'I've been given a second chance… the sun is always shining'04/03/2022
‘I’ve been given a second chance. It feels as if the sun is always shining’: Nicki Chapman reveals the joy of learning the brain tumour she named Burt after it was diagnosed in 2019 has vanished
- TV presenter Nicki Chapman, 55, was diagnosed with a brain tumour 3 years ago
- BBC presenter used humour to handle her diagnosis, naming the tumour Burt
- She is now cancer free and is grateful for her life and the support of the NHS
TV presenter Nicki Chapman has a way of making grave news more bearable — by using humour. When diagnosed with a brain tumour three years ago, she called it Burt the B****** and steeled herself against tears.
The tumour was successfully removed a fortnight later, but a tiny sliver — bound up in her cerebral veins — was too tricky and perilous to excise. And although Nicki, her good health restored, resumed her life with typically cheerful gusto, the niggling worry that a bit of Burt remained and he might rise again persisted.
She had — figuratively — dispatched that sliver to ‘a filing cabinet in the back office of my mind’. But his presence niggled. How could it fail to?
Nicki Chapman, 55, (pictured) was diagnosed with a brain tumour three years ago. The TV presenter explains how she handled this, including naming the tumour Burt
How wonderful, then, that while filming in a field of pigs for BBC show Escape To The Country, the news came that Burt had just disappeared. Vanished. Vamoosed. Gone. Since then, although she was always an optimist, life has had an even rosier glow.
‘I’ll never be a full-out rebel,’ laughs Nicki, ‘Even a vanishing brain tumour wouldn’t make me one, but I have had pink extensions in my hair. And look at my nails!’ They are varnished in two-tone pink.
‘I haven’t got a wish list but I’ve done some amazing things. I’ve been to Glastonbury for the first time and [husband] Shacky and I have seized every chance to go away together; to Sweden, the South of France, to see old friends.
‘It feels as if the sun is always shining. I’ve always been determined to live my best life, but there are subtle differences now. I try to put a positive spin on life. I don’t associate with people who bring me down.
‘The other day I thought: “Hang on. I’ve been given a second chance. If I’d been born 50 years earlier I probably wouldn’t be here now, or I might be severely disabled.”
‘More than anything I’m grateful.’ She recalls the day the news came that the tumour had, inexplicably, disappeared.
‘I’d had a check-up scan last September and my lovely consultant, neurosurgeon David Peterson said, “It’s looking good.” But we agreed to have another chat when he’d looked more at the results.
‘I was in the field a few days later and I’d told the film crew that my consultant was going to ring. So tactfully they moved away when the call came through, as you never know if the news will be good or bad.
‘Then Mr Peterson said, “It’s gone. We can see the scar tissue but your brain is back to where it should be.” The tears just came into my eyes. I said, “Can I actually say, “I don’t have a brain tumour any more?”
Pictured just after her brain op, Nicki says the first sign that all was not well came in March 2019 when she noticed a change in her vision
‘He replied, “We still have to monitor you, but yes, you can say you don’t have it if it’s important to you.”
‘I said, “Yes it is, because when I say I’ve got a brain tumour my travel insurance rockets to over £1,000!” And he just burst out laughing and said, “Yes, then I can confirm you haven’t got one.” And I started crying and laughing at once and the crew looked at me with tears of happiness rolling down my face.
‘I’d been pleased when all that remained of Burt was a sliver, but when there was nothing left of him at all I was ecstatic. It’s a miracle, isn’t it? I said to Mr Peterson, “Is it unusual?” and he said, “It does happen sometimes, but we don’t know why.”
‘I said, “Thank you” to Mr Peterson, to the NHS, to Him upstairs — and I was probably more emotional than I’ve been since I was diagnosed. Perhaps it’s the relief. It was such a wonderful, life-changing moment. I’m so grateful.
‘It’s like a weight has been lifted. Before the scan I prepared myself. If someone had said “Your time’s up” I’d have been very grateful for what I’d had.
‘I don’t want to sound worthy, but I thought: “I’ve had a lovely life, all in all; amazing family and friends and an incredible career; one I never thought I’d have.”’
Yet here we are today and that huge burden of worry is lifted. She recalls calling her 55-year-old husband Shacky — record company executive and band manager Dave ‘Shack’ Shackleton — to tell him Burt had gone.
‘He was cycling in Scotland for charity. It was awful weather and he was up a mountain. He shouted to his friends, “She’s clear!” and he just sobbed. He was so relieved. His cool, calm veneer had broken.
‘When he got home we cracked open the champagne and guzzled the lot to celebrate the demise of Burt — and Shacky cooked dinner. Even now, the euphoria has not worn off.’
The pair have no children, but she recalls the reaction of her mum Carol and dad Barry, both 80 and amicably divorced, to the news of Burt’s disappearance.
‘I said “Guess what? He’s gone!” and they had a good cry. When I was diagnosed they processed the news in a very logical way. No histrionics, no tears. I knew they’d be supportive and I was amazed how calm they were.
‘But it wasn’t until I told them the tumour had gone that Mum told me she’d put down the phone and wailed. Dad had been desperately worried too, because when he was 14 he’d lost his own father to a brain tumour.’
Nicki pictured with her husband Shacky, who she describes as an ‘absolute pillar of strength’ and a ‘remarkable man’
‘Shacky,’ she says, ‘has been an absolute pillar of strength. He is a remarkable man with a steely inner resolve I never suspected.
‘I can’t imagine what it must be like living with someone with a life-changing condition — had the roles been reversed I’d have been in bits — but he was steadfast.
‘I knew he was a good man — we’ve been married for 23 years — but I have such respect for the way he supported me. If I cried he didn’t join in. He was my rock.’
I first met Nicki, 55, three years ago, days after surgery to remove her tumour. I’d been amazed by her cheerful resilience, expecting her to be wan and listless.
When I arrived at her spacious Victorian home in West London, she was standing in her sun-filled garden in a bright summer dress, laughing; her blonde hair glossy, her skin glowing. She looked, I remarked then, as if she had just returned from holiday, rather than recuperating from a four-hour op to remove a tumour the size of a golf ball from her brain. The speed of her recovery had astonished the medics as much as herself.
It is easy to forget that privately she endured dark days. The onset of the symptoms of her tumour had been sudden and unnerving. The first sign that all was not well came in March 2019 when Nicki noticed a change in her vision.
‘I couldn’t seem to move my eyes across a line of words to read them on my computer,’ she told me. ‘And I struggled to type a response to emails. Shacky said I was probably just tired. ‘Then I went for coffee with a girlfriend and asked her: “Do I look funny to you? I’m only looking at you with one eye.” But she said I looked fine.’
Memory lapses added to her disquiet. ‘I went to do a voice-over for Escape To The Country and got lost walking to the BBC. It was such a familiar route and I was an hour late. I also couldn’t remember the name of John, the producer. I’ve known him for 15 years. I had to look him up on my phone as I went up in the lift.
‘Then I realised my speech was affected. I was talking about a holiday we’d just had in Dubai. I could see the word Dubai in my mind, but struggled to say it. But I shrugged it off; I told myself it must be the menopause.’
The next day she had a dinning headache and couldn’t read text on her computer. She rang her GP who said it could be a stroke and that Nicki should go at once to A&E at Charing Cross Hospital.
‘When we got there they saw me within ten minutes. They swung into action, took bloods and scans and I began to think: “This is serious.” Then they called a neurosurgeon and he said: “You haven’t had a stroke. It’s a brain tumour and you’ve had it for years.”
‘I was in a cubicle with Shacky and I felt complete shock.
‘Shacky went pale. A big, fat tear ran down my face. I said: “I’m really sorry I’m upset. Just tell me what I need to know,” and the doctor was fantastic and said I’d need more tests, an MRI scan and surgery.’
The scan disclosed a tumour on the back, left-hand side of her head, a meningioma that grows on the membranes surrounding the brain. But there was heartening news, too: it seemed to be benign.
‘When Mr Peterson told me this, I felt I’d been given my life back,’ says Nicki.
Nonetheless, the days that followed, as she awaited the operation, were the bleakest of her life. She told no one but close friends and family about the tumour and began, ‘to put my house in order’.
She updated her will and told Shacky of her wishes should the worst happen during the op. ‘They’d said I could suffer a bleed on the brain during surgery and I told him: “If anything goes wrong, I don’t want to be resuscitated and come back in a body I can’t use”.
‘I knew there were other risks: that I might lose the sight in one eye and my speech and mobility could be affected. I was told I wouldn’t be able to drive due to the risk of seizures, but frightening as this all was, I knew I’d cope.’
She developed a strategy for dealing with bleak days: ‘I had a 30- second rule: I couldn’t cry for longer than that or I wouldn’t stop.’
But when she came round from surgery and found she could still see, walk and speak — the relief was profound.
‘Mr Peterson came and I said: “Is that my handsome consultant?” He smiled and said: “We’re all right, Nicki. We’ve got most of it out.”’
Now even the smallest vestige of it has gone, Nicki is keenly aware of her good fortune. Others, of course, endure the worst of outcomes. Her eyes brim with tears when she considers Tom Parker of boy band The Wanted; who died of a brain tumour last week, aged just 33.
She worries that others, will find her jubilation hard to bear.
‘A lot of people don’t have the same prognosis and it can be upsetting to hear good news. It’s important we don’t lose sight of the importance of research,’ she says. Nicki now supports The Brain Tumour Charity.
It is this mix of empathy and kindness that endears her to people. When a judge on Pop Idol 20-plus years ago, she refused to find fault with even the most talentless amateur contestant.
She has been a fixture at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, presenting the BBC’s coverage of the annual extravaganza since 2006. There was a hiatus due to the brain surgery and another year’s absence because of the pandemic. This year, though, she will be back at Chelsea in May.
People warm to her. When Shacky took her to a rock gig a passer-by called to her: ‘F*** Burt! I’m so pleased he’s gone.’ It took her a second to remember Burt: she’d dispatched him so summarily from that filing cabinet. But she says it was lovely that people shared her delight at his departure.
Does she worry he’ll make another appearance. ‘Would he dare?’ she laughs. ‘He’s not on the guest list.’
- Nicki Chapma n is presenting for the BB C at the R HS Chelsea Flower Show from May 24-28.
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