Life & Culture

Like Kate, I had abdominal surgery, then had to tell my children I had cancer

The Princess of Wales’ announcement last week brought back vivid memories for Gaby Koppel, whose story has very close parallels...


Gaby after chemotherapy

Watching Catherine Princess of Wales addressing the nation last Friday brought back a lot of difficult memories for me. Like Kate, I underwent abdominal surgery in my forties. Like her, very soon after I was diagnosed with cancer. And, like her, having to keep it secret also caused me a few problems – though in my case it didn’t result in the outbreak of myriad conspiracy theories or a media storm.

I was definitely never as poised as Kate appeared in the very moving video in which she broke her news. I’m sure having serried ranks of staff to support you does help, and being able to afford the best healthcare in the world must also be very comforting. But she still had to find the grace and composure to face the camera alone, while my devastating diagnosis left me walking round in a daze, even though it should have come as little surprise.

A year or two earlier I’d tested positive for a BRCA gene mutation, ten times more common in Ashkenazi Jews than the population at large. I was told it gave me an 80 per cent lifetime chance of contracting breast or ovarian cancer. Not fancying those odds, I’d had my ovaries removed. That was my abdominal surgery.

Then about a month later I found a lump in my right breast. Because of my genetic condition I was fast- tracked into a specialist unit. As the various examinations proceeded, the staff kept repeating, “It’s probably nothing”, thinking it would reassure me, which it didn’t. The biopsy seemed to be a bit of a challenge and by the time they’d dug around to get what they needed I was feeling quite bruised. It was the last business day before Christmas so there were decorations up, and the clinic was starting to empty for the holidays when they told me. Turns out it was actually something, after all.

Of course my first thought, just like the princess’s, was what do we tell the children? At the time ours were aged 12, eight and five. But there was an added complication because we were in the midst of preparations for the bat mitzvah of our eldest in mid-January. I didn’t want to share the news of my illness immediately, because I believed that would spoil the party and make me the focus when I wanted my daughter to be the star of the day. Like the Waleses, our wish to shield our children meant that we couldn’t impose knowledge on them along with the burden of having to keep it secret. So, just as Kate and William had to sit it out while the world around them went into a frenzy, we had to put up with some barbed comments and steely looks.

The bat mitzvah service was a huge success, all the more special for my husband Steve and me because of what only we knew. But the fact that the wider family had no idea what we were going through did cause ripples. We didn’t lay on a lunch on after kiddush on Saturday, or arrange a get-together for close family and friends that evening, as many people do when hosting a bar or bat mitzvah. Instead, as we stayed at home feeling a bit low, we detected some quite understandable broiges from people who had travelled a long way to be there to share our special weekend. We managed to rally our spirits for the party on the Sunday night. The band that played at our wedding, Klezmer Klub, did a rousing turn, helping to make the event both fun and deeply moving.

Once it was over, we shared our news with family, friends and work colleagues through the medium of telephone rather than distributing a video message to the world’s media, and the love and support poured in. When it came to telling the children, Steve is the one in our relationship with emotional intelligence and a willingness to talk about difficult subjects. The fact that he has since become a psychotherapist makes complete sense, because he’s really good at that stuff and I am not. So, he talked to the children about it, while I was still feeling numb and confused about what was happening to me and wondering whether I was going to survive.

Our stress spiked when my NHS consultant told us that the earliest available date for the surgery was late February. Seeing red, Steve quickly became my advocate, while my brother-in-law provided the most unexpected level of support. A doctor who practises as a psychiatrist in Melbourne, he had trained in the NHS and was wise to its ways. He instructed us to threaten to go private, “That’ll put them on their toes. And if you do have to follow through on it, I will pay.” Magically, a date for surgery suddenly became available within a fortnight.

I was very lucky in that my breast cancer was non-aggressive and had not spread, and the treatment I received was excellent. Which is probably why 20 years later I am here. We were also surrounded by wonderful friends who brought round food, took us away for breaks, and visited me in hospital. But unlike the cancer itself, my genetic condition is not going to go away. That has prompted more difficult conversations between us and the children. Each of our offspring has a 50 per cent chance of inheriting the faulty gene, because they get half of theirs from Steve and half from me. It’s the Russian roulette of family traits. But having been through the process myself, I hope that we can help our now grown-up children through the difficult decisions they may face in the future.

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