On June 26, the Sky Sports presenter Jacquie Beltrao posted a video message to her 76,000 Twitter followers.
In it, she said it felt weird to be acting as though everything was ‘shining and perfect and fun’, when it wasn’t. The past four weeks for her and her family — husband Eduardo, head of social media at HSBC, and children, Amelia, 22, Tiago, 18, and Jorge, 17 — had been ‘like walking through a living nightmare’.
Jacquie, 55, had discovered a tiny lump, the size and shape of a grain of rice, just below her right collarbone after injuring her shoulder doing yoga. ‘I was lucky to find it,’ says Jacquie, who lives in South-West London. ‘If I’d been any fatter, I wouldn’t have felt it and I would never have known about the cancer behind it until it was too late.’
Six-and-a-half years earlier, Jacquie had been treated for a small, grade 2 (slow- growing) tumour in her right breast. She’d had a mastectomy and five rounds of chemotherapy at the private Parkside Hospital in South-West London and her annual mammogram and ultrasound scan in January this year showed she was still clear. Then she found the new lump.
Sky Sports presenter Jacquie Beltrao (left) pictured with her daughter, Amelia – a runner for Sky News and a presenter for Radio Jackie
‘I couldn’t believe anything could have grown so quickly but I immediately called my breast surgeon, Anup Sharma, and asked if I could see him,’ Jacquie says. ‘Mr Sharma thought it was probably nothing to worry about, but when you’ve had cancer, nothing puts your mind at rest until you know for sure.’
Within 24 hours, she’d had a biopsy and MRI and PET scans. After an anxious weekend Mr Sharma phoned with the result of the biopsy. ‘I thought he’d say: “Don’t worry, it’s nothing,” ’ Jacquie says. ‘But instead, he said: “I’m really sorry, it’s bad news. It’s a grade 3 [fast-growing] cancer.”
‘So more aggressive than before, which I really wasn’t expecting. My husband was on a conference call upstairs and I burst in and said: “End the call, end the call…!” Then I collapsed in tears. I couldn’t believe we were back inside this nightmare again.’
Jacquie’s daughter, Amelia, a runner for Sky News and a presenter for Radio Jackie, sensed an ominous atmosphere as soon as she walked into the house.
She recalls: ‘Mum was huddled in a corner on her phone. Then she ran upstairs to my dad and we heard: “No, no, no.” My brothers and I burst into the office and saw her crying into Dad’s chest — in that instant I thought anything going wrong in my life doesn’t matter any more.
‘I had to focus on making sure this woman is OK. She became the sole focus of my life. I knew I’d do anything to make whatever was coming next more bearable for her.’
When her mum was first diagnosed with cancer, Amelia, then 15, was about to sit her GCSEs. ‘Cancer was such a scary word, I couldn’t even talk about it with my friends,’ she says. ‘I didn’t say anything to my teachers because I didn’t want to be treated differently. I ended up bursting into tears at school after being challenged over some work and shouting: “My mum has cancer!” ’
This time around, her relationship with her parents changed overnight. ‘When they told us Mum’s cancer had spread, I saw my dad cry for the first time,’ says Amelia. ‘We have all become incredibly supportive of each other — my brothers haven’t argued and we give each other a hug when we pass in the kitchen. I have never felt closer to them.’
Jacquie discovered a tiny lump, the size and shape of a grain of rice, just below her right collarbone after injuring her shoulder doing yoga
Around 55,000 women in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer every year; most (80 per cent) are over 50. Survival rates are constantly improving — doubling in the past 40 years, according to Cancer Research UK. Around 65 per cent of breast cancer patients are now expected to survive for more than 20 years after diagnosis.
Previous estimates have suggested that around a fifth of cases of early-stage breast cancer recur. In Jacquie’s case, as well as the cancer being more aggressive, scans showed it was stage 4, meaning it had spread beyond the breast.
She never considered hiding or softening the truth for her children. ‘I’m a very upfront person, I don’t pretend things are easier than they are — I don’t see the point,’ Jacquie explains. ‘When we had the results of all the scans, around two weeks after first seeing Mr Sharma, we gathered all together and I said: “I have stage 4 cancer — there is a 5cm mass behind my chest wall and cancer cells in my lymph nodes. It is not curable.”
‘I cried a lot and I’m sure the kids cried a lot. I explained that there were lots of drugs in the cupboard for Mum’s cancer but the fact is, it could kill me and they have to be prepared for that.’
Having lost her own mum to a congenital heart defect when she was only 18, Jacquie’s ambition has been to be around for all the landmarks in her children’s lives.
An ex-Olympic gymnast — she represented Great Britain in rhythmic gymnastics at the 1984 Olympic Games — Jacquie exercises regularly, has never smoked and watches her weight meticulously. When she was first diagnosed, on Christmas Eve 2013, she gave up dairy after reading Professor Jane Plant’s book, Your Life In Your Hands.
Professor Plant, a leading geochemist, developed breast cancer in 1987 and became convinced that growth factors and hormones in dairy foods are implicated in the disease and credited going dairy-free with warding off her cancer (she died in 2016 after suffering a blood clot linked to her chemotherapy).
Cancer Research UK and the NHS say there is no good evidence that dairy causes cancer. But Jacquie says: ‘Between giving up dairy that Christmas and having my mastectomy in January, the tumour shrank from 22mm to 18mm. So I was very reassured. I had chemo as a precaution and thought I’d be OK for the rest of my life.’
Jacquie has maintained a dairy-free diet ever since. ‘I have a chocolate bar about twice a year, I don’t cheat, so I just couldn’t get my head around why it was happening to me again,’ she says. ‘My [second] diagnosis felt like history repeating itself because I knew it could go pear-shaped very quickly,’ she says.
Jacquie describes an emotional exhaustion unlike anything she’d experienced before. ‘I felt as though I was losing my mind or having a nervous breakdown,’ she says. ‘I was so self-absorbed, I didn’t have the capacity to think whether I was being a good mother or a bad mother.
Initially, Amelia’s way of dealing with the situation was practical. ‘I couldn’t stop cleaning the kitchen surfaces,’ says Amelia. ‘I knew Mum would feel calmer if everywhere was tidy.’ Pictured: Amelia and her mother Jacquie
‘The kids tried to jolly me along, but I couldn’t pretend everything was fine when I was devastated. And I didn’t feel I should have to pretend. Looking after me had to come above everything. I’m selfish mum now. I have to be.’
Initially, Amelia’s way of dealing with the situation was practical. ‘I couldn’t stop cleaning the kitchen surfaces,’ says Amelia. ‘I knew Mum would feel calmer if everywhere was tidy.
‘I was determined she wouldn’t have to lift a finger, so I’ve taken over the shopping and cooking. I thought if I could tempt her to eat more delicious, nutritious food it might at least brighten up a scary day.’
Jacquie adds: ‘Amelia is a mini-me. She’s very strong and I’ve not seen her fall apart. We’ll lie on the sofa and chat sometimes, or she’ll hop into my bed, but she doesn’t tell me how she feels about what’s happening to me. She’s never asked “what’s going to happen, Mum?”
‘I hope that’s because she knows I’ll do everything I can to be OK — they’re so used to me powering through. It’s possible they think I’ll just power through this, too.’
However, there’s been a tangible shift in their relationship. Amelia remembers coming home in the early days after Jacquie’s diagnosis, ‘horrendously hungover and desperate to get to bed’.
‘My mum was standing in the kitchen crying and crying, and instantly, my hangover disappeared, I hugged her and I didn’t let go until she was ready. In those moments she feels almost like a vulnerable child.’
The nature of the mother/child relationship evolves throughout life, explains psychologist Dr Frances Goodhart, author of The Cancer Survivor’s Companion.
‘You never stop being a mum and you never stop being a daughter, but what that relationship looks like changes, especially in difficult circumstances.
‘Being a mum isn’t just about being the person who does the shopping, the food preparation and the laundry as well as holding down a job.
‘You can be vulnerable mum, you can be selfish mum. It’s incredibly tough to feel under pressure to be happy, positive, upbeat mum for the sake of everyone else.’
There’s no hard-and-fast rule about how much you should share with children. ‘My instinct and experience is that on the whole, honesty is the best policy,’ says Dr Goodhart.
‘Young adult children, particularly, want the opportunity to care for and support their mum. They are also likely to instinctively pick up on changes in her mood, behaviour and health, so not being honest can be very confusing for them.
‘In my experience, cancer and serious illness intensify existing patterns of interaction. So a challenging teen may become more distant. A close relationship is likely to become even closer. But it’s important to give everyone in the family the same information and avoid creating secrets.’
Jacquie was originally due to have 16 rounds of chemotherapy; but a scan after the eighth showed that the tumour had shrunk by more than 50 per cent and it was decided to stop the chemotherapy after the 12th treatment.
‘Mr Sharma described the main tumour in my chest as having gone “from the size of a big man’s big toe, to the size of the nail on your little finger,” ’ Jacquie says. ‘We’d been so tense and worried about the scan, life had pretty much stopped, so this news was a game changer.’
She had her final chemo session last week and will now take palbociclib, a targeted drug that’s been shown to be effective in treating advanced breast cancer, which she will take with a hormone therapy drug, fulvestrant. They work together to slow the growth of the cancer.
This time she has followed the ketogenic diet, a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet (which excludes sugar) that forces the body to burn fat instead of carbs for energy.
The responsibility Amelia (pictured with her mother) feels has taken its toll: she split up with her long-term boyfriend recently because she felt he didn’t understand what she was going through
The theory is that keeping blood sugar levels low inhibits the growth of cancer cells. It has been shown to be helpful in fighting cancer in mice but there have been no large studies in humans.
The ketogenic diet is notoriously difficult to follow, but Jacquie has stuck to it rigidly. ‘If I’ve done everything I can to stay well, I can’t beat myself up if things go wrong,’ she says.
‘Last time round, I was dairy-free, but I was still eating a lot of sugar. I’d have Rich Tea biscuits with my tea, strawberries and grapes by the punnet. Boiled sweets when I was tired.
‘When I knew the cancer was back, I read self-help books that suggested keeping blood sugar below six.’
Jacquie checks her blood sugar twice a day with a finger-prick test. ‘We’ve eaten a ton of salad and tuna and yes, it is really hard,’ she admits. ‘I will relax it soon to incorporate rice, because I’ve lost so much weight [at least a stone, she is 5ft 6in and weighs 8st 4lb] but so far I haven’t fallen off the wagon.’
During treatment last time, she didn’t work; this time, she has worked throughout, even though she has felt much more tired.
Jacquie says: ‘I wanted to carry on as a message to myself to say: “Everything is all right. There’s nothing to see here.” I think if you can tell yourself enough positive things, you can trick the cancer into going away.’
She’s not joking when she says she visualises the cancer as chains of bad Gremlins.
‘Every time I do chemo, or starve them of sugar, a few run off in a yellow bus to the tune of Follow The Yellow Brick Road. I know another long-term survivor who visualised her cancer as the Seven Dwarfs.’ But there have otherwise been precious few laughs over the past months.
‘Mum has battled with morbid thoughts — she worries she won’t see my brothers graduate, or watch me get married,’ Amelia says. ‘I try to remind her that there’s a bigger chance the treatment will keep the cancer under control and she has to have more faith in that process.’
The responsibility Amelia feels has taken its toll: she split up with her long-term boyfriend recently because she felt he didn’t understand what she was going through.
‘I was taking on so much responsibility, I felt I was burning out,’ Amelia says. ‘Mum heard me crying in bed one night and understood that I was going through my first real heartbreak and I needed a cuddle.
‘We’ve both realised that being open with each other about the difficult days and the wobbles is the most important thing.’