Emma Cowing: Saunders is bonkers to gamble on health

AT FIRST glance, the picture is anything but shocking. An attractive, fifty-something woman, bundled up against the cold, smiles happily as she puffs on a slim white cigarette.
Jennifer Saunders. Picture: Ian GeorgesonJennifer Saunders. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Jennifer Saunders. Picture: Ian Georgeson

So far, so unremarkable. Except that the woman is Jennifer Saunders, and three years ago, she was given the all-clear from cancer.

Saunders has always been straightforward about her illness. Recently, she told Jonathan Ross: “You don’t have to be brave to have it [cancer], you just get it. It’s not like a battle, you have to just submit to the process of treatment.”

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She went through the mill with it, too, undergoing six months of intravenous chemotherapy and a course of the powerful drug Herceptin. She also lost her hair.

In her book Bonkers: My Life in Laughs, she wrote of how “there are times when you want to cry all day” and revealed that one of her coping mechanisms while going through chemo was to drink vodka with a friend.

I know what it’s like to have a second chance at life, having nearly lost mine five and a half years ago while covering the war in Afghanistan. And I know, too, that life is not a trite Hollywood movie where the heroine, trembling and grateful, rises from her hospital bed and vows to live a blameless, vice-free life dining only on ethically traded sprout tops and alkalised, organically filtered rain clouds.

Almost losing your life can make you reckless. It can make you feel invincible, and give you a new-found appreciation for making the most of everything around you – even the bad stuff. Life is short is one of the world’s most common epithets, but for the second-chancers, it takes on a different and darker meaning.

There is something defiant about the pictures of Saunders with her cigarette; a V-sign to the illness that caused her all that misery, perhaps. An illness which, as she wrote in her own book, brought her to the brink.

“My lowest point came when I lost all my hair; every eyelash, every follicle… I felt chemical. I felt like a chemical,” she wrote.

“Then I got a terrible rash all over my face. They think it was a reaction to the Herceptin. It was horrible. I felt like a great big overgrown baby with pimples all over my face. A big, horrible, red-faced baby.”

Perhaps, then, it is no wonder that three years on, healthy and happy, with an Ab Fab film in the pipeline and a well-received autobiography recently published, Saunders has considered a packet of cigarettes and thought – as others do when weighing up the pros and cons of a strawberry tart after a roast dinner – “Sod it. I’m having one.”

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To a certain extent, I understand this. A life of ethically traded sprout tops isn’t really much fun.

There is a wonderful line in the brilliant and recently maligned Blackadder Goes Forth, set in the First World War, where Captain Blackadder faces the firing squad. He says: “Can I ask you to leave a pause between the word ‘aim’ and the word ‘fire’? Thirty or forty years perhaps?”

This is how I feel now about the rest of my life. Having heard the word “aim”, I am desperate for as long a pause as possible before that finger pulls the trigger. That doesn’t mean not enjoying life – and vices – and fun. But it does mean striking a balance. Not drinking four bottles of wine in a night. The odd run. (Slightly) less cheese.

Everyone has the right to do what they want with their own body, of course, but when yours has nearly given up on you, you find that other people are quite invested in it, too. My family and friends reacted with horror that they nearly lost me. I don’t want to put them through that again for a very, very long time.

We all know that smoking is hideously addictive – as bad as heroin, some studies say. Weaning yourself off the fags, particularly when they have been long-term friends, there in times of trouble, a handy punctuation during daily life, is hard. But thanks to e-cigarettes, nicotine replacement therapy and the willingness of the NHS to support those who want to quit, it is easier now to give up the single thing that will affect your health more than almost any other daily legal habit than it has ever been before.

If Saunders feels she is being defiant, smoking in the face of cancer, then all power to her. But I believe it to be reckless behaviour simply because I couldn’t – now – imagine doing something that could so clearly, and dangerously, narrow the gap between “aim” and “fire”. You might as well run headlong into the firing squad.