After a tough few years of heart and cancer scares and seeing her son fight meningitis, former Liberty X star Michelle Heaton is finally herself again. By Gabrielle Fagan
It’s hard to believe Michelle Heaton has ever had a care in the world as she laughs and plays with her two children, declaring: “I feel so lucky – I’m back to being me again”.
Looking glamorous and positively glowing with good health, her happiness is also undoubtedly mixed with profound relief because the TV presenter, singer and former Liberty X star believes she’s finally come through a traumatic three years.
During that time, she’s overcome a heart problem, faced the agonising decision to have radical surgery to reduce her risk of cancer, gone through the ordeal of fearing she would lose her baby son to meningitis, and, only a few months ago, finding a breast lump.
“I can’t really believe all of it has happened to me. It seems like such a miracle now that I feel in control, content and finally able to happily look forward to the future. It’s like getting my life back,” says Heaton, talking at the Dublin home she shares with three-year-old daughter, Faith, 18-month-old son, Aaron Jay, known as AJ, and her husband, Irish businessman and personal trainer, Hugh Hanley, 36.
“It’s been such a rough time, with what seemed like a never-ending cycle of crises, and although I don’t think I’ve ever uttered the words, ‘Why me?’ – I’ve never been one to feel sorry for myself or wallow in self-pity – I must admit I’ve often thought, ‘What else can possibly be around the corner?’”
Her ordeal began in 2012 when she was told she had a mutation of the Brac2 gene – which dramatically raises cancer risks, giving her an 80 per cent chance of developing breast cancer and a 30 per cent chance of ovarian cancer.
In common with Hollywood star, Angelina Jolie, who also has the gene, Heaton chose preventative surgery. She had a double mastectomy three years ago and a hysterectomy last October. An implant to monitor unexplained arrhythmia – an irregular heartbeat – which she’d worn for two years, was removed last year when doctors opted for regular check-ups rather than surgery.
But in March, Heaton’s hard-won peace of mind was cruelly shattered yet again.
“My whole focus throughout has been on the people I love. When I found I had the Brac2 gene, I knew I had to do everything in my power to ensure my children weren’t left without a mother, and Hugh wasn’t left without a wife,” says the 36-year-old, explaining her decision to have surgery.
“Making them a priority carried me through, but when I felt this small, pea-shaped lump in my breast, that really knocked me for six.”
“Waiting for the results of the tests on the lump was so hard,” she says.
Heaton, who had reconstructive breast surgery following her mastectomy, endured an eight-week wait until she was told the lump was benign. “I had another lump previously and that’s fine too. They’re not going to remove them. I’ll have regular checks to ensure they don’t progress, particularly because I’m taking hormone medication after my hysterectomy,” she says.
With her characteristic positive attitude – she’s spoken in public about her experiences in a bid to help others and raise awareness of the Brac2 gene – she says: “Perhaps it was a good thing as it was a real wake-up call which I probably needed because I’d got a bit relaxed about checking myself.”
Throughout she’s been supported by husband, Hugh (they married in 2010), who she describes as “my guardian angel”.
The couple, who recently talked about their life together on reality show, Seven Days With... on ITVBe, met when she was having a troubled time, which she described as a “downward spiral” after her divorce from Andy Scott-Lee, brother of Steps singer, Lisa, and the end of Liberty X.
“I’m a true believer in fate and that everything happens for a reason. Hughie came along at just the right time, and I needed someone to help me on my way,” she says.
“I think the stresses we’ve endured would have split up lots of couples, so it’s a true testament to how strong we are. It’s made us even closer and I cannot imagine my life without him. He was wonderful when, following the hysterectomy, I plunged into premature menopause and was all over the place with my moods. I was very down, emotional and finding it hard to cope, but he was so patient until hormone treatment helped me level. He’s not a fan of the limelight and he keeps me grounded.”
Hugh was by her side when, at five weeks old, AJ was rushed to hospital with meningitis, which doctors initially diagnosed as the life-threatening meningococcal strain, but later proved to be the less serious viral form.
“AJ’s such a lovely boy and even though doctors warned us there was a small risk there might be some lasting effect from the illness, he’s absolutely great and developing well. We have no worries about him at all. In fact, he’s a little terror and both kids keep me busy and on my toes,” says Heaton, who’s currently working with toy manufacturer HTI to launch the Mamas & Papas Armadillo doll’s pushchair.
“Faith is at that age where she wants to be just like me and loves copying everything I do. When I take AJ out in the pushchair, she adores having her scaled-down one to push alongside me. I feel so blessed to have them both but I wouldn’t have risked my health to have more.
“If I’d delayed the hysterectomy for that reason and God forbid, developed ovarian cancer, then my kids could have turned around and said, ‘Mum, why did you wait and not have the operation?’ I never wanted that on my conscience.”
She endeavours to put to the back of her mind the fact the flaw in her genetic make-up is hereditary; there’s a 50-50 chance she has passed the mutated gene to her daughter.
“She can’t be tested until she’s 18, so hopefully by that time there’ll be a cure and I won’t even need to ask her what choices she wants to make.”
Although she discounts rumours she might appear in the new series of Strictly Come Dancing she says: “I’d love to be in a show like that, of course, because it would be a lovely way to celebrate being feminine and glamorous again after all that’s happened but, sadly, I haven’t had an offer.”
Gutsy and with a seemingly un-crushable optimism Heaton says: “It may sound weird, but I feel very, very lucky even after all I’ve been through. At least I had the choice to have the operations, which was daunting, but you can get through it and now I have so much to look forward to.
“Lots of people have struggles and face difficulties in their life, and just because mine were health issues doesn’t make them any worse than anyone else’s. I want to show people that you can lead a normal life, which is just what I am doing. Every day I appreciate what I’ve got: a wonderful husband and two beautiful children. There’s so much to be thankful for.”
• Michelle Heaton is working with HTI to launch the Mamas & Papas Armadillo Junior Dolls Pushchair, £49.99, from Argos