Chloe Smith MP: ‘It’s gruelling to keep having these horrid drugs that make you feel rubbish’
“That’s right,” confirms Chloe Smith matter-of-factly, “you’re looking at a wig and painted on eyebrows.” She’s sitting in her London home, not looking at all like someone with a wig and painted on eyebrows, nor someone you’d guess had been ill. The 38-year-old Government minister has, though, just completed seven rounds of chemotherapy to treat breast cancer and next month will undergo a single mastectomy and reconstruction surgery. This, during a pandemic and with two young children to look after, might faze the best of us. Smith admits she has “absolutely” felt fearful and anxious since her cancer diagnosis last year, but externally she’s lost none of her brisk, best-foot-forward energy. “I’ve had plenty of tears and plenty of worry, but I prefer to deal with those by looking to the positive instead,” she says. The first time I spoke to the Conservative MP for Norwich North via video call, it was mid-November, shortly after she’d learned a lump in her right breast was indeed what every woman dreads. The prognosis was good from the outset, but she did wonder, pre-treatment, if she “might be blissfully ignorant of what lies ahead”. So was she? “Certainly, I’ve found it very difficult, tiring and wearing,” she says. “You become desperate to get out of it and move on from it, because it is very gruelling to keep going to the hospital, having these horrid drugs that make you feel rubbish go in every three weeks. Your body is doing its best to keep fighting back, but you can see various things happening [to it] that are pretty dispiriting.” The hair loss, for instance? “It is rather strange looking at myself in the mirror,” she says. “I have an older brother, and I basically see my brother looking back at me.” On the upside, her treatment appears to have gone well, with scans suggesting the cancer cells have reduced. Even the prospect of the mastectomy she takes in her considerable stride. “It’s not something I find directly troubling,” she insists. “The whole of the treatment programme has been geared towards ‘This is all a disease that can be cured’, so I’m very lucky I haven’t had to contemplate anything worse. I can’t imagine how to do that.” Smith and her husband have children aged four and two. Parenting them while undergoing cancer treatment has been a “real challenge” for Smith. As they’re not yet old enough to understand “life and death and illness”, one problem has been how to explain everything to them. “I thought it might be possible for my children just to pass this by,” says Smith. “What I’ve done with my son, my older child, is talk in terms of when am I not feeling well, when am I tired, when would I like a cuddle – and when do I need to step out and [have] someone else take care of things.” She has been warned it will take six weeks to recover from surgery, during which time she’ll be unable to lift her daughter or change nappies. Yet none of it has stopped her working. While she’s allowed herself the odd day off to cope with the worst effects of the cancer drugs, mostly she has carried on with her job as MP and Minister of State at the Cabinet Office. “It’s a bit unusual in cancer care [to work throughout]. My oncologist seems to be quite surprised by it,” she smiles. “But even if bits of my body are falling apart, my mind isn’t.” That much is clear from talking to Smith, who chooses her words carefully and converses in the safe terms of “opportunity”, “renewal” and “the right things” being in place to help the country move on from the ravages of Covid-19. Given what’s going on nationally, she knows things could have been worse for her. “I’ve had a very positive experience of the NHS and am very thankful for there having been seemingly little delay to my treatment,” she says. “That isn’t going to be the case for a number of people at the moment.” She’s keen to stress that the NHS is open for business; that “there’s no need to hang back, or think it’s not possible” to get health problems checked. But the reality is it can still be frustratingly difficult to secure a face-to-face GP appointment. Hospitals continue to deal with a backlog of referrals and treatments. “Every trust or hospital or surgery will be looking now at how they can get back to normal service and make sure they are providing what is needed in the community,” says Smith. Yet doctors themselves say they worry about missing vital clues when the patient isn’t there in the room with them. She acknowledges “terrible trade-offs” were faced when normal health services ground to a halt as the NHS tackled Covid. But it’s not in her nature to dwell on the past – even the very recent one.