If you enjoy listening to local radio in West Yorkshire, you may recently have caught a Saturday evening series of 30-minute interviews, featuring people from across the area, sharing their stories and experiences of living with and beyond a cancer diagnosis.
The programmes – entitled Cancer Journeys – are led by Jacqui Drake, herself a patient who is living with stage 4 malignant melanoma after a recurrence of her cancer after 17 years.
For Jacqui (57), who lives in Apperley Bridge, working with the local media to raise awareness of cancer; signs and symptoms and the challenges which patients face, such as shielding during the pandemic, is nothing new.
She has featured in the Bradford Telegraph and Argus, is a familiar face on BBC Look North and has worked with BBC Radio Leeds as well as Bradford Community Broadcasting, which covers the whole of West Yorkshire.
Cancer Journeys is her latest project, and her interviewees have included a breast cancer patient from Baildon; a man who was diagnosed with testicular cancer aged 19 and 30 years on developed thyroid cancer, along with the Chair of Yorkshire Cancer Community, Sara Williamson.
“The thought of hosting a full 30-minute programme, rather than just being a guest and talking for a few minutes, was really daunting at first, but I’m really enjoying it,” said Jacqui. “It’s a great opportunity not only to flag up the importance of sharing stories and peer support, but also to raise awareness of signs and symptoms.
“It’s so important that during Covid, anyone who is concerned about something unusual for them still comes forward and seeks advice from their GP. The NHS is still very much here to help those who need it.”
Jacqui was living in Baildon back in 1993, when she spotted a small mole on her right leg. Her local practice nurse lived next door, and encouraged Jacqui to visit her GP. She was then referred to St Luke’s hospital where she was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and underwent a number of procedures to remove the cancer.
Jacqui, who ran the Debut Academy theatre school in Shipley for more than 20 years, was cancer free for the next 17 years and continued to enjoy both performing and teaching, both of which she has enjoyed with great passion and energy from the age of six.
In 2010, Jacqui developed a lump the size of a golf ball in almost exactly the same place on her right leg as her previous cancer and she sought medical advice straight away.
After a week of tests, a recurrence of the malignant melanoma was confirmed.
Three operations later and she was still able to continue with her dancing and choreography. A year later, the melanoma had spread to Jacqui’s lungs and she spent the next two years on oral chemotherapy.
Side effects included curly hair, where previously it had been straight, and a build-up of fluorescent yellow hard skin on her feet, the texture of which when removed Jacqui likens to candle wax.
By February 2015, the tumour in her right lung had escalated to such an extent that it was necessary to operate and remove the lung completely. Further complications occurred in early 2016 when Jacqui was admitted with difficulty breathing, and was diagnosed with pneumocystis pneumonia, a serious fungal infection of the lungs.
Jacqui is now living with stage 4, incurable cancer. Her performing skills have stood her in good stead in running Jacqui’s Million, a charity she set up to raise £1million for the Bexley Wing at St James’ Hospital in Leeds, where she has received much of her treatment. She is still involved in amateur theatre, choreographing and directing her own productions to raise more much-needed funds for Jacqui’s Million.
“It's tricky with just one lung but I have learned to adapt and I still use my high energy to its absolute max!” she said. “Walking up hills are stairs can be an issue but I take my time and just breathe!
“I still manage to live life to the full,” said Jacqui. “I continue with my immunotherapy and other drugs for the side effects, but I remain positive and I’m living every day to the full – as anyone who knows me will confirm!
“The life expectancy for an average person with my condition is usually one year – but as my specialists have told me, I am far from average! I personally believe in the power of positive thinking, and it helps me tremendously.”
Jacqui was the winner of a Community Award at the Yorkshire Women Volunteer Awards in 2019 and achieved Third Place in the Giving Above and Beyond Award at the Yorkshire Inspire Awards in November of the same year.
Said Jacqui: “Some would say I have been extremely unlucky. I say I am blessed as I was referred to St James’ and I continue to receive excellent treatment there. I want to give back to the team there who work tirelessly for the benefit of others.”