Pictures © Brian Aris
From the window of her spotless North London home, Lynda Bellingham can see the beautiful sunshine outside and can’t quite believe that soon she’ll no longer be here to enjoy it.
“I’m not frightened of dying,” insists the 66-year-old actress, author and charity campaigner who’s decided it’s time to tell people the type of cancer she’s been battling for the past 14 months is bowel cancer. It’s terminal and she plans to stop her gruelling treatment soon.
“What I am frightened of is how to say goodbye...” she adds sadly.
“You always see these wonderful plays where everyone’s gathered round the deathbed but even as an actress myself, I don’t want any of that!”
“When the time comes – which God willing will be after Christmas not before – I hope I’ve chosen the right moments and said my proper goodbyes to people individually. Then I can just say one last simple ‘goodbye’ and ‘lots of love’ before the morphine sends me to sleep and I quietly slip away. No black lace and dramatic exits. I don’t want a to-do; I don’t even want to cry in front of them but I probably will.”
By ‘them’ she means husband Michael (59); grown-up sons Michael (31) and Robbie (26), stepson Brad (25), sister Jean and a few other close family members and friends who mean the world to her. Up to now they’ve been the only people to know how serious her illness is.
Forced to cancel a forthcoming play, Lynda had no alternative but to publicly reveal she had cancer in July last year. Ever since then she’s kept the exact details under wraps while they all came to terms with the shock.
“It’s such a relief to finally have it out in the open,” admits Lynda who acknowledges she’s not naturally the secretive type where emotions are involved; being more apt to wear her heart on her sleeve.
“I never deliberately deceived people – including Yours readers whose uplifting messages have made me feel a million times better – I just wasn’t ready to tell the whole truth and face the inevitable media questioning,” she explains.
‘I never deliberately deceived people – including Yours readers whose uplifting messages have made me feel a million times better…’
Even showbiz friends and colleagues (including Lynda’s Loose Women chums) who’ve sent loving messages haven’t known the news.
Though Lynda knew from the outset the grade 4 tumour on her bowel was serious and that she had lesions on her liver and lungs, she remained fiercely optimistic about the future, knowing she’d have to undergo chemotherapy treatment for the rest of her life.
“I’ll be a new woman by Christmas,” she promised in August 2013 and she meant it. Before Christmas arrived though, stomach pains caused by a blockage were becoming unbearable. Lynda was determined to go ahead with a festive Yours photoshoot, as seen on our cover of this issue, and tried to ignore the pain as best she could.
But all her family Christmas plans changed when she was forced to spend it in the London Clinic after undergoing an emergency, lifesaving operation on December 13. Lucky to be alive, she was left with a stoma.
“I don’t do things by halves!” she laughs while admitting her worst pain had been “a bit like giving birth to an elephant” and “I’ve never been so frightened in my life.”
Nevertheless, from her hospital bed on December 25, she directed her culinary-challenged husband as he attempted to produce the family Christmas lunch she insisted had to go ahead in her absence.
“When nurses caught me crying (and believe me when I wasn’t crying I was keeping tears at bay) they assumed it was because of the cancer but I had to explain it was because I couldn’t do my Christmas lunch!” she laughs. It was a bitter disappointment, especially because for the past few years Lynda had been away from home for Christmas as she was appearing in panto.
It is also why this year – terminal cancer or not – she’s absolutely determined to be home with her loved ones. “I have to make Christmas Day. It’s all planned, but it is in the hands of the gods,” she admits. As a reluctant concession to her health though she won’t attempt to cook it herself.
“I’ve booked a hotel for lunch, then we’ll come back here and do pudding and presents at home. (I’ll shop for the stockings in November). Then I’ve done everything I set out to do.”
“The good thing about dying like this is that you can plan,” she says.
As far as she can plan, she has. Typically, Lynda has drawn up her plans with other people’s feelings in mind including finances and her funeral which is still a ‘work in progress’ when we speak.
She’s decided she doesn’t wish to put family and friends through the ordeal of having to read in public or travel to Somerset, where she’ll be buried in a pre-paid double plotand is planning a more convenient London ‘knees up’.
“You have to decide whether you have a funeral for the people left behind or for yourself and I think it has to be for those left behind. I wouldn’t force anybody to do a reading or sing a song when they’re feeling vulnerable, but if they want to they can.”
“I am toying with the idea of getting ‘There’s no business like showbusiness’ bashed out at the end when it all goes quiet though to make them laugh,” she chuckles.
One of the major things Lynda set out to do following her diagnosis was write an honest book that she hopes will inspire people suffering from cancer like her. Despite her pain and sickness, she managed to do that between chemotherapy sessions during July and August.
The resulting memoir There’s Something I’ve Been Dying To Tell You, is on sale now. Littered with Lynda’s trademark optimism, humour and sense of the ridiculous, there’s no attempt to hide her sadness, pain and the dark, fearful, tearful nights beneath the duvet.
“It is a book about life and death and dealing with whatever you’re handed. I’ve learnt so much during my illness and I hope I am a better person for it even if it is a bit too late.”
“Looking back at my life, I think my sense of humour has been my luckiest attribute. During the dark times (Lynda’s first husband cheated on her and she suffered domestic abuse during her second marriage) I had to see the funny side.”
Lynda, who was adopted as a baby says, “When I was younger nothing was ever mediocre. I was either up or down. But once I had children I was in a different place. It was never about me again.”
And now in her final months, her prayers are all for all her precious boys – including her much-loved third husband Michael, who she hopes will meet someone else and marry again.
Though she admits she’s a bit of a fair-weather Christian who goes to church for the ‘ big ones’ – Christmas and Easter – she does have a faith; though it has been tested.
‘I’ve learnt so much during my illness and I hope that I'm a better person for it’
“I have found it very difficult to pray like I used to, but I am not frightened of dying and that has to do with my faith. I honestly can’t say I’m expecting a man with a big beard greeting me up there at the pearly gates though.”
“But I pray for my boys and I still trust He will come up with something lovely for them all when I’m no longer here, even if it’s only that they find acceptance and get on with their lives.”
Though Lynda herself has found complete acceptance about dying, it is harder for them, she acknowledges.
“The trouble with pain is you can’t see beyond it and this latest bout has been a stretch too far for me. I don’t want to die and of course I have regrets. There are lots of things I haven’t done I’d like to have done. I’m a little bit miffed I never won my Oscar or that Michael and I never got to travel as we’d planned. But I now accept I am going to die in the next few months, weeks even.”
Her decision to call a halt to chemotherapy around November in order to pass away by the end of January was made recently. “My oncologist made it quite clear that if I stopped having chemo I would probably last eight weeks. In order to reverse the stoma I would have to curtail chemo for the operation, so that kind of said it all.”
“It was a relief. The chemotherapy was killing me anyway and I felt toxic. The palms of my hands had turned black and my mouth was full of ulcers. I’m not a quitter but I recognise when I am beat.”
‘If I can get over Christmas I’ll be happy. Whatever happens after that I accept’
“If I can get over Christmas I’ll be happy. Whatever happens after, I accept. I do see tomorrow as another day but equally I’m ready... It’s a bit like having your suitcase packed waiting to be called in to have a baby!”
Not that she’s sitting around waiting to be called. Far from it. Before we speak at 10am, she’s already stripped the beds, washed the towels and ordered the weekly supermarket shop online.
In her wardrobe, she’s started to attach labels bearing the names of friends and relatives she thinks will suit her items of clothing.
“I can’t sit still; everything’s spick and span for them after I’ve gone and I rather like the idea of people walking round in little bits of me when I’m no longer here. I’ve cleared the decks,” adds Lynda, who intends to die at home.
After we’ve finished chatting she’s taking her sons out to lunch, and she’s told them they can ask her anything they like that’s troubling them about the whole situation.
Hopefully she will be able to take them away on holiday to Tenerife in November after visiting Corfu with Michael. Unable to get travel insurance, she’s undeterred by the practicalities of creating lasting happy memories for her loved ones.
“As long as I’m near an airport and can take a swig of morphine and jump on a flight back quickly, I refuse to worry.”
“After all this might all go on for another six months and then it all gets rather embarrassing!”
Should that happen and she has time to squeeze in another updated memoir, she’s even chosen the title: ‘Hang on! There’s something I forgot to mention…!’
- Lynda’s book, There’s Something I’ve Been Dying to Tell You, is published by Coronet, priced £20.
This isn’t goodbye to Yours though, Lynda has decided to carry on writing her column for as long as she is able – we hope there are many more to come.