On a brisk November morning in 2021, Susie Cleverly, then 48, was standing in the bathroom of the Essex constituency home she shares with husband James, waiting for the shower to warm up. “It’s old-fashioned and takes forever,” she laughs. She yawned, stretched her arms above her head, and then froze as she caught sight of herself in the mirror. “Underneath my right breast, the skin was all dimpled,” she says. “I knew it wasn’t great.”
Under normal circumstances, she may have been tempted to ignore what she’d seen but, by chance, a friend had previously been diagnosed with breast cancer after seeing very similar changes. So, Susie walked straight back into the couple’s bedroom and asked James, “Look, have you seen this before?”
How did she feel? Panicked? Distraught? Not quite. She says: “This was on November 13, Remembrance Day weekend. The GP surgery was closed, so I said, ‘Let’s forget about it, enjoy the weekend and go to the doctor on Monday,’ and that’s exactly what we did.
“I think I knew, but I also thought I’ve got a lot going on and I can’t have this in my head as well.”
Encouraged by James, Susie called her GP and was given an appointment the same day. “He examined me and found a lump that I hadn’t been able to feel, and he could see the dimpling.
“He said, ‘I’m going to refer you to the breast clinic. Take someone with you because it’s probably going to be bad news.’ That was probably the scariest moment I had because it was now very real.
“I rang James who was on his way to the Foreign Office. I was crying and told him, “I’ve got cancer.” He immediately said, ‘I’m coming home,’ rang his office and cleared his diary. We took the dogs for a long walk and talked about it. I cried a lot. I think I got a lot of my tears out that day. Then we rang my parents, family and close friends.”
She also told her sons, Freddy, 20, and Rupert, 18, immediately. “I wanted them to know straight away. I rang Freddy at university. Then I told Rupert when he came home from school. I didn’t want them to find out from anyone else. I wanted to be the one to tell them and reassure them.”
Her “keep calm and carry on” approach might sound surprising, but as I discover, Susie Cleverly is a remarkably stoical person.
When I ring the doorbell of the couple’s home in south-east London, a cacophony of barking greets me. Susie answers the door, two friendly border terriers tumbling at her feet, her willowy frame elegantly clad in a silk-satin blouse and loose tweed trousers.
As she makes me coffee, her father-in-law, who lives with James and Susie, potters into the kitchen, and from upstairs I can hear Freddy as he packs to go back to university for his final year. Rupert is at sixth form. It’s very much a busy family home – “Sorry, it’s not the tidiest” – she says, leading the way into a cosy sitting room, where we find ourselves with a sofa and dog each.
Susie’s once long, blonde hair is now silvery, short and chic. It is not, however, the work of a Mayfair stylist. It is the result of months of chemotherapy.
A great honour
It has been, she admits, a tumultuous year. Just three weeks after spotting herself in the mirror, Susie was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. At the time, James, the MP for Braintree since 2015, was working at the Foreign Office under Liz Truss. Then everything changed. Susie says, “James was made Foreign Secretary on Tuesday September 6 and the Queen sadly died on the Thursday. Then it all kicked in.”
On the day before the Queen’s State Funeral, Susie met the new King and Queen Consort at Buckingham Palace, in a new black dress bought in a hurry at John Lewis. And after the funeral on Monday, she attended a reception for world leaders hosted by James. “It was a great honour to meet the King and Queen Consort,” she says. “He must have been shattered. I felt for him because I thought if it were me, the last thing I’d want to be doing is chatting to all these people. I’d want to curl up and mourn. It was a very sad time, and I was exhausted from having chemo the week before, but I think the adrenaline kept me going.”
As soon as the reception finished, the weary couple came home. “James cooked that night – he’s the cook in our house. He was going to New York the next day, so I was quickly ironing a few shirts, grabbing the bits and pieces he needed and trying to find a suitcase because everything had been so full-on until that point. It was our son’s 18th birthday the next day, too, so I had to get up really early to wrap presents before James left. It’s been crazy.”
The teamwork makes sense: James and Susie have been together for 29 years. When I say her Instagram account reveals them to be a hopelessly romantic couple, she laughs. “Yes, we are known for it,” she admits. The couple met when they were both studying at the University of West London. It was her first day and he served her at the student bar where he was working. They married in 2000 and Susie gave up work at an IT training company in the sales department when Freddy was born. She says: “We have such a strong bond, strong relationship and strong marriage. I couldn’t have done this without him.”
Familiar and vigilant
“This” refers to Susie’s gruelling experience of cancer. Which is the reason she is speaking to me today. For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she is keen to spread the word that breast cancer does not always present with a lump. Instead, she says, women should become familiar with their breasts and be vigilant for any changes. “Any change at all is key,” she says, urgently. “Get it checked out. Don’t put it off. If I hadn’t known that dimpling was a sign and seen a doctor, it might have been too late.”
Susie was diagnosed on December 3 at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital in London. However, three mammograms had failed to find her cancer. She later found out this was because she has a condition called “dense breasts” meaning that she has less fatty tissue in her breasts than normal, which makes it harder to spot tumours (about one in 10 women has dense breasts which is why it is particularly important for all women to be aware of any changes in their breasts). An ultrasound later revealed more than 12 tumours.
“The doctor told me they were springing up like weeds.” She was diagnosed with triple positive breast cancer, a type that accounts for about 10 per cent of diagnoses and which is likely to grow and spread faster than other types of breast cancers. But there was good news too: scans showed that her cancer had not yet spread to any other part of the body, meaning it was curable.
She was told she would be given chemotherapy and immunotherapy to try to shrink or eliminate the tumours, followed by a mastectomy and radiotherapy. After surgery, she would need a course of immunotherapy plus hormone treatment to suppress oestrogen and reduce the risk of recurrence.
“For me it was, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do about it. I want to be here, to live, but if I’m not here, I’m not going to know about it. It was harder for James and I could see a big change in him. When we had the all-clear, it was as if a big cloud lifted from him. He almost relaxed back into life again.”
However, Susie suffered terrible side-effects from treatment. “I was keen to get on with chemo because I figured the sooner I started, the sooner it would be over. But it wasn’t fun. I would have the drug, and hours later I could feel a tsunami of horror coming towards me.”
The first time this happened, in early January, she was in the kitchen with her family. She says: “The boys were shaving my hair. It was already falling out, so I thought we’d have some fun, creating silly hairstyles before taking it all off. Suddenly, my body felt heavy. I had the headache from hell. It was like the worst hangover times a million. I felt sick. I was shaking and aching. At 3am I woke up and was sick before I collapsed on the floor of the bathroom. James had to almost carry me back to bed. This went on all night. Every treatment was like this. I’d start to feel better about two days before my next cycle of chemo, then – whack! – it would happen again.”
She makes a scrabbling motion with her fingers. “I constantly felt as if I were in a deep hole trying to get out.”
The next chemo drug – docetaxel – was even worse. Her mouth became ulcerated to the point where it was agony to eat, drink or even speak. She lost feeling in her hands, her nails fell out, and she developed infected hives on her face. “In the end,” she says, “my doctors told me ‘Your body can’t take it’ and I had to be put on a less toxic drug.”
But there was never any question that James should give up work. “He has a really important job,” she says. “I told him, ‘Go to work. Let me focus on getting through each day.’ I would keep going with my support network of friends and family and when I really needed him, he was there. So, for a couple of weeks after my mastectomy, he was with me 24/7. And he’s always there emotionally because, wherever he is, he will always pick up the phone to me. And he checks in on me all the time. He has been so strong for me all the way through. He would go off to work and had this big job with all sorts of horrors happening, such as the war in Ukraine, and come home to a broken wife.”
Their difficult situation worked, she says, because of the “unbelievable” support of her friends and family. “I can’t tell them how grateful I am for everything they did for me. My mum would come to do my washing and ironing, and my sister would cook and help around the house. The doorbell would go and I’d find a lasagne on my doorstep. Gifts too. And the cards and flowers didn’t stop. It all lifted me.”
Susie’s surgery was scheduled for June 22. She was having a mastectomy with a reconstruction made from fat and tissue from her stomach, plus surgery to lift and reduce her other breast for symmetry. “I wasn’t worried about it. I was like, ‘Yeah, take it. No problem.’”
At first it appeared that the chemotherapy had destroyed all Susie’s cancer, but lab tests revealed another small tumour in her breast. This did not affect her prognosis, but it does mean she is on a recently approved drug – Kadcyla – to reduce the risk of recurrence. She says, “It makes me exhausted and sick and my skin has erupted again. But I’d rather be here with a few spots on my face than dead.”
Susie’s doctor has told her that she has an 88 per cent chance of living for the next five years. But she smiles: “He told me, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be here for 50 years yet.’” And there have, she says, “been a lot of good things about having cancer. My relationships with my friends and family have grown even stronger. My best friend rings me every day. It has brought out such kindness in people. I am particularly close to my sister who was diagnosed with breast cancer in February just a few months after me. We had a gene test because we thought there must be a connection, but it’s just a coincidence. She’s had a lumpectomy and radiotherapy and is doing really well.
“I’ve never been a great worrier,” she says, “but now I embrace everything. You can always be waiting for something better or something different to be around the corner, but anything can happen in the blink of an eye that changes everything. And that made me think, this is my life. Even if I’m cancer-riddled for the rest of it, I’ve got to embrace what I’ve got. I have beautiful children, a loving husband… I should just enjoy it.”
Breast cancer can cause a number of symptoms. See your GP if you notice a change to your breast that’s new or unusual for you. Anyone seeking information can speak to Breast Cancer Now’s nurses by calling the free helpline on 0808 800 6000