Breast cancer threatened to break them all. Then they met each other and found strength in the most joyous, surprising way.
Sally Thompson was watching TV at home in Plymouth in March last year when a programme came on that would transform her life. The Real Full Monty: Ladies’ Night followed a group of celebrities who’d agreed to dance and strip before a live audience for breast cancer awareness. Each woman had a personal connection to the cause – the TV presenter Victoria Derbyshire had survived it, Loose Women’s Coleen Nolan had lost her sister Bernie to the disease, while former Liberty X singer Michelle Heaton had undergone a double mastectomy after learning she carried a mutation of the BRCA2 gene, which increases the risk of breast cancer.
Sally had also had her world turned upside down by breast cancer five years ago when she was 47. She’d been juggling raising her two children aged 11 and nine with working at the family’s vehicle bodywork business when her cancer was detected through an early screening programme. Though she felt no lumps and showed no symptoms, she had eight tumours in total. ‘I was told that if I’d been screened at the normal age of 50, it would have been too late,’ says Sally. Reeling with shock, she was hurled on to the treatment rollercoaster – a mastectomy, radiotherapy, then hormone tablets, probably for life.
‘I had a breakdown,’ she says. ‘After the mastectomy, I’d sit on my bedroom floor and sob. I was trying to be strong for my children – I’d reassured them that the cancer had been caught in time, and they’d totally absorbed that and trusted me – but it felt like an act. Dark thoughts were going through my head all the time. Everyone tells you, “You’ll be fine,” because they want it to be true, but we can’t know that. One stray cancer cell could have spread somewhere else. I stopped wanting to even leave the house.’
It was at this point that Sally’s husband contacted Bosom Pals, a support group formed by women who’d been treated at Plymouth’s Primrose Breast Care Centre. A state-of-the art clinic, this is where women from much of Devon and Cornwall are screened, diagnosed and given a care plan. ‘I felt nervous going to the first meeting,’ says Sally, ‘joining this group of women I’d never met – but the understanding and compassion was unbelievable. Suddenly, it’s not just you any more. All these people had been through it, too.’
Now, watching this televised stripathon, Sally posted a message on the Bosom Pals Facebook page asking if anyone would like to do a similar thing in Plymouth to raise money for the Primrose Centre that had treated them all. ‘When you’ve been through breast cancer, your body has been on display so many times, you don’t care about it,’ she says. ‘All inhibitions go out of the window.’
Eight women messaged back. There was Denise Holgate, a funeral director and grandmother who by her own admission was not a natural dancer – ‘I’m more like an ironing board’. Another volunteer was Nanny Camp, who was diagnosed at 68 and required a lumpectomy. ‘I didn’t care about taking off my clothes,’ she says, ‘but I was worried by the dance moves as my legs are nearly finished and there’s a lot to learn.’ Kathryn Short, a mother of three young children, was also up for it, ‘even though I’d never even been topless on a beach before!’ she says. Kathryn had found a lump when she was in the shower and been sure it was a cyst. When it turned out to be cancer with a slight trace in her lymph nodes, she’d gone into shock. ‘I thought, “That’s it, I’m going to die.”’ Kathryn required chemo, a mastectomy and radiotherapy, after which she’d had a breast reconstruction.
‘All of us were in different places in our journeys and very different shapes – breasts, no breasts, lumpectomies, scars,’ says Sally. ‘But this was about showing we didn’t care. This was us. We were going to be showgirls!’
These showgirls, with their different careers and ages, would probably never have met any other way. But the bond they built over the next few months has been life-changing. From the start, there was so much to organise – the venue, costumes, the band, an auction, not to mention the dance. They were helped hugely by a local choreographer and businesswoman Shelley Coleman, who is a close friend of Fiona Osmaston, 54, one of the Dare 2 team (as the showgirls called themselves). ‘We all took different roles as we had different strengths,’ says Sally. Michelle Hull, who has worked at Barclays for 30 years, took on the finances and became ‘queen of spreadsheets’. Nanny Camp had no qualms about marching into any shop or business to ask for prize donations.
When I travel to Plymouth to meet them, it’s a Saturday and all nine have gathered in geography teacher Fiona’s house – she has just had a breast reconstruction and is being ordered to sit down, lie down or take a nap by the other Dare 2 women. There’s constant laughter. It feels like an exciting, special reunion – except they get together every week.
‘On Saturdays we practise in a fitness studio,’ says Sally. The more time spent together, the closer they have become. ‘Having cancer tests all your relationships,’ says Denise. ‘One family member couldn’t bring themselves to come and see me when it happened. Having this group who just understood was amazing.’ The women support each other in all sorts of other ways. ‘The breast reconstruction I’ve just had is a big operation, which two of the ladies had been through,’ says Fiona. ‘Before I had it they were both generous and showed me their breasts and their scars. That gave me an idea what the end result could be. It’s our own version of show and tell!’ Their yearly mammograms have also bonded them. ‘You’re still worried every time you go,’ says Kathryn. Sometimes, the results aren’t quite clear and someone is called back. ‘When it happens, you think, “Well, this could be it,”’ says Sally. ‘I’d probably tell these ladies before I told my family.’
The Dare 2 Bare venue was chosen – a local hotel, the Duke of Cornwall – and the date set – Friday 21 September 2018. Tickets sold out in a fortnight. Raffle prizes piled up and donated auction prizes included a sailing day and a flight in a small aircraft. As the day neared, the women realised something special was happening.
One memorable moment was in their local Marks & Spencer. ‘They had generously agreed to provide us with free underwear for the dance so we all went along one evening to be measured up,’ says Fiona. ‘About 15 lady members of staff gave us a little soirée, a manicure, cakes and a glass of fizz. When we had the bras and knickers all sorted we wanted to show them our dance – they were our first audience.’ There in the empty store, the music began with ‘I’m Every Woman’. ‘We were so buoyed up, then it changed to “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman,’ says Fiona. ‘We whipped back our fans for the big reveal and the Marks & Spencer women all cried. We sobbed, too,’ says Fiona, crying now at the memory. ‘I think it was the kindness.’
The night itself was equally emotional. The ballroom, decorated with primroses, was packed. After the auction, the audience was shown a short film introducing each woman. ‘By the time we came on, everyone was standing up, cheering,’ says Marie Bryan, a business manager and mother of three grown-up children. ‘We danced and at the end, everybody was in bits; the whole audience was crying. I still can’t believe we did it!’
‘It’s strange as it was so liberating,’ says Kathryn. ‘I hate my body now – the cancer treatment has brought on the menopause and, along with the medication, it has caused so much weight gain. But it was nice to stand there, naked for a second, and say, “This is it.”’
That one event raised £13,000 for the Primrose Foundation and helped buy a scanner so that local women could be seen quicker. The Dare 2 team even won 2018 Fundraisers of the Year in the Pride of Plymouth Awards. A year on, their second event is about to take place: the Dare 2 Burlesque Ball next Saturday (28 September). For this, they have been taking lessons with a dancer from the Moulin Rouge in Paris. ‘One of the aims is to raise funds for a separate room where you can go to gather yourself together when you’re newly diagnosed,’ says Denise. ‘After I’d been told I had cancer at the Primrose Centre, there was nowhere to go other than back to the room where women were waiting to be seen. I didn’t want to cry in front of them so I went to the loos to cry instead.’
‘Once you get to a certain age, you tend to stop making new friends,’ says Kathryn. ‘Every one of these women is amazing. Of course, I wish breast cancer had never happened to me, but I wouldn’t know any of them or be doing these things if it hadn’t. They’ll be friends for life.’
Why we dared to bare
The nine friends share their stories
43, part-time nanny ‘These are women I’d never have met any other way and it has been amazing.’
69, retired health lecturer ‘When you’ve gone through this, it’s a bit like childbirth – you’ve shown everything you’ve got and you don’t give a damn!’
52, runs a vehicle repair business ‘We’ve created this huge bond from spending time together and also from understanding each other. It’s a sisterhood. We still have our bad days, but we’ve also had so many great times that we’ll never forget.’
54, teacher and senior leader ‘Before cancer, if you’d told me that I’d be stripping on stage one year and doing the cancan the next, I’d have thought you were bonkers. We’ve all been through the works and we’re determined to live life to the full!’
51, funeral director ‘I’m not confident and I only have one boob now, but the ball was so liberating. The generosity and compassion, the standing ovation when we came in – it was empowering, fantastic!’
44, office manager ‘The first ball was incredible but nerve-racking. I’ve had a reconstruction but one breast doesn’t look like the other. We were saying, “We’re not perfect but we’re here.”’
46, risk assessment analyst ‘I’d only lived in Plymouth for three years when I found the lump. Apart from my husband and a few colleagues, I barely knew anyone; now I’ve got the best bunch of friends in my life.’
73, retired estate manager ‘I was diagnosed five years ago. I’m a widow, and my children and grandchildren live abroad. I was ready to break – being involved with these girls saved my life.’
50, primary school manager ‘I didn’t want to meet women going through treatment when I was first diagnosed – I was scared of meeting someone with a bad prognosis. Once you start making friendships, though, it feels so easy. We’ve cried together but there have been a lot more laughs than tears.’
To support the Dare 2 Burlesque show go to justgiving.com