Q&A: Michelle Heaton and BRCA2

Michelle Heaton

Michelle Heaton, a former member of Liberty X, has a mutated hereditary BRCA2 gene - meaning she has an increased risk of getting certain types of cancer.

To lower this risk she has gone through various difficult operations, and has had both breasts removed (a mastectomy) as well as her ovaries and womb (ovariectomy and hysterectomy). We spoke to Michelle about her experiences - and found out how she stays bodypositive.

Hi Michelle! Do you think you're a body positive person?

I think my positivity comes in waves... Considering what my body has gone through, yes, I'm confident in myself. But like every woman out there I have my down days.

Have there been times in your life when you've struggled with your body image?

Absolutely. In the band I had to deal with the scrutiny of being the "fat one" - not that I was ever really fat, just a bit bigger then the normal pop star. Being a lot shorter and plumper then Jess and Kelli didn't help either!

Liberty X
Michelle with Liberty X in 2003

And when I lost weight I would get "she's gone too far, she's gym obsessed" - I couldn't win. I try not to let it get to me but I'm only human, and no matter how strong I appear I'm a big softy inside.

You've been through a difficult double mastectomy, hysterectomy and ovariectomy. Can you explain what that involves?

I am BRCA2 positive so I have an extremely high risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer. So, in 2012 I decided to have a double mastectomy and reconstruction to reduce that risk. And after having AJ [Michelle's second child] I had a total hysterectomy, plunging me into early menopause and taking away the chance to have more children.

Did going through that experience affect your body image? If so, how?

I didn't want it to. I tried to get my head around it before the operations but when I came round, the realisation of having scars in places that could be seen in bikinis and a rather unflattering "hysterectomy pouch" has affected me mentally and the way I wear clothes and swimwear.

I know what I did was for the right reasons but it's only natural to feel down some days, though I tend to keep those days to myself.

How has it affected your day to day life?

To stay positive I don't worry that every pain or lump is cancer, though I still get checked as the risks are minimal but not eliminated. And of course I've had the side effects of menopause... I'm a grumpy wife, lol!

Has it affected your career at all?

Yes, I'm definitely not seen as sexy any more! But I'd love it if I were. Why should what I've gone through and being a mum be held against me?

But on the flip side, I've managed to use my "notoriety" to put the word out there and meet the most inspirational people who work effortlessly to stop BRCA and help give those, like my kids, a better future then I had.

Is there any advice you'd give someone else who's facing the same difficult choices?

It's a very personal choice. Surgery is not for everyone, and some choose to get checked regularly. Look at your relatives and what age they were when they had, if they had, cancer. That can help make your mind up.

Mine were late 30s so I knew it was as a matter of time for me if I were to get it. And talk - to anyone who will listen. Don't bottle it up... But that's easier said then done because I never want to upset my nearest and dearest with my problems. Sometimes it's easier to talk to strangers.

Is there anything you do to cheer yourself up when you're feeling down?

I definitely find release at the gym, working out, going for a run. It releases endorphins and makes me feel like I'm doing something good for myself. Even 45 mins a day makes all the difference. And doing something fun with the family... Seeing my kids' smiles... That cheers me up more then anything.

As a high profile woman, do you feel pressured to look a certain way?

I put a certain amount of pressure on myself as a lot of women do! It's hard, because no matter what the industry says or how things have evolved, you still want to look your best. It makes you feel good as a person - and as a woman. Whether it's an outfit, a new pair of shoes, or just having had some time to spend doing my hair, it makes me feel better about myself.

If there were one thing you could change about society's expectations of women/women's bodies, what would it be?

That everyone is different - we were all made different and that means no one has the same body type or face shape or hair colour and so on. I think we applaud the skinny, rich and famous too much... Have you have ever seen that film with Jennifer Garner, where she turns 30 overnight? The ending of that film is how magazines should be sometimes.

I appreciate we all want to read about gossip and celebs - I do too. But I really don't appreciate reading things like "You can look like this when you do this..." when it's a 20 something year old without kids and no real life turmoil telling us mums how to lose weight. It's not quite the same and it's not a real reflection on what it's like.

Finally, what advice would you give a young person struggling to accept themselves and their body?

Remember you are you and we are all different. Don't compare yourself to a supermodel! It's just not realistic.

If you are unhappy in yourself, look for the reason why. It may not be a weight thing or a hair problem, it may be deeper then that like an unhealthy relationship or the wrong job.... Sometimes look at the bigger picture, fix it, and you body image will change with it!