'I thought I'd die' EastEnders' Cheryl Fergison's devastating secret health battle

Strolling through bluebell strewn gardens in the spring sunshine Cheryl Fergison looks the very picture of happiness and health.

But the former EastEnders actress has been fighting a secret battle against cancer - the story of which she only now feels ready to share.

“It was a horrendous time,” the 58-year-old former soap favourite reveals to OK!

“There were some dark moments, especially at night, when I thought: ‘am I going to die?’ Am I going to leave my husband without a wife, my son without a mum?

“But the time is right to talk about it all now. I’m hoping my story might empower other women.

“I’ve been through a lot but I’m still here. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Former EastEnders favourite Cheryl Fergison
Former EastEnders favourite Cheryl Fergison is looking forward to a happy and healthy future -Credit:Tim Merry/Mirror Express

That motto is something Cheryl, who played big-hearted Heather Trott in EastEnders for half a decade, has had no other choice but to live by having been diagnosed with Stage 2 cancer of the womb in 2015.

Now living in Blackpool with her husband of 12 years, 38-year-old Yassine, and Alex, her 24-year-old son by her first marriage, Cheryl is chatty and generous with her time as we talk.

But it’s clear the events of the last few years are not easy to recall.

Soap star Cheryl Fergison with son Alex and husband Yassine
Soap star Cheryl Fergison says the love and support of son Alex and husband Yass pulled her through her battle with cancer -Credit:Tim Merry/Mirror Express

Her ordeal started almost a decade ago when, living in Kent and not long having married Yassine - still in his native Morocco at the time - she consulted her GP about pain in her back.

“I’d gone for a regular smear test - which had been clear - but I’d started having backache and then I began spotting blood, which wasn’t normal for me.

“I just knew something didn’t feel right,” remembers Cheryl who appeared on Celebrity Big Brother in 2012.

She was referred for tests and a biopsy at her local hospital.

Four months after that smear she received the news she had Stage 2 cancer of the womb. Hearing the doctor’s words was, she says, like ‘an out of body experience’.

“I was in absolute shock; stunned to the core. I couldn’t believe the doctor was talking about me.”

According to Cancer Research UK around 75% of women diagnosed with Stage 2 cancer of the womb will survive 5 years or more after diagnosis but all the statistics in the world didn’t prevent her thinking ‘why me?’

“I’d had a new beginning with Yass, everything was perfect. And then this.”

Cheryl Fergison with her husband of 12 years Yassine are happier than ever
Despite facing hostility about their relationship, Cheryl and her husband of 12 years are happier than ever -Credit:Tim Merry/Mirror Express

She underwent MRI scans: “I remember in the scanner having an earpiece in to listen to music and ‘Paradise’ by Coldplay was playing. I thought ‘this is about as far from Paradise as it’s possible to be’” - and a slew of chest X-rays before medics recommended she undergo a full hysterectomy within weeks.

“All I could think was ‘I have to get this thing out of me’ but it was very difficult.

“Any thought of Yass and I having a child together had been taken away. We may not have gone down that route, of course, but we’d lost the ability to choose.

“It brought on early menopause too. In terms of how I saw myself as a woman, it felt as if it had all come to an end.”

She chose to delay telling the then 16-year-old Alex, her boy by her marriage to Jamshed Saddiqi who she divorced in 2008, as he was facing school exams.

“I remember thinking my son will be alright because he can always see his mum on celluloid; I’m captured forever even if I’m gone.”

Meanwhile Yassine was struggling to absorb the news. Already dealing with both the death of his grandmother, to whom he was close, and his father’s illness he remembers it being ‘the scariest thing’ - made worse as he was so far away.

A cancer diagnosis shocked Cheryl Fergison
Receiving a diagnosis of cancer of the womb shocked Cheryl 'to the core' -Credit:Tim Merry/Mirror Express

“I thought I was going to lose her. I knew by her tone of voice that it was something bad and back then, in my head, when you said cancer, it meant death,” explains the 38-year-old.

“What was already happening was like facing a wall full of cracks - her news made the wall crumble.”

The couple have spent periods living apart in their marriage - a combination, says Cheryl, of family circumstances, visa issues and finances, later compounded by a Moroccan earthquake and then Covid.

Speculation around that - and their 21-year-age-gap - has meant they have faced hurtful criticism and scrutiny but, for Yass, he knew from very early on in their relationship that she was his ‘perfect’ woman.

“Cheryl is the strongest, most amazing person I have ever met. In everything she was going through she still found time to care for me and for Alex - that’s one of the reasons I love her so much.”

For her part, Cheryl - whose on screen Albert Square character was murdered by bad boy Ben Mitchell in a row over money - told only a few trusted friends about her cancer diagnosis including former EastEnders colleagues Barbara Windsor, June Brown and Steve McFadden as well as Paul O’Grady and Julian Clary.

“Their support meant the world to me,” she remembers.

“I would go to Barbara’s dressing room and June’s everyday when I was in EastEnders and I loved their stories. Barbara was no nonsense - if she didn't like something she would let you know - but she was also a great person to tell your problems too.

Cheryl Fergison and June Brown on the set of EastEnders
Cheryl has fond memories of her time on EastEnders and treasures her relationship with the late June Brown -Credit:BBC

“She’d say: ‘whatever's going on in your own four walls, when you go outside, put on a smile - the public don't want to see you miserable, darling.”

A few days after they had all attended Paul O’Grady’s 60th birthday Barbara and husband Scott asked Cheryl to call to see them.

“I can hear her now saying ‘come on darling, how are you feeling? You know you can get through this’.

“I popped to the loo and when I came back Barb said, ‘right, darling, how much? How much are your bills and your mortgage because we’d like to support you.

“I was in shock and said no but Barb was insistent - I wasn’t earning. They sat there and wrote a cheque.

“I was sobbing but Barbara hugged me and said: ‘don't worry. We're always going to be here for you.’”

Cheryl says Linda Henry, who played Shirley Carter in the soap, was also a huge support while Steve McFadden - “he’s like a big brother to me” - arranged for her to stay in his Cornish home so she could recuperate after her hysterectomy.

Cheryl Fergusin and Steve McFadden worked closely together on EastEnders
Cheryl regards her EastEnders co-star Steve McFadden as a 'big brother' -Credit:cherylfergison/Instagram

The surgery itself was straightforward. Cheryl was in hospital for three days and then underwent a five week course of radiotherapy but, even with friends rallying round, it took her months to recover.

But while physically she was getting stronger, she was haunted by the fear that some cancer cells remained, triggered, she says, after she was told by medics to monitor any unusual symptoms as there may be ‘some cells’ left within her although they would ‘probably do nothing’.

Terrified that further backache was a signal the cancer had returned, she consulted doctors in Blackpool.

“They looked into it. They had trouble getting hold of my notes but, when they did and they looked at them it turned out the initial treatment had got all the cancer after all."

Cheryl says she doesn’t blame anybody for her belief she still had cancer cells within her and remains a huge advocate for the NHS - she attended A&E recently for an unrelated leg infection and calls staff there ‘angels’.

“It’s so important to get all the documentation and get clear explanations and help in understanding terminology.

“Perhaps if I’d had my original medical paperwork to read for myself it would have been different but I didn’t.

“I do blame myself a little for what I did - I felt as a strong woman I could deal with it all.

“But sometimes we all need to put our hands up and say ‘I need help’.

“Nothing is a taboo subject and it's important that we talk.”

Her husband of 12 years, Yassine, has supported Cheryl every step of the way
Her husband of 12 years, Yassine, has supported Cheryl every step of the way -Credit:Tim Merry/Mirror Express

Now, recovered and healthy - although with a minor bladder prolapse - Cheryl is looking forward to life with renewed vigour and energy.

She cycles regularly on the prom in Blackpool, has her sights set on losing weight and is eating well - she reveals Yassine is an excellent cook.

And their relationship is as strong as when they first clapped eyes on each other outside a Moroccan airport in 2010.

The pair found each other online in 2010, exchanging letters and chatting for months, before Cheryl flew out to meet him.

“I was scared, wondering what the hell I was doing,” she laughs, revealing she confided in her former EastEnders co-star Linda Henry about her long-distance relationship.

“Then, outside the airport, my suitcase fell over. A hand came out to pick it up and it was Yass. We locked eyes. It was then I thought ‘I am going to marry you.”

“I’d waited all my life for that ‘ping’ feeling. I’d been married before, had relationships before, thought I was in love before but I’d never felt like that.

“I wasn’t frightened or scared any longer. We got in the taxi, he held my hand. It was soulmate stuff.”

The relationship raised eyebrows with critics casting opinions on the 21-year age difference.

“Obviously there's always speculation when somebody in the public eye meets somebody else, whoever it is, but we have had things thrown at us that would have broken others,” says Cheryl.

“Everybody feels like they should have a piece of you but if you then don’t fit the box of who or what they think you should be then it can be toxic.

“People don’t bat an eyelid if an older man meets a younger woman but it’s not the same the other way round. Yassine is an intelligent man, he speaks languages, yet he was being called a ‘goat herder’; he and his family in Morocco hounded.

“We endured, we got through it. And we’re still here.”

Cheryl played Heather Trott for half a decade on Albert Square
Cheryl played Heather Trott for half a decade on Albert Square but also took part in Celebrity Big Brother -Credit:PA

With the dark times behind them there are plenty of new plans in the pipeline. Cheryl is preparing for a one woman show later this year as well as a stint in pantomime at Christmas where she will share the stage with Alex, himself an actor and writer.

Yass, meanwhile, dreams of starting his own restaurant and enjoying a quiet life away from the glare of the red carpet.

And, of course, Cheryl still watches her favourite soap. Would she like to go back to Albert Square?

“I don’t know how possible that would be because I was murdered! Maybe I could return as Heather’s long lost twin?” she laughs.

“But Heather was iconic - let’s leave her be. I live up north now - I’d love to play someone else in another soap.”

And she has a heartfelt message for other women:

“Listen to your body. Even if it’s the smallest concern - go and get checked because if you haven't got health, you've not got no wealth.

“I’ve come through it and so can others. It’s all about living life now.

“I’m ready to fly.”