'Kylie Minogue saved my life'
It's been a decade since pop star Kylie Minogue was diagnosed with breast cancer and she is celebrating the momentous milestone. But little does the pop princess realise the huge impact she had on a Lancashire woman's life. AASMA DAY talks to Preston mum Julie Billington to find out how Kylie saved her life
Whenever Julie Billington sees pop superstar Kylie Minogue on the television, she is filled with fond gratitude, as she knows she is looking at her saviour.
If it hadn’t been for the Australian singer’s shock breast cancer diagnosis 10 years ago, Julie may not have discovered her own cancer until it was too late.
Julie, 50, who lives in Ribbleton, Preston, has finally been discharged by her oncologist after a 10-year battle with breast cancer.
Julie had not experienced or noticed any symptoms of breast cancer herself, and it was only after husband Mark brought home a newspaper emblazoned with the headline: “Kylie Minogue diagnosed with breast cancer” that he told his wife he had noticed a lump and urged her to get it checked out.
Julie, who has a daughter Gemma, 28, son Robert, 26, and grandson Jamie, five, as well as a step-family, recalls: “Mark was working at CCA Printers at the time and on Tuesday, May 18 2005, he brought the morning paper home with a front page all about Kylie having breast cancer.
“Mark just turned to me and said: ‘I think you have a lump.’
“He then admitted he’d noticed it a week or two earlier, but reading Kylie’s story prompted him to tell me about it.
“I hadn’t even noticed a lump myself. You couldn’t see anything and even after Mark told me about it, I couldn’t feel anything.
“I thought he was worrying needlessly, but just in case, I went to the doctor.”
Julie’s GP felt a lump and referred her to the breast clinic as a precaution.
Julie, who had recently turned 40 at the time, admits: “When I heard the words: ‘breast clinic’, it got me worried.
“But even then, I still thought it would turn out to be nothing. I had no family history of cancer and hadn’t noticed any symptoms.”
Julie underwent tests and biopsies and was told she had a 2cm slow-growing tumour in her right breast.
Julie remembers: “It was a huge shock, and I was quite young at 40 to be diagnosed with breast cancer.
“In a split second, all these thoughts go racing through your mind.
“I thought: ‘What’s going to happen to me? What’s going to happen to my husband? How will my kids cope?’
“The worst thing was going home and telling my children. That was the worst thing I’ve ever had to do.
“Robert was only 15 at the time and Gemma was 18.
“Watching them trying to deal with my diagnosis was terrible.
“Robert took it really bad and broke down in tears and Gemma was just in shock.
“When you hear the word ‘cancer’, you think ‘that’s it’.
“Life had been going so well. We both had good jobs – I was working as a butcher and Mark was a printer.
“We had moved the year before, to a bigger house with a garden, to give our children a better life.
“Suddenly, it felt like everything was being ripped apart and as if the rug was being pulled from underneath me.”
Julie underwent a lumpectomy, and also had her lymph nodes removed as a precaution.
She then had 20 sessions of radiotherapy followed by taking the drug tamoxifen for five years, to prevent the cancer returning.
Ruefully, Julie describes this as a life-changing experience in itself.
She explains: “Because tamoxifen is a hormone tablet, overnight, it pushes your body through the menopause.
“You can’t imagine what one tablet is going to do to your body.
“I got hot flushes, mood swings, night sweats and weight gain – all symptoms associated with the menopause.
“But I knew I had to take the tablets, as it was better than having cancer.”
In 2009, specialists told Julie there was a threat of the cancer returning in her ovaries as her periods had begun again, which shouldn’t have happened while she was on tamoxifen.
She was advised to have a hysterectomy and confesses she found this difficult to come to terms with.
Julie says: “You feel like you’re not a woman any more, as everything that makes you a woman is being taken away bit by bit.
“It was very difficult, but you don’t have a choice as you have to get on with it.
“You can either sit back and let the experience take over, or you can think: ‘I’m going to be strong and fight this’.”
After the hysterectomy, life went on for Julie and in 2006, she organised a big fund-raiser which raised £2,500 for Breast Cancer Research.
However, she admits the fear of the cancer returning was always with her.
She says: “It’s the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning and the last thing you think of at night.
“It was always with me and I was constantly checking for lumps.
“The frightening thing is you realise you don’t want to die yet.
“That fear never really went, but it subsided as time went by, and I started getting on with my life again.”
Just as Julie had regained a sense of normality, in February 2012 – after almost seven years cancer-free, her life was suddenly rocked again.
She remembers: “I was showering when I noticed my left nipple looked very slightly puckered.
“I mentioned it to my doctor when I was seeing her about something else.
“Because of my past history, she said: ‘Let’s have it checked just in case’, so sent me to the breast clinic.
“The consultant did an ultrasound and found a black shadow at the back of the nipple and biopsies confirmed it was cancer.
“The awful thing was having to tell the kids again. I actually felt guilty at the thought of putting them through that all over again.
“We had just got our lives back to normal again and I couldn’t believe how one word ‘cancer’ could wreck so many people’s lives.
“I thought the cancer coming back was because it was a secondary cancer and that would have been very bad news.
“The only consolation was it turned out not to be a secondary cancer, but sheer bad luck of lightning striking twice.”
In May 2012, Julie had a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction.
During the 10-hour operation, the surgeon removed fat and muscles from Julie’s stomach and used them to build her new breasts.
Although the surgery went well, Julie’s stomach became infected and she has an 18-inch scar across it. Julie had to have nurses coming out three times a day to change her dressings for six months.
Julie says: “I was very upset when I was told I needed a mastectomy at 47.
“I was losing another part of what made me female. As I was only in my forties, I felt I wasn’t old enough for things like this to be happening.
“Even now, I can’t let anybody see my body, not even my husband, as you almost feel like you have been mutilated.”
Julie began chemotherapy and was hit by horrendous side effects.
She started losing her hair after just one session, so decided to shave it off.
Julie was hit by other side effects, including nose bleeds and losing her fingernails and toenails.
As Julie had no lymph nodes, she had to have a central line in her chest for the chemotherapy and unbeknown to her, this became infected.
If it hadn’t been for the quick thinking of her daughter Gemma, Julie says she wouldn’t be here today.
She says: “I began feeling unwell and thought it was just a chill or fever.
“Gemma came round to see me and I told her I just needed to be warm and would be OK.
“However, Gemma insisted I went to hospital and took me in. I was shaking so much, Gemma thought I was having a fit.
“They tried flushing the line out and I went into sepsis. I was admitted into hospital for three weeks with sepsis.
“I also had a bug, klebsiella, which attacks your intestines and I was put on IV drips.
“Then the sepsis appeared again so I had to have my central line removed.
“It took seven weeks to recover from the sepsis and I constantly had to have a hospital bag packed. I had to have two blood transfusions. Doctors said if Gemma hadn’t made me go to the hospital when she did, it would have been a different story.”
After completing her chemotherapy, Julie had radiotherapy and since then, she has been on the hormone therapy drug Letrozole, which she has to take for 10 years.
Julie says: “By the time I’ve finished, I will have been menopausal for 20 years!”
Jokingly, Julie adds: “It’s a good job Mark knows about the medication, as otherwise he’d think I was just really grumpy!”
However, Julie is celebrating as, after a decade of battling cancer, she finally been discharged.
Julie says: “I have been seeing the oncologist every six months for the last 10 years.
“It is wonderful to be freed from hospital appointments.”
Julie, a qualified butcher, used to work for Seeds Butchers on Longridge Road, Preston but had not worked for 10 years since falling ill.
However, she has now returned to work.
Julie says: “I’m not doing the butchery, but just light duties and serving on the counter.
“It is lovely to see all my customers again. I have come full circle.”
Julie firmly believes she owes her life to former Neighbours actress Kylie Minogue, who has just had her 10 year all-clear from cancer.
She says: “Kylie has no idea, but she saved my life.
“If it hadn’t been for reading her story, Mark might have dismissed my lump as nothing to worry about.
“The day Mark brought that newspaper home, our lives changed forever.
“But the experience has made me realise what a close family, step-family and friends I have.
“It has brought us even closer together. My daughter Gemma is getting married in July. At one point, I never thought I’d get to see that.
“I also have my grandson Jamie, who is five, and is the light of my life.
“After a really dark 10 years, I’m still here and have found light at the end of the tunnel.
“People think if you’re diagnosed with cancer, it’s a death sentence. I thought the same, but it is not.
“You have to keep fighting, checking yourself and enjoying life to the full. Somehow, I found the inner strength to keep fighting.
“I want to give hope to others and encourage women to check their breasts regularly.
“It isn’t always a lump, it can just be something unusual.
“It happened to Kylie, it happened to me and it could happen to anybody. The important thing is to catch it in time and get it treated.”