Lucy Cooke reveals new show helped her beat breast cancer

Amazing Animal Births presenter Lucy Cooke (pictured) was diagnosed with breast cancer just before she started filming the series 

Amazing Animal Births is, according to presenter Lucy Cooke, about ‘the miracle of life’. 

The six-part series, which starts on ITV next month, sees the woman dubbed ‘the new David Attenborough’ travelling across the country to witness everything from the arrival of spring lambs and hatchling alligators to the jaw-dropping moment an endangered orang-utan delivers her own baby at a Jersey wildlife park.

But what viewers will not realise is that behind the camera, a human drama – an all-too-familiar one at that – was playing out at the same time. 

As the show’s tiny, fragile stars were filmed making their first tentative steps in the world, Lucy was facing the toughest challenge of her life after being diagnosed with breast cancer – something she has kept secret until now.

Fittingly, the series starts on May 8, two years to the day after zoologist Lucy first discovered she had the disease. ‘I’ve just watched the series back for the first time and it was very emotional,’ explains the 46-year-old from London.

‘I can tell from each episode what stage I was at with my cancer, especially the ones where I’ve lost weight. But I’m incredibly proud of myself for completing it.

‘When a programme is all about the miracle of life, it’s impossible to feel sorry for yourself, and making this documentary is what kept me positive and got me through a very difficult time.’

Landing the role should have been the pinnacle of Lucy’s career. But she admits that she was terrified that her diagnosis – which came just days before she was due to start work – would mean she would be dropped from the show.

Lucy was on a road trip with a friend in America in April 2015 when she discovered an irregular-shaped lump on her lower right breast. ‘The irony is I was with a friend who’d just had a benign lump removed and she kept nagging at me to check myself, so I finally did. As soon as I felt the lump, fear ran through me and I had a sinking feeling.

Landing the role should have been the pinnacle of Lucy’s career. But she admits that she was terrified that her diagnosis – which came just days before she was due to start work – would mean she would be dropped from the show

‘I made a GP appointment for when I got back and made a pact with myself not to Google anything about breast cancer.’

On Lucy’s return to the UK, her doctor was 99 per cent certain it was nothing more than a cyst but arranged for her to go to her local hospital in East London for a mammogram as a precaution. Reassured, Lucy then headed off to Zimbabwe to film a BBC series called Nature’s Miracle Orphans.

But once back in Britain in May, Lucy received a devastating setback. She says: ‘The radiographer saw my mammogram and ultrasound and told me, “That doesn’t look like a cyst – that looks like cancer.” It was such a shock that I burst into tears.

‘The next thing I knew, I was having a local anaesthetic for a biopsy which meant the radiologist making an incision on the side of my breast and then a thin, hollow needle was pushed in to remove tissue samples from the lump.

‘Looking back, those were the darkest moments of dealing with my cancer. It was not only a very painful process but I was by myself, which made it even worse.’

Lucy, who is single, was told to return to hospital two weeks later for the results and to ensure that she brought a friend with her.

Devastated by her diagnosis, she says: ‘I’d just had the worst news yet I was also starting my ITV job the following week and it was a huge break for me.

‘Everything was so uncertain and my diagnosis was constantly on my mind, but I went to Yorkshire to do my first round of filming and decided not to tell anyone but my closest friends until I knew more about what I was actually facing.’ 

When the doctor confirmed she had cancer, Lucy admits: ‘I couldn’t take it in – it was just like white noise going off in my head and I hadn’t a clue what to ask. All I remember being told was that I had a “bog-standard” cancer, whatever that meant.’

As a scientist herself, she asked to read the pathology report to help her understand her cancer more clearly. 

When she was refused access to it because the hospital didn’t think she would understand it, she decided to seek a second opinion and turned to Professor Mo Keshtgar at the Royal Free Hospital in North London. In June last year, Lucy had a lumpectomy under general anaesthetic to remove the 1in tumour and surrounding tissue.

Her surgeon also carried out a sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB). This involves injecting a blue dye near the tumour to locate the sentinel lymph node – one of the glands under the arm, and the first place that cancer cells are likely to spread from a primary tumour.

June last year, Lucy had a lumpectomy under general anaesthetic to remove the 1in tumour and surrounding tissue (stock image) 

The surgeon uses a device to look for nodes that are stained with the dye and makes an incision about half an inch long in the skin to remove them.

The sentinel node is then checked for the presence of cancer cells by a pathologist. A negative SLNB result suggests the cancer hasn’t spread to nearby lymph nodes or organs, but a positive one indicates that it may be present in them and helps a doctor determine the stage of the cancer and develop a suitable treatment plan.

Lucy says: ‘They found a tiny speck of cancer, a micro-metastesis. I was considered a borderline case but they removed 18 lymph nodes as a precaution. I was also in a bit of a grey area as to whether I’d need chemotherapy.

‘I then had to let ITV know what was going on because if I was going to lose my hair during filming, I needed to get a wig so I could keep the same look throughout the series. We also had to look at how I might be able to fit in potential chemotherapy treatments between filming assignments.

‘It was a scheduling nightmare for them and they could so easily have dropped me because we’d filmed only one section at that stage, but they stood by me and were brilliant. I was really despairing and a friend just scooped me up and took me to Cornwall for a few days so that I could come to terms with it all. But by the end of it I thought, “OK, bring it on.” ’

However, Prof Keshtgar had told Lucy about a test – Oncotype DX – which looks at a group of 21 genes in the cancer cells to find out how they are behaving.

The cancer is then given a recurrence score of between 0 and 100. The lower the number, the lower the risk is of the cancer coming back. People with a higher score have chemotherapy and those with a low score do not.

As a scientist herself, Lucy asked to read the pathology report to help her understand her cancer more clearly (stock image) 

The test is not widely available on the NHS and is still being researched, so Lucy paid £3,000 to have it done privately. A section of her tumour was analysed and two weeks later she was given the result.

 She says: ‘I was warned I shouldn’t get my hopes up, so I’d mentally prepared for chemotherapy by this stage. I changed my diet to a vegetarian one, started juicing, stopped drinking, cut out dairy and sugar, and lost a stone in weight. The irony was that people kept telling me how well I looked.’

On the day she got her results, Lucy says: ‘As soon as I walked in the room the doctor told me she didn’t often get to give people good news but the results showed that I didn’t need to have chemotherapy, just radiotherapy five days a week for five weeks, to ensure any stray cells were killed off, and the anti-breast cancer drug tamoxifen. I was jumping up and down with joy.’

Lucy currently sees her oncologist every three months for a check-up.

‘I always had a very cavalier attitude to health,’ she admits. ‘I never got sick and there was no cancer in my family at all. I have had a brush with death but I survived.

‘I certainly value my life in a way I never did before this happened. For the first time in my life, I’ve realised it is OK to take time out, that I don’t need to run myself ragged. I feel more able to relax and enjoy life, whether it’s going for a walk in the park or meeting a friend for lunch.’

Amazing Animal Births starts on ITV on Monday, May 8, at 8pm