Written by Joanna Forest

Health

I had breast cancer at 21

Joanna Forest was about to take the West End by storm when she became one of the youngest women in the UK to be diagnosed with breast cancer.

Joanna Forest
My ambition was always to be a successful solo performer. I’d been training since the age of 11 and appeared in the West End professionally. At the age of 21, things were looking good. I’d just starred in Michael Palin’s debut play, The Weekend, alongside Richard Wilson. Getting cancer that year was not part of the plan.

So much goes through your head when you find out you have cancer and are told you need treatment but even at 21 I don’t think you are old enough to fully comprehend what it might mean. My first worry was that I would lose all of my hair. Anyone who knows me knows I have really thick hair (in one interview it was even described as “epic” hair), so the thought of that going was a real concern. How would I continue working if this was the case?

Chemotherapy and radiotherapy were rotten and made me sick. I hated it. When I showed my radiation scar to my husband, James, many years later, he cried. But it was the physical surgery which has had the most lasting impact.

I initially had a lumpectomy that removed a discreet portion of breast tissue and left me with a large scar. Following that, I had a segmental mastectomy (which I have never previously told anyone about), which removed loads of tissue, lymph nodes and lining over the chest muscles.

I was eternally grateful for the operation eradicating the cancer, of course, but I was still very sad about my physical appearance, especially given my career ambitions as a performer. I felt weak and was anaemic for years, but never wanted to tell anyone why and I worried that people would think I was not up to the job, especially as my acting agent at the time told me not to talk to anyone about it for fear it would stop me getting roles.

“After being told by my agent to keep my cancer to myself, here I was openly talking about it to a group of strangers and really helping young girls like me.”

My confidence was absolutely shot to pieces. I didn’t want to see anyone, talk to anyone about it and the last thing on my mind was that I would have the mental strength to stand up on a stage by myself and sing. When I saw my idols looking so beautiful in their gorgeous dresses, I didn’t think I’d be able to do it. So I kept it all buried deep inside me.

Eventually, knowing that I would find it almost impossible to sing on my own, I realised the only thing that would get me on stage would be to do something with other people. So I got an audition for the part of Wendy in Peter Pan, starring Shane Richie as Captain Cook.

At the audition I was so, so nervous but I won the part. The costume allowed me to not get completely undressed in front of others and I loved it so much I went on to perform 13 seasons in the role.

The other jobs I had in this time were as the voice of a child’s toy, voicing one of the Powerpuff Girls for Cartoon Network, lots of plays for the Shaw Society, an independent film called Crab Island, where I played a blind girl, and a controversial appearance in a Yorkie ad with its now-dropped “It’s not for girls” campaign.

My favourite role was playing the role of Tommy Stubbins alongside Tommy Steele in a year-long tour of Dr Dolittle The Musical, where I made some amazing friends.

joannaI loved doing it but I knew deep down that I found a comfort zone I was too scared to break out of.

Hiding behind a role became rather easy, but deep down I always knew that I wasn’t really fulfilling my dreams. My confidence to perform solo was still at a real low.

It was when I came across the CoppaFeel! breast cancer awareness charity that everything changed. For the first time, as a ‘boobette’ volunteer, I was challenged with standing up by myself, as myself and telling an audience about my cancer experience.

After being told by my agent to keep my cancer to myself, here I was openly talking about it to a group of strangers and really helping young girls like me. My confidence then started to come back and in 2013 I met my husband, James, who asked me what I really wanted to do.

I told him that I wanted to sing as a solo artist and he urged me on to finally take control and chase my dream. I knew I’d have to free up Christmas and wave goodbye to Neverland. Not having that comfort blanket was terrifying but if I wanted to establish myself as a singer, I had to take big steps.

My first performance as a soprano solo singer was at a packed-out Freedom Bar in Soho at 1am in front of about 500 musical theatre graduates who were up for a huge night. Full of nerves, but supported by James, I sang Nessun Dorma. It seemed to go down really well, with the packed crowd joining in with the “Vincerò!”s at the end.

I came off to warm applause and cheers and felt so emotional that I had done it. More importantly, I had the bug to do it again. And again. I then did it again, a few weeks later with Paul Potts in a duet at The Palace Theatre, in a huge concert for CoppaFeel!.

The whole experience taught me that going through something like cancer can be terrifying and it can take away all your confidence but it can also encourage you to fulfil your dreams.

Joanna Forest’s debut album Stars Are Rising is released on Arts Records on 10 March.

@joannaforest

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Written by Joanna Forest

Joanna Forest is a classical crossover soprano. Her debut album Stars Are Rising is out now on Arts Records.