke through, like with some massage tables, so I move my head from side to side on the pillow, trying to find a channel of air for my nostrils to use for the next 20 minutes. The nurse lays a blanket over my lower half, and in a flurry of panic, I ask her not to cover my feet. Even in winter, I always keep my feet outside the duvet. No idea why. Maybe they're claustrophobic. Luckily, the rest of me isn't, as the MRI machine is tight, dark and narrow and I'm not allowed to move at all during the scan.
I concentrate on regulating my breathing, each intake of breath forcing my voluminous bottom harder against the roof. I pretend that I am having a bottom massage and choose to find it relaxing instead of constricting. The nurse places headphones over my ears, then retires to the safety of the adjoining room beyond the glass wall, and speaks to me through a microphone. "Now, Miss Chazen, you are going to hear some very loud noises" – hence the headphones – "Are you ready?"
I had planned to sing my way through the complete first half of Les Miserables to pass the time, but even with the headphones on, the noises are deafening. Instead, I force myself to allot a scenario to each series of clanks, buzzes, clatterings and gunshots: a man in a Panama hat mows his lawn on a hot, lazy summer day; a group of cheeky workmen are pneumatic-drilling a road and they wolf whistle my infamous bottom as I walk past; a roomful of secretaries are hard at work in a 1950s typing pool – the boss winks at one of them, and I wonder if they're having an affair; one minute I'm hiding behind saloon doors, listening to a shoot-out in the Wild West, the next I'm on a beach in Ibiza, where I'm dancing to "Born Slippy" by Underworld...
Just as I'm wondering how long I've been in for, I hear the nurse say, "Just three minutes left now, you're doing ever so well." Of course, these last three minutes take hours. The sound becomes a loud drumming, and I find myself humming "Singin' in the Rain". Just as I get to the end bit where Gene Kelly hands his umbrella to a passer-by, the noises stop and it's all over. If this is the worst thing that happens to me throughout all of this, I say to myself, I'll be OK, a mantra I've repeated at every stage.
I feel so well that I go off to the theatre and do the two shows – I am determined not to give this cancer stuff the attention it craves.
Thursday 12 November
Our meeting with the consultant is scheduled for 9am. Lynette phones in a panic to say she's stuck in traffic and will meet us there, but we needn't have worried – we're not seen till midday. The Breast Clinic is only open for general appointments on Thursdays, and on this one day a week the doctor has to see the many women who have been referred by their GP, or are waiting for a mammogram, or need an ultrasound, or are waiting for results like us. There are so many people in the small waiting room that there is overspill into the corridor and there aren't enough chairs for everybody. The NHS is a fine and commendable institution, but it is clearly massively understaffed and underfunded. Three anxious hours tick by, until at long last we are called in to see the consultant, Mr K.
It's a small room, and with us three, Mr K, another doctor and a nice, smiley nurse packed into it, it seems smaller still. "Hello darling, how is your show going?" asks Mr K, "I have been so worried!" This personal approach is instantly reassuring, and as Michael says later, makes us feel like we have made a real connection with this man, in whose hands my future lies. I'd thought that at this meeting we'd be told the results of the MRI scan and given a "treatment package", but it turns out that we must come back tomorrow – for a biopsy on the second lump on the other side of the same breast and a lymph test, to see if the cancer has spread.
The anxiety of this morning's long wait has left me exhausted, and Michael makes me call the theatre and tell them I can't come in for the matinee. I feel terrible – this is the first time ever that I've missed a performance. But I know that they are prepared for this eventuality, with a lovely actress called Julia standing by daily.
After a sleep, I feel much better, so off to work I go. The cast assure me they've missed me, and it feels good to be back. One of the original Calendar Girls is in the audience tonight, and we all gather in Janie's dressing room after the show to meet her. She comes straight over to me, gives me a big hug and says, "I've heard all about you – I'm so sorry, sweetheart. I know you'll be just fine." It was the death of this lovely lady's first husband from leukaemia that inspired the Calendar Girls charity calendar in the first place, and I find her words very moving. The calendar has raised £2m for leukaemia research so far.
Friday 13 (Brilliant!) November
Back to the Breast Clinic for my biopsies, where the queue is thankfully short, as it's only a couple of other women I recognise from yesterday and me who need further investigations. We smile grimly at each other in solidarity. A charming Irish doctor with a naughty twinkle to his eye tells me to undress to the waist and lie on the bed, while a pretty Australian nurse sits next to me, hugging my knees and calling me Debb-o, which makes me smile. We chat about the weather, and what we watched on telly last night, and I am almost (but not quite) distracted from the enormous needle that is approaching my left bosom. Thanks to a local anaesthetic, I can't feel a thing, but it makes the most horrible stapling noise. The biopsy I had a couple of weeks ago was my first ever surgical procedure, and it felt weird knowing that something had been removed from my body, albeit a piece of cancerous lump with no right to be there in the first place. This time, I am an old hand, and the whole thing is over in minutes without much aggro.
This afternoon I have to tell my auntie and uncle and my two cousins, their daughters. I have put this off so far because as a family we have been through so much: my aunt has lost her beloved sister, my mother; one cousin had a stroke at the age of 36 and the other has survived breast cancer twice. But my sister is finding it hard not to tell them, so I force myself to pick up the phone.
My auntie and uncle take the news surprisingly well, considering – I suppose they're used to bad news by now. I phone my older cousin, who had a double mastectomy and lymphectomy 15 years ago and is fine today. Then I call my other cousin, whose stroke cut short a promising acting career. I feel humbled by the way they've dealt with their own life-changing experiences, and determined that like both of them – and Gloria Gaynor – I will survive.
Thursday 19 November
Our next appointment with the consultant, Mr K. The nice, smiley nurse from last week calls us in. The MRI scan, lump and lymph biopsies show that the second lump is cancerous and that the cancer has spread to the lymph glands. Somehow, although this is obviously not good news, it is what I expected to hear, so it does not worry me too much. However, it does mean that I now have to have a CT scan and a bone scan early next week, to determine whether the cancer has spread anywhere else. Mr K says there is no reason to believe that this is the case, and that these tests are purely routine, but until they have the results of both scans, they can't tell us what the treatment might be. So, another week of waiting.
Michael and I decide to treat ourselves to an afternoon at the movies to try to take our mind off things. We decide on the Pixar animation Up. BIG mistake. Huge. The film is all about an old man whose wife, the love of his life, dies of an illness that is almost definitely cartoon cancer. We spend an hour and a half sobbing into our 3D glasses, and, thanks to my new cancer bloody diet, I don't even have Ben & Jerry's for comfort. Next time, we'll take a day trip to a funeral parlour.
I have found it very difficult to tell friends the truth about what is going on. So far, I have only told our families, and those who have asked questions about the future. For example, I have had to tell people who want to come and see me in Calendar Girls, as I don't want them booking tickets too far in advance in case I have to bow out of the play soon. I've also been unable to lie to those I've seen in person. I suppose I am really just waiting for the full picture to emerge next Thursday, so I can answer the inevitable questions there and then.
And even then, I'm not sure how to tell people. I suppose a change to my Facebook status is out of the question? "Debbie ... has cancer." How about a text: "Soz 2 tell u all, m8s, ive gt cncr :-( "
Friday 20 November
Michael's sister has given me a book to read, Love, Medicine and Miracles by an American surgeon called Bernie Siegel. It's fascinating. Siegel maintains that cancer is a state of mind, something I have long believed myself. I'm only on Chapter One, but his advice so far is for patients to hug their doctor, to force him or her to recognise you as a person and not a statistic. Poor Mr K does not know what is about to hit him.
Sunday 22 November
I have been invited to attend a Doctor Who convention today at the Birmingham NEC, to sign autographs with fans of the show (I appeared as Foon Van Hoff from the planet Sto in the Christmas Special 2007). Once, Michael would have taken advantage of my absence to watch footie on TV, but these days we can't bear to be apart.
So off we go up the M1 at 8am. It's a long day, and my cheeks ache from all the smiling for photos, but for a few short hours I manage to forget about the bad business in my left titty. One whole day of feeling normal. Until I get home that night and check my emails to find messages from concerned family and friends. Bang, I've got cancer again. Each message feels like another nail in my coffin. Words have so much power. "Let's hope they've caught it early" leaves room for "They might not have caught it early". "You must be feeling very scared" makes me feel very scared. But I am being churlish. You're lucky to have so many people around you who care, young lady.
Tuesday 24 November
We rise early for a fun-packed day of scans at the hospital. I start by having an injection of radioactive liquid into my right hand. For some reason, I find this procedure most upsetting, possibly because for the next six hours I am dangerous to children and animals and must use a special toilet in the Nuclear Medicine ward. Will I develop three eyes, like the fish in The Simpsons?
While the radioactive liquid starts its four-hour journey around my body, I'm off to have a CT scan. I have to drink a pint of water, then a cannula is inserted into my left hand. Iodine is pumped into me, and the scan begins. It only takes a few minutes and is over before I've sung my way through the whole of "Bohemian Rhapsody".
Then it's a couple of hours to kill before the second part of the bone-scan. As I have to lie still, flat on my back, for 20 minutes, it is considerably more uncomfortable than the CT scan. My hands and feet are strapped into position, and I am told to turn my head to one side. Unthinkingly, I turn my head to the right, from where I have a perfect view of a large wall clock. You know the saying: a watched large wall clock never boils. The bone scanner makes a loud whooshing noise throughout, so I transport myself to a beach, the whooshing becoming the sound of the waves lapping on the shore. After several weeks, the second hand reaches the 20-minute mark, and I am free to go. Again, as we head home, I repeat my mantra: "If this is the worst thing I have to go through, I'll be OK."
That night, as we make dinner, Michael accidentally spills a load of round black peppercorns into the mash. "Look!" I joke, as I pick them out with a spoon, "I'm giving this mash a lumpectomy." "Well," says Michael, "You've got to see the tumourous side." "Yes," I reply, "We must make the breast of things, I'm lymphatic about that." Thank God we still have our sense of humour.
Thursday 26 November
So this is it, folks. After weeks of proddings, pokings, injections and scans, the wait for the outcome of the tests is over. It's been worse than waiting for A-level results.
Following the advice of Love, Medicine and Miracles, I ignore Mr K's outstretched hand as he welcomes us to the consultation room and instead embrace him fondly round the neck. He almost flattens himself against the wall in terror. Never mind, I'll work on him.
"We have had a look at all the tests and scans you've had," says Mr K, spinning it out like Davina McCall on eviction night, "and there is no evidence that the cancer has spread beyond the lymph on that side." The relief is overwhelming, the feeling euphoric. This was our greatest fear, and it feels like a reprieve. However, as I secretly expected, I need to have a full mastectomy and lymphectomy on the left side, followed by a course of chemo and/or radiotherapy, depending on what kind of tumour they've removed. "Fine," I joke, "I've never liked my left boobie anyway, it's always looking at me funny."
The operation is scheduled for 10 days' time, and we are sent to another room with nurse Trish, who takes us through the details. According to Trish, breast surgery is usually painless, as it's not an internal operation. She shows us the vacuum bottles that I will be hooked up to after the op which will drain all the gunk seeping from the wound (ew! ew! ew!) and a natty drawstring bag to keep them in. She also lets us have a feel of a couple of prostheses (uncooked chicken fillets) and shows us the mastectomy bra I will have to wear (deeply unsexy).
In the car, I ask Michael, "Will you love me when I only have one boobie?" "I'll just have to love the other one more," he replies. "Will you love me if I have one boobie and no hair?" "Absolutely, darling." "Will you love me if I have one boobie, no hair and no teeth?" "No problem." "Will you love me if I have one boobie, no hair, no teeth and a hump?" "Of course, Quasimodo," he replies, then sets about changing his Facebook status to: "Michael ... is feeling a right tit. Well, beggars can't be choosers."
Friday 27 November
One of the worst things about all this cancer nonsense is that my days of flashing both boobies on the West End stage in Calendar Girls are numbered, with only 11 performances left before I have the op. The producers have been absolutely amazing, and have promised me a job on the touring production when I have recuperated, and the cast have provided endless support.
As happened with my blasé attitude to the original diagnosis, my cavalierness towards the mastectomy catches up with me during the show today. In the last scene, my costume is a particularly low-cut frock which shows off my magnificent cleavage. I glance down, and there they both are: the twins, heaving in all their glory. I have always been fond of the beauty spot on my left breast, and the thought of losing it upsets me more than losing the entire appendage. Will Mr K let me have it after the op, so I can superglue it on to my right boob?
Saturday 5 December
This has been my last week on the show, as I am leaving after tonight's performance, ready to go into hospital on Tuesday. I'd been fine all week, until yesterday, when, during a break between scenes, I found myself thinking: "I don't want to leave. I don't want to have an operation. I don't want to have my boobie cut off and I don't want to go bald. I'd much rather stay here and do two shows a day till after the New Year and then go somewhere nice on holiday, thank you very much." Helen makes the mistake of asking me if I'm all right, and her kindness tips me over the edge. I burst into horrible, breathless sobs all over the poor woman. She holds my hand and very gently talks me down from the ledge, just in time to hear my cue to go on stage for the calendar-shoot scene. As always, the audience claps and cheers and there is uproar at the no-doubt-ridiculous sight of a half-naked fat bird with massive bazongas jumping up and down in gay abandon, and my spirits soar. Laughter really is the best medicine.
So, it's Saturday night and my last show, and, to avoid repetition of yesterday's bad behaviour, I have chosen not to get all maudlin, but instead to enjoy every single minute. And I do. I have a veritable coach party of friends and family in tonight, scattered around the theatre. As I turn upstage amid gales of laughter to get my coat back on after I've bared my right and soon-to-be-historic left boobies for a last time, I whisper to Kathryn: "I bet there are 14 people out there in floods of tears right now!"
This week has been World Aids Week, and the Noël Coward Theatre has joined others in the West End in asking for donations at each curtain call. Tonight, Janie steps forward to make the customary speech, but at the end she slips in: "And also, we're losing Debbie tonight, so can we have a round of applause for her, please?" I bow my head so 950 people don't see me well up.
Two of the cast are celebrating birthdays this weekend, so there is a dressing-room party after the show. I hand round some themed leaving-gifts for the cast and crew – "Boobie Sweets" ordered off the internet and a business card I've had made up with my contact details on the back, and on the front a pair of cartoon breasts with an arrow pointing to the left one and the words: "And it's goodbye from him ... and it's goodbye from me." I always have had terrible gallows humour. The champagne is flowing, and it's all terribly jolly. Until the moment when the company manager clinks his glass for silence and starts to make a farewell speech in my honour. Oh God, I was doing so well up till then. I am presented with a gorgeous Liberty-print scarf from the cast, and several bouquets, cards and other gifts. Like the Oscar-winners always say, I wish I'd prepared a speech, but now I have to wing it, and I'm already blubbing like Gwyneth Paltrow, so I stammer a quick thank you and start singing "Happy Birthday to You" in order to get the party back on track. Phew, I think I just about got away with it.
Sunday 6 December
Michael and I spend the whole day Christmas shopping, determined to have a great time. On the way home in the car, I put my hand on his thigh and feel something small, hard, square and ring-box-like in his pocket. "What's that?" I ask, not thinking. "It's a ... um ... it's a lump," he jokes. "Now leave it." Neither of us speaks for the next 10 minutes, but he's been rumbled and he knows it.
Having been together for four years, we've talked about marriage, but neither of us has been fussed. The day I got my diagnosis, Michael said: "Let's get married". I told him that smelt of reactionism and that I wasn't dying and he should pull himself together. But when we get home this evening, he tells me he's had a month to think about his proposal. He wants me to know that he loves me no matter what, and he doesn't want another day to go by without everyone knowing it. "So, in the words of Beyoncé Knowles," he finishes, dropping to one knee, "'If you want it you gotta put a ring on it.' In conclusion: Debbie Chazen, will you marry me?"
"YES!" I sob. Honestly, I think I must have some faulty pipes somewhere, I've been leaking an awful lot lately.
And so the rollercoaster of my recent life suddenly takes an uphill direction. WE'RE ENGAGED!
If a man still wants to marry me when I've only got one boob, then he's definitely the man for me.
Debbie is taking part in the Playtex Moonwalk on 15 May, raising money for various Breast Cancer charities. Donations can be made via walkthewalkfundraising.org
The legendary human rights activist, OBE, started her 70 year career working with Holocaust survivors. Colin Firth & Emma Thompson pay tribute
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