Anita Harris: 'How a cancer mix-up changed my life'

Anita Harris: 'How a cancer mix-up changed my life'

Pic: Ken McKay, ITV, Rex Shutterstock    Words: Alison James

She looks a good decade-and-a-half younger than her 73 years, but Anita Harris is a graduate of the old school when it comes to grafting. She is what they call a trooper and has barely stopped working since she was ‘discovered’ at a London ice rink shortly before her 16th birthday.

For Anita, who’s currently touring the country with her one-woman show, the show must go on. And this was even the case when, four years ago, doctors told Anita they thought she had breast cancer.

“I had been having tests and was told by my doctor to report to the hospital at 7am on the same morning I was starting rehearsals for the musical Stepping Out,” she reveals. “I was
told I had breast cancer. I went to the appointment and was informed I had to have a double mastectomy the following week.

“My husband Michael and I almost collapsed, but we took it on the chin. The first thing I said was, ‘Please – can we think about this and have more tests before we go any further’. I felt I needed more time and was also concerned about letting the rest of the company down regarding the rehearsals.

“After the appointment, Michael drove me to rehearsals and I told no one what had happened. I never told anyone and, in fact, I’ve never made any of this public before. I had further tests as rehearsals progressed and the production then opened. Every week I’d go to the hospital at 7am, then after six weeks I was told by doctors that they now thought they were wrong.

“I didn’t have cancer and didn’t need a double mastectomy. If I hadn’t been working and begged for extra time…” She pauses. “Well, you have to believe in God or the angels or whatever. For some reason, I didn’t adhere to what I’d been told, initially.

“I’m not blaming anyone, but certainly I’ll always be aware of what might have been if I hadn’t asked for more tests. That particular episode has to be the greatest challenge of my life.”

Anita has always believed in the power of prayer, but even more so since her cancer scare. “I now thank God for every day,” she goes on. “Life has been hard at times. Michael has had serious periods of illness. We have also had business difficulties – although I must stress that recent reports about this are not true.

“Yes, we’ve had our challenges, but we love each other, have dear and loving family and friends, and God has given us both the gift of creativity. We thank Him for keeping us strong, coming through hard times and allowing us to do what we love.”

Anita’s love for her craft is self-evident. After more than 50 years treading the boards, she’s still full of enthusiasm. Recently she’s appeared at The Albert Hall in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, and also guest-starred in an episode of Casualty. And then, of course, there’s her one woman show – An Evening with Anita Harris.

“The show really encompasses my career,” she explains. “We cover my time as a showgirl in Las Vegas, my career in music, becoming involved in the pop world and appearing in the Carry Ons. I also recall being part of seven Royal Command performances, my time in Cats, and meeting and working with stars such as Harry Secombe, Tommy Cooper, Phil Silvers, Clive Dunn and Morecambe and Wise.

“I learnt so much from these ‘Greats’ and I continue to feel their presence all round me when I’m on stage today. It’s like my past is still very much part of my present and future. During my one-woman show, the audience and I have a chance to chat… it’s wonderful.”

Although life’s had its ups and downs, it doesn’t sound like Anita has many regrets. “Regrets are a part of life that you must put to one side because they get in the way,” she explains. “If you have regrets, the future is harder to deal with. I feel they have their place but it’s best not to dwell on them. Although, if you learn from them and use them in a positive way, I think they can help you in the future.”

Not that Anita spends too much time thinking about what’s to come, she’d far rather concentrate on the here and now.

“Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy… that’s my philosophy!” she laughs. “I never thought, when I started out, that I’d do what I did – and am still doing.

“My advice is to enjoy life as much as you can and try to take the knocks on the chin. But then again, if you instinctively have doubts about something then don’t do it. Being with people – learning together, working together, loving, laughing – that’s what is valuable. It’s what brings the sunshine into your life.”

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