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Andrew Meredith

'It's not cancer, is it?' Jo Malone on the health scare that changed her life

In an extract from her autobiography, business woman Jo Malone writes about being told she had breast cancer.

In 2003, Jo Malone – entrepreneur and founder of the fragrance company Jo Malone – was riding high in her career. But she was soon thrown a health curveball that changed everything – and ultimately led to her leaving her company. Here, she describes what happened when she went with her husband Gary to be examined by her family GP, Dr Guy O’Keeffe.

“We need to get this looked at, Jo,” he said. The tone of his voice was one of caution not alarm, but the inevitable thought still arose.

“It’s not cancer, though? Is it?” I asked. Cue a seasoned doctor’s subtle deflection. “Let’s find out what it is first,” he said. “It could be a cyst. It could be anything.”

The haste with which he acted, though, referring me that same afternoon for a scan at The Lister Hospital in Chelsea, perhaps told me something, even if my denial sought to push it away.

“Will this procedure hurt? Take long?” I asked. “Because we’ve a dinner to attend and it starts at eight.”

In my head, I was already at the Serpentine Gallery’s annual party. Gary and I had rushed home from the shop to change hurriedly: he, into a dinner jacket; me, into a shocking-pink dress shirt and black Armani dinner suit.

That’s how we had arrived at the doctor’s surgery, squeezing in the 5pm appointment before heading to a soirée that attracts names from fashion, art, architecture and music. In my pocket, I had a set of diamond drop earrings to be worn later.

Even as he and I headed to the hospital, I kept telling myself that the lump was likely a cyst that would have to be drained. It’s a cyst. That’s all it is – a cyst.

In the waiting room at The Lister, I picked the earrings from my pocket and started rolling them between my thumb and fingers. Gary sat beside me, looking pensive. Neither of us really said much.

When my name was called, I headed to the imaging room and stood in front of a machine that looked like it belonged on a factory floor. Throughout the mammogram, I didn’t take my eyes off the nurse, scrutinising her for the slightest reaction as the image flashed up on the screen. And that’s when I spotted it – a subtle flicker of recognition registering on her face.

“I’ll only be a minute,” she said, before disappearing out of the room.

Within a minute or so, she returned, explaining that they needed to do a second scan. As I was taken into another room for an ultrasound, my mind still clung to the possibility of a cyst, even throughout the procedure, even when a doctor came to see me.

“So, can you drain it?” I asked him. ‘Drain what?’

“The cyst.”

“No, Jo, this is not a cyst,” he said. His voice grave; his face, sorry.

“I’ve got cancer, haven’t I?”

“It’s a strong possibility, yes.”

I stepped into the corridor in a daze, and yet, in that daze, my sense of smell seemed more acute than ever: the all-pervading medicinal air; the strong coffee that someone nearby must have been drinking; the soap on the nurse’s hands as she led me to
the waiting room where Gary remained oblivious.

From behind me, I heard hurried footsteps clipping off the travertine floor.

I turned to see Dr Guy rushing towards me – they had called him, presumably before the ultrasound, and he hugged me like a relative, not a doctor.

He took me to see Gary who knew as soon as he saw my face. I rested my head on his chest. “We’re going to deal with this together,” he said, putting his arms around me. But it’s amazing how even your husband’s arms don’t feel safe when you’ve just been told you have cancer.

It feels like every form of safety has been ripped away; that it’s just you and cancer, stripped bare. And yet, as I stood there, I felt strangely calm within the eye of this storm. Or maybe I was mistaking the numbness for calm.

Within the hour, I was sitting opposite a surgeon in his office on another floor, feeling frightened and, perhaps, a little defensive. I think it’s only natural to feel defensive when cancer’s got you cornered.

But not once – not on that first day or at any other time – did I ever think, “Why me?” I was as undeserving as the next person. To ask “Why me?” would be to wish that it was
someone else, and that didn’t seem fair. Life doesn’t always deal the good fortune cards.

The surgeon pinned up the image on a light box and there it was: a sinister-looking, shadowy mass with jagged edges. Within a week, following a needle biopsy, I would receive the confirmation that it was ‘an aggressive type of breast cancer’.

Jo Malone: My story is published by Simon & Schuster and available to purchase now.

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