When Penny Lown took part in a controversial cancer campaign, she had been told her illness was terminal and she should simply try to enjoy the time she had left.
Suffering from ‘unfashionable’ pancreatic cancer, the mother of three didn’t hesitate when asked to feature in a national TV advert in which patients pleaded: ‘I wish I had breast cancer.’
The haunting black and white campaign aimed to highlight the appalling survival rates for that form of the disease compared to others, but was attacked by critics for pitting one cancer against another.
Former midwife Mrs Lown, 52, and two fellow sufferers who featured in the ad were vilified on social media.
Miraculously, 18 months on, Mrs Lown has defied the odds and has been told she is cancer free. But the other two – Kerry Harvey, 24, and Andy Luck, 42 – have both died.
Now Mrs Lown has spoken for the first time about their deaths and being given a second chance at life. ‘Some people didn’t understand why we had to do the campaign, but we never hesitated,’ she told the Daily Mail.
‘Yes it was shocking, but it had to be. Every time I picked up a magazine there was an article about breast cancer, we all had the unfashionable cancer which no one seemed to care about. Being part of something which shocked to raise some awareness was a privilege and none of us had any doubts. The prognosis for all of us at that time was very bleak, but it still hurts so much that Kerry and Andy both died. We bonded over the campaign and all became very close.
I was so frightened, and at times Andy was the only one who could help because he understood. Sometimes I would spend all night texting him.
‘Andy had gone back to work and was doing well and it shocked me so much that he died. Kerry was unbelievably brave. For someone so young she was incredible.
‘I’ve 100 per cent no regrets about doing the campaign, but it’s a very strange feeling to be the only person left, it’s a very lonely place. But then I have to be grateful. I have been given this chance and I have to take it.’
Mrs Lown was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2013, a few months after marrying her partner Terry, 58, a designer for a sportswear company.
The disease is the 11th most common cancer in Britain, with 9,000 people diagnosed each year. It is also one of the most deadly, with only 3 per cent surviving for five years, against 87 per cent for breast cancer and 98 per cent for testicular cancer. It initially causes few symptoms and Mrs Lown’s cancer was inoperable and had spread to a lung when it was found.
She had chemotherapy which left her too ill to attend the funerals of Miss Harvey and Mr Luck. But it was working. Following more treatment, in May last year she was well enough to have her pancreas removed in a seven hour operation which left her cancer free.
She has to have six monthly scans to check her progress, but the self-confessed exercise addict is back at the gym and her future looks bright. ‘I am 100 per cent convinced I survived because of how fit and healthy I was,’ she said. ‘And I really wanted to live. I would not give up.’
She said she has ‘re-evaluated’ her life and is training to be a yoga instructor, while she and her husband are moving from Farnham, Surrey, to Cornwall to be by the sea.