Victoria Derbyshire: ‘I never thought, “why me?”‘

Breast cancer, domestic abuse… Victoria Derbyshire has experienced both and is on a mission to speak out about them. She tells Cole Moreton why living through the worst of times has made her determined never to be angry

Victoria Derbyshire
Photograph: Chris Floyd. Picture Director: Ester Malloy. Styling: Sasha Barrie, assisted by Elena Garcia. Make-up: Charlie Duffy. Hair: Alex Szabo.

The sun is shining and Victoria Derbyshire is thrilled to be alive. ‘There’s a gratitude; everything’s in colour,’ says the journalist and news anchor who has come through radiotherapy, chemotherapy and a mastectomy to beat breast cancer. ‘I want to say yes to everything. I just want to have the best time with my family and friends. I want to feel like I’m living every second, because we don’t know how long we’ve got.’

Victoria, 52, looks terrific today. There’s a natural authority about this woman who has presented hours and hours of live TV and radio and reported from Guantanamo Bay and the Grenfell Tower fire, even when she’s being chatty and personal. But the gratitude comes from having faced a moment in her life when she really did think it was all over. ‘You go through all the early tests with no idea if it’s treatable or not. That’s when I thought, “OK. So I’m not going to get to see my boys grow up.”’ Her son Oliver was 11 at the time and his brother Joe was eight. Suddenly, Victoria wells up. She flicks away a tear. ‘I’m sorry. I feel sad even saying it, and we’re six years on. It was, like, “S***. I’m not going to see them graduate. I’m not going to see them get married. I’m not going to see them have kids. I’m not going to get old with Mark [her husband]. Oh, for f***’s sake, I don’t want to die.”’

The treatment was intense and gruelling, as she detailed in a series of video diaries and a book that helped a lot of people. But five years ago this summer, a consultant said there was ‘no evidence of active cancer’ in her body any more. Mark Sandell, the TV and radio producer she lives with in Surrey, threw a party and iced a cake with the words Victorious Victoria. ‘I made a decision that I was never going to waste any time worrying about when the next scan was coming, because I just wanted to live.’

And she’s certainly been doing that. Victoria married Mark after getting the good news and was walked down the aisle by her sons. She returned to host her own innovative live news show on BBC Two and the BBC News Channel simultaneously every weekday, breaking huge stories such as the abuse scandal in football and winning broad acclaim. Which made it all the more unexpected when it was axed seemingly out of the blue. Was she angry about that? ‘No I wasn’t.’ Really? ‘What’s the point of being angry? I was gutted, demoralised, crushed. I wasn’t angry, no.’

Gutted, demoralised and crushed are strong words, but her refusal to have anything to do with anger is fascinating. As will become apparent, there is a very good reason for that.

Victoria remains one of the BBC’s most trusted presenters, able to help a grieving family get their words out one minute and confront an evasive government minister the next. ‘I spent decades asking people about really intimate or traumatic times. They have trusted me. So I feel: “OK, now I’m going to be honest with you.”’ That new willingness to show more of herself even extended to facing down her fears, being half-starved and drenched in muck and maggots on I’m A Celebrity… just before Christmas last year.

Victoria Derbyshire
Photograph: Chris Floyd. Picture Director: Ester Malloy. Styling: Sasha Barrie, assisted by Elena Garcia. Make-up: Charlie Duffy. Hair: Alex Szabo.

Victoria coaxed intimate tales out of the likes of Sir Mo Farah, revealing an empathy and willingness to be vulnerable that surprised many. The moment that had the most impact on viewers was her chat with the young EastEnders star Jessica Plummer. ‘She’d never had a conversation with anyone who’d been through breast cancer before and was asking me really good, fundamental questions.’

That was when Victoria described how she discovered a problem while getting ready for work one night in 2015, but it wasn’t the lump that most people look out for. Her sign was an inverted nipple and a breast that had dropped a bit. ‘Afterwards I got loads of messages from women of all ages saying they had watched the conversation and didn’t realise until then that breast cancer wasn’t only a lump, so had gone for a check-up.’ One got in touch on Instagram to say thanks because doctors had caught her breast cancer early. She was at Ashford Hospital in Surrey when Victoria visited on Christmas Eve to give presents to the staff who had treated her. They swapped messages for a few months, then there was silence. ‘Her husband messaged me and said, “She’s died.”’ The emotions are clearly still raw. ‘She f****** died. It’s a cruel disease. This was a reminder.’

Always willing to do more to help others, Victoria has launched a new podcast for the charity Future Dreams called And Then Came Breast Cancer, which sees her talking to women who have survived and are thriving, those still going through it, families who have lost loved ones and others who just have questions. ‘It’s conversational and informal,’ she says. ‘There are laughs as well. We’re going to do a special episode about dating after breast cancer: “I don’t know what to put on Tinder. Do I say I’ve had a mastectomy?”’

Is there a fine line between telling sad truths and keeping things cheerful and optimistic? ‘Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but I don’t feel it’s a fine line. Over a lifetime one in two people will get a cancer of some kind. Every ten minutes someone will be diagnosed with breast cancer. If you catch it early, then it’s more survivable. Those are the facts,’ she says. ‘We’re talking to women who have got through it, and women with advanced breast cancer. They’re being frank. I’m asking the questions, occasionally throwing in my own experiences.’

Victoria Derbyshire
Photograph: Chris Floyd. Picture Director: Ester Malloy. Styling: Sasha Barrie, assisted by Elena Garcia. Make-up: Charlie Duffy. Hair: Alex Szabo.

Victoria was only 46 when she was diagnosed. ‘That is young, in breast cancer terms. Breast screening doesn’t start until you’re 50. So there was that added terror because I had thought I was invincible. Everything changes in a moment. It’s total shock. I thought, “I’m going to die. That’s it. My luck’s run out.”’

Her eldest son Oliver was getting ready for bed one night soon after when he asked her: ‘Are you not angry about this? Because I am.’ Victoria says, ‘I thought it was a really good question and it broke my heart. And I just explained: “I’m not angry, because anger is a really destructive emotion and I need to concentrate all my energy on getting better, and that’s what I’m going to do. And before you know it, Oliver, our lives will be totally back to normal.” And he accepted that.’

Can you really just choose not to feel anger? ‘Of course you can. You can make a decision. I never thought “Why me?” Never. It’s a waste of time and energy.’

Where does that attitude come from? ‘I’ve seen anger. I’ve seen my father be incredibly angry regularly throughout my upbringing and it’s horrible. And I never want to be an angry person,’ she says. ‘I was never, ever going to be like that.’

The Lancashire tones in her voice become stronger when she talks about her father Anthony, who would lash out at his wife, son and two daughters, whip them with his belt and even threw hot soup all over Victoria as a schoolgirl. When the story broke that calls for help were growing during lockdown, she kept the number of a domestic abuse helpline on the back of her hand while reading the news, then later revealed on Panorama that she had suffered herself as a child at the fists of a violent father. Why did she choose to make this public during an episode of the show in August about how domestic abuse had soared during the pandemic? ‘I suggested the idea. Some of the women I was talking to felt a real sense of trust, because I knew what I was talking about.’ Is it true she never saw her father again after the age of 16, when her mother fled with the kids? ‘Yes.’ And she didn’t go to his funeral when he died last year? ‘No.’

For the first time, this impressive talker is monosyllabic. Could she say more? ‘Why would I go to his funeral? I don’t know him. He’s not a part of my life. When he was in my life, it wasn’t very nice. Why would I go?’

Victoria was educated at Bury Grammar School then went to Liverpool University, from where she volunteered for Toxteth Community Radio. ‘I used to go there on Sunday afternoon and read out bits of news that I’d basically nicked from newspapers. That’s when I started thinking, “Oh, maybe I can do this.”’

After a postgraduate course in journalism at the University of Central Lancashire, she worked as a reporter for commercial radio, then the BBC in Coventry, before being headhunted by 5 Live in 1998. She has since grown into one of the stars of British journalism. She has five gold Sonys (the Oscars of the radio industry), a Bafta and two Royal Television Society awards. Of all the stories she has covered, which have had the most personal impact? ‘I would say the people I met at the foot of Grenfell Tower on the day of the fire. I’m friends with some of them. And I would say the same of the four guys I interviewed about the sexual abuse they endured as boys at the hands of their football coach. They trusted us to tell their story.’

That coach, Barry Bennell, was later jailed for 31 years. Hundreds of people came forward with similar tales from other clubs. How does she handle the emotional impact of reporting stories like this? ‘By talking to Mark or a good friend called Louisa who has been my editor at different points in my career. We talk about that stuff over a glass of wine. I feel like it’s normal to take stuff home in this job. And that’s OK.’

Newsrooms were very macho when she started out, so have things got easier for women? ‘The environment all of us work in is much more respectful now, irrespective of your gender. There’s really good awareness about the levels of sexual harassment that women – mostly women – have faced in their professions. Obviously the BBC has made strides on equal pay. I think there’s still some work to do there.’ The latest figures publicly available show her earning around £170,000 a year from the Beeb, the same as fellow presenter Ben Brown. ‘There are also more older women on screen. That’s a good thing.’

Her own fame soared at 52 thanks to I’m A Celebrity… and there have been rumours of Victoria crossing over to Good Morning Britain to sit alongside Susanna Reid now that Piers Morgan has left. Is it happening? ‘Oh God. I can see this being the headline, whatever I say.’ I assure her it won’t and she thinks hard for a moment. ‘No conversations have been had. That’s the truth.’ Would she want the job? ‘Oh, for f ’s sake!’ We’re both laughing now. Surely she would press on with the question if the roles were reversed? This is a woman who once repeatedly asked her BBC boss, live on air, why he wasn’t moving from London to Salford when he expected everyone else at 5 Live to do so. ‘Oh god. You’re absolutely right.’ There’s another pause, a long one, while she thinks of the right words. ‘There is loads I still want to do.’ I think we can take that as a yes, she’d be interested.

Victoria Derbyshire
Victoria on I’m A Celebrity… last November. Photograph: Kieron McCarron/ITV/REX/Shutter​stock

She really does command the room with her confidence, even when we’re talking personally. What have the past few years done for her and Mark and the kids? ‘I feel like you want me to say it made us stronger as a family unit. We were tight before cancer anyway. We were a happy family. Mark totally stepped up, he was basically a single parent: he looked after the kids, ran them to school, made the tea, did the shopping, carried on working, looked after me, came with me to every appointment and took notes, which I would recommend everybody do, if they can.’

Pity the poor doctors, with two journalists sitting there. ‘We did ask a lot of questions. He sat through chemotherapy with me every time, reading bits out of the newspaper, trying to keep me entertained. He is funny.’ She reflects for a moment. ‘He was funnier when I was going through treatment. Maybe that’s just my perception, because I needed a laugh so much. I don’t know.’

I feel like there’s a ‘but’ coming. ‘No, there isn’t. I’m just thinking of a woman I’ve interviewed for this podcast. She doesn’t have a partner, doesn’t live with a family, wasn’t in a bubble with anyone during Covid. She sat in a waiting room in an empty hospital for two hours, got told by a consultant she had breast cancer, then had to go home on her own. Nobody has hugged her since she got the diagnosis. So I realise I’m lucky, because loads of people don’t have a support network. I am going to meet her; I will hug her then.’

Victoria Derbyshire and husband Mark
Victoria with husband Mark in May. Photograph: KGC Photo Agency LLP.

She’s tough, there’s no doubt about that. But as her camp-mates discovered on I’m A Celebrity…, there is a real warmth and openness to Victoria these days. How is she doing, really? ‘The only time I feel distressed and upset is when I hear about someone who’s died of breast cancer – whether it’s a friend or a colleague or a high-profile person who’s a complete stranger to me. That just brings you up short and you think: “Jesus Christ, it’s still happening.” She taps the table top for good fortune. ‘So far, touch wood, I’m really bloody lucky.’

And Then Came Breast Cancer is available on all major podcast platforms. Future Dreams breast cancer charity funds support, awareness and research;