Marina Wheeler: ‘I’ll never forget the people who were there when I was in trouble’

Margarette Driscoll
·11-min read
Marina Wheeler, right, is raising awareness of cervical cancer with the help of Lara - Andrew Crowley/The Telegraph
Marina Wheeler, right, is raising awareness of cervical cancer with the help of Lara - Andrew Crowley/The Telegraph

Twelfth Night is well and truly over when Marina Wheeler appears on my screen. But over her shoulder, at the far end of her lovely, light-filled living space, stands an enormous, lavishly decorated Christmas tree. It’s just so pretty that she can’t bear to lose it, she says: “And I heard on Radio 4 that taking down the tree on the Twelfth Day is a 19th‑century invention, so it’s perfectly fine to keep it up. These are unusual times. We all have to do whatever’s necessary to stay cheery.”

If Marina is suffering a lockdown low, it doesn’t show. After a diagnosis of cervical cancer followed by radical surgery 18 months ago, Boris Johnson’s former wife, 56, is radiating health and happiness. For everyone in these strange days, though, it is a treat to see a familiar face. Her easy smile brightens as she spots her daughter, Lara Johnson‑Wheeler, on our video call.

Lara, 27, and her siblings Milo, 25, Cassia, 23 and Theo, 21, were a source of invaluable comfort and support as Marina underwent three operations in the summer of 2019. Though she insists that, despite its darker moments, “my so-called cancer story” is essentially a tribute to the national screening programme. Thanks to a routine smear test, abnormal cells were found on her cervix and she received effective, life‑saving treatment on the NHS.

“There were highs and lows, not everything ran smoothly, but I had wonderful, world-class treatment – for no cost, which is a stunning thing,” she says. “I was most afraid of having chemotherapy, as I didn’t know if I could cope, but because the cancer was caught early enough I didn’t need to have it.”

Now fully recovered, she and Lara have joined forces to launch Cervical Cancer Prevention Week on behalf of The Eve Appeal, a charity dedicated to funding research and raising awareness of gynaecological cancers. More than 3,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the UK each year and nearly 900 die from the disease, most of them completely unnecessarily as the cancer is so treatable in its early stages.

Even before the pandemic, the NHS’s cervical screening programme was in trouble, with take-up at its lowest for more than 20 years. Coronavirus has wrought havoc, with an additional 600,000 appointments missed over the past year as GP surgeries closed and women, afraid of catching Covid, were deterred from attending.

Meanwhile, new research for The Eve Appeal, revealed exclusively today in The Daily Telegraph, shows one in five women of Marina’s generation think the screening test isn’t a priority for them and one third have been put off after a bad experience. Lying back with your legs akimbo can be embarrassing, for sure, but as Marina says: “It’s three-and-a-half minutes of discomfort, when the consequences of not going can be so great.”

With younger women, the problem can be complacency. Since 2008, all girls aged 12 have been offered the HPV vaccine in school. Lara and her contemporaries were part of a catch-up group who got the jab aged 18. The HPV vaccination gives good, but not total, protection against cervical cancer. “I was always told to make sure I still got screened, but I think a lot of my contemporaries don’t really know that,” says Lara. Marina thinks she was a bit late in going for her smear test – not surprising, with so much going on in her life. But the fact that she got there made all the difference to her chances. She had no symptoms whatsoever, so she was surprised to be called back for a biopsy, performed under general anaesthetic. “They don’t alert you to anything worrying, so I rocked up there in my usual, slightly nonchalant way. They said: ‘We’re really sorry, but you have stage 1 cancer.’ ”

She got on the bus, in shock. “My son Milo was at home and, because he was there, I said: ‘Oh, it seems I’ve got cancer.’ ” She decided not to tell the other children until she knew more, a decision that still rankles with Lara (and perhaps points to a little sibling rivalry: Marina says that when her book was published the children went straight to the index to see how many times they got a mention). “I do like to know everything, so obviously I was incredibly put out to find that Milo was first, but at the same time I understood,” she says.

“But what was the point of passing on this anxiety?” counters Marina. “It was a tricky time and the children had other things going on in their lives that were difficult as well.”

The diagnosis came just as she was getting her new life established, having separated from Boris in 2018. It had also been a difficult few years for Marina – in truth, a time of turbulence that might have blown a lesser woman clean away. As a husband, Boris was doubtless as exasperating as he was entertaining. For more than 20 years, as he became editor of The Spectator and was elected an MP, then mayor of London, she put up with his many, well-documented, extramarital scrapes.

While married, he had a long affair with Petronella Wyatt, his deputy at The Spectator, who became pregnant twice, and had a child with Helen Macintyre, an art dealer.

It was when he was appointed foreign secretary five years ago that the pressure really began to bite. In the introduction to her recent book, The Lost Homestead, Marina recalls having moved the family to a grace-and-favour flat in Westminster and “filled every antique dresser with our unruly clutter”.

With a law degree from Cambridge and a master’s in EU law, she had spent years building a career as one of the UK’s foremost civil rights lawyers and had just been appointed a QC (she has been credited as being the one to persuade Boris of the argument for Brexit). But Marina was now struggling to find the space to develop her practice.

Taking time out to write about her family should have meant a change of pace, but then came the separation, followed by Boris’s ascent to No 10. The drama-by-extension has continued, with Boris’s engagement to 32-year-old Carrie Symonds, the birth of their son, Wilfred, and his near-death from coronavirus.

Marina has consistently refused to discuss her former husband, other than remarking drily, when she was asked if she was surprised when he had become prime minister: “Well, he’s been talking about it for a long time.”

When she was told she needed two further surgeries by the oncology team, led by Adeola Olaitan at University College Hospital, her immediate reaction was equally droll. “I virtually got out my diary and said: ‘I’m not sure that’s convenient, I’ve got a trip planned to Russia and I’m writing a book…’,” she says, laughing at the absurdity. “So I went through that whole mental thing, the sort of thing that stops some women from going to screening in the first place. Luckily I had a fantastic Macmillan nurse who saw that I needed a sympathetic but firm hand.”

For all her bravado, Marina’s experience wasn’t easy. After the first operation, to see whether the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, she had a rare reaction to the gas used in keyhole surgery and “puffed up like a balloon”. Her face was so swollen that she believes she was wheeled past the children at one point without them recognising her.

When she was eventually taken to her room, they were waiting. Her skin made a popping noise when touched and they were soon teasing her about how she loved bubblewrap and now wouldn’t have to hunt round the house to find it. “I felt so happy to see them,” she says. “I was pretty overwrought, but the jokes kept coming and Theo had bought me stuff from Pret, and I thought: ‘I’m in this vulnerable situation and I’m not holding them up any more, they’re holding me up.’ It changed my attitude to my children because until then I had always thought: ‘It’s up to me to keep everything going.’ ”

Lara says she feels “choked up” remembering the evening of Marina’s second operation, a week later, to remove her womb. It was youngest son Theo’s birthday and he had visited earlier in the day. “Then I came in and we had sushi and watched Love Island,” says Lara.

“What a combo!” laughs Marina. “There were a lot of people in my broader family, like my brother-in-law Leo, who were wonderful and sent a care package. There was generally this sense that when you’re in trouble there are people who step up and hold you up, and that has stayed with me.”

At the time, the Prime Minister’s private life was once again all over the front pages – he was dealing with the fallout from a row with Carrie Symonds at their then home in Camberwell, during which neighbours had called the police.

Marina and the girls marked her recovery with “Ladies’ Day”, which is destined to become a regular event. “Lara, Cass and I went out on the most wild celebration: pedicures and food, finishing with the Tina Turner musical,” says Marina. “It was a wonderful celebration and a way of me thanking them for having looked after me. They’re amazing.”

As an intelligent woman, one of the things that surprises Marina, looking back, is her own ignorance of gynaecological cancers. Even after the hysterectomy, she says: “I couldn’t really remember exactly what had gone and what was still there. I’ve grown up knowing nothing about how my body works.”

Lara is from a more open generation: “Mum and I sometimes discuss the taboos around women’s bodies. I have no problem talking about my own labia or periods, or whatever.”

“But I would do it in private,” laughs Marina. “And even when I hear Lara say the word ‘labia’, I’m thinking: ‘Oh, yes, what’s that again?’ But it’s so important to be open about your body and to understand how things work.”

Lara says her mother’s experience has made her all the more aware of the importance of screening. She had her first smear test at her local GP surgery a few months ago, during lockdown.

“I was WhatsApping with some of my friends while in the waiting room and they were astonished, asking: ‘Aren’t you afraid you’re going to get sick?’ A lot of people thought I was risking something, but it didn’t occur to me to want to cancel the appointment. I thought: ‘No, this is really important.’

“I was really impressed by how smooth and efficient it was. I felt totally safe and comfortable.”

Though many cervical screenings were cancelled or delayed during the first lockdown, the NHS is now working hard to ensure they are continuing safely. New guidance issued last week to GPs stated that routine smear tests should continue “regardless of the prevalence of Covid-19 for the duration of the pandemic”.

“The bottom line is that we are incredibly lucky to have screening,” says Marina. “It’s a preventive tool which averts suffering including, potentially, death. So I think we have to trust the system and, when invited to be screened, just go.”

A radical hysterectomy takes some recovery, but she says she feels as healthy and active as she was before. “I was warned about possible side-effects, that the procedure might lead to bladder impairment or leg problems, but none of that has come about. If I’m a poster person for anything it’s that, with timely treatment, you can bounce back entirely.”

Life will never be quite the same, though: she intends to return to the law, but feels drawn to mediation now, rather than adversarial work.

“Maybe I’ve got less testosterone, it’s hard to know if there’s a link,” Marina says. “There’s been so much change and other things, too, my mum dying last year, and Covid. I think it all underlines the importance of the here and now and not putting things off.

“Life does throw things at you, but not going for a screening is not going to stop cancer from happening, is it? It will just mean you find out about it later and the process of dealing with it is that much harder.”

Cervical Cancer Prevention Week runs from January 18 to 24. For information and advice, visit eveappeal.org.uk, email nurse@eveappeal.org.uk or call 0808 802 0019

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