a brave document of her cancer journey

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When celebrities fall ill, they have privileged access to a platform. To share or not to share? This was the question confronting property presenter Sarah Beeny when she learned of three lumps in her left breast. The result was Sarah Beeny vs Cancer (Channel 4). 

“I need to call them boobs,” she jauntily informed her doctor as she entered the long dark tunnel of chemotherapy, having chosen to tell the story of her treatment in order to make it less scary for others – and perhaps, though she didn’t say as much, for herself. She was far less upbeat by her fifth treatment. “I feel utterly terrible,” Beeny confided, her shaved head shrouded in a beanie. 

Part video diary, part medical enquiry, for films like this to work the subject must be prepared to tell the story while feeling vulnerable and uncertain. So it was here. The unspoken subtext in this well-made documentary was of illness as the great leveller. Beeny’s photogenic Somerset home with its rolling acres, itself the star of three series alongside her catalogue-handsome quartet of sons, are no defence against cancer. Or not much. “I never realised how much I needed a greenhouse until I had one,” she said as she potted plants between treatments. 

Her prognosis was far better than that of her own mother, who had a double mastectomy without her knowledge while under anaesthetic. The doctor who looked at her medical notes all but shook with fury at this act of patriarchal barbarism. Where her own mother died at 39, Beeny had an elective double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, which one day promises to be superseded by swifter and minimally invasive solutions. 

Rather than make her own medical history the whole story, part of her project was to find out about these solutions and report on them. No wonder she concluded on a forgivably optimistic note. “The gut wrenching of the C word… I don’t think it’ll exist in the future.” Those who suffer from types of cancers that attract less research funding may have fewer reasons to feel quite so cheerful. But Beeny’s brave and charitable act in making this film will be a welcome boon to those who need it.

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