EQUALITIES minister Christina McKelvie fought and won her contest in the last Holyrood election while secretly receiving treatment for breast cancer – and, as she returns to Holyrood, has a new outlook.
The SNP MSP was diagnosed on February 3 last year after her first over-50 mammogram revealed the triple-negative tumor, and she struggled with “rationalising” her diagnosis and making herself a priority.
McKelvie even battled to keep her constituency seat of Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse, which she first won in 2011, in between two rounds of chemotherapy.
The 54-year-old said her illness has given her a renewed perspective, and that she wouldn’t be pushing herself to work “thousands of hours a week” in her ministerial role as she did before – and during – her cancer treatment.
A week after she returned to the Holyrood chamber, McKelvie sat down with The Sunday National to discuss why she kept her illness out of the public eye and how the process ultimately changed her.
She said: “There’s a lot of self-reflection in your life when you go through a diagnosis of cancer and then treatment and all the issues that come with it, all the scary moments and the dark moments and everything.
“You go through a period of reflection, thinking: ‘This is your life, how do you want to live the rest of it?’
“’Whatever time you’ve got left – how do you want to make that matter?’
“It took me a while to say, ‘you’ve been doing that, you’ve been doing the job that makes it matter’, and to be able to come back and pick that up and continue it makes my life matter, so it’s good to be here.
“Although I’ll caution that I tend to work thousands of hours a week and that won’t happen now, because my time with my family, my friends, you know, is just so valuable now – it’s priceless and nothing will come in the road of that.”
McKelvie (below) had her mammogram on December 30 and was called back for an appointment on February 3, when a consultant took her into a room with a “nice sofa and tissues on the table” and broke the news.
“I said to her, ‘do you want to punch me six times in the face? Because that would be easier to take than this,” McKelvie added.
On the same day she had an ultrasound of the tumor taken. Ten days later she had the results back, and on March 2 she underwent her first surgery. A second surgery came on March 16, before starting chemotherapy in April.
She said: “I had my first chemotherapy one week, fought the election the next week, got sworn in the next week and then my next chemotherapy the next day.
“I worked right through all of that, I worked right up to my last chemo.
“The accumulation of the chemo was rough, that was hard. We had the diary planned because we knew the week after the chemo was the worst week and then I would have a better week and a better week, but when it got to the end of my treatment, the better weeks just weren’t coming.
“It was at that point they said to me I would need a two-week daily dose of radiotherapy on top of that, and I knew at that point, I have to take some time away and allow myself to go through that part of the treatment and get to the other side of that, and then the recovery.”
Once chemotherapy kicked in, McKelvie quickly started to feel the physical side effects including cell death, which causes complete hair loss.
“I had the election and the count on the Friday and by the Monday night I’d lost all my hair,” she said.
The Holyrood election count was held over two days on May 7 and 8 last year, instead of overnight as usual, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
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McKelvie continued: “You see those physical changes really quickly, eyebrows going, eyelashes going and I lost all my fingernails and toenails, they’re just growing back in now.
“So that’s hard because your physical appearance changes so dramatically and I was absolutely devastated losing my hair, and my hairdresser fitted me with a fabulous wig.
“I came in here to be sworn in and I had a wig on and folk didn’t know because it was so good.”
McKelvie was clear that she didn’t want to scare anyone who might be facing chemotherapy themselves, and said her advice would be to “give yourself over” to the system put in place by the NHS and trust it.
“You’ve not got control over what’s happening in your body anyway and it’s really hard to give up that control, but the advice I would give is to put yourself in the hands of the medics because they are amazing,” she said.
Giving up control was also something that McKelvie struggled with, adding that her team were “worried sick” during the election campaign, which she was juggling with her ministerial duties. It took a cancer care nurse urging her to “give yourself a break, hen” for her to “change her mindset”.
She explained: “When you’re in politics, generally your priority is the people you’re helping, and so that was a bit of a mind shift for me to move to – I’m the person who needs the help now.
“That was tough to rationalize that, that’s why I worked right through the chemo because I kept saying ‘I’ll conquer this, I’ll get on with this and I’ll keep doing the job’, and every time I got chemo I knew this was getting too difficult. It was realizing that.”
McKelvie is happy to be back in parliament, and said the “warm welcome” from fellow MSPs and staff made the transition “100 times easier”, but added she also had to give credit to a course by Maggie’s cancer center called “Where next? ” which she combined with her phased return to parliament.
The course helps to build back confidence and self-esteem, as well as addressing the impact of the treatment, side effects and ongoing issues that can come afterwards.
“I can confidently say when I started that course which was the second week of January, I thought that it would take me longer than six weeks to get through, get me recovered and feel well enough to come back, and here I am,” she said.
The MacMillan Cancer Support helpline, which is open 24/7, was also invaluable to her during dark moments when she needed someone to speak to.
Before the pandemic, McKelvie was the breast cancer champion in the Scottish Parliament and was responsible for getting Nicola Sturgeon into a pink feather boa and cowboy hat to raise awareness back in 2019.
Asked if she had a family history of breast cancer, McKelvie said that she didn’t and had her tumor sent off for genomic sequencing to check, so she could alert her female family members if there was any evidence it could affect them.
“There was no connection at all, it was just a fluke,” she said.
McKelvie added she wants to create more experiences and memories with her two sons, partner Justice Secretary Keith Brown and other friends and family, after her illness.
She said: “The happy times are just so important that you need to create them.
“It’s my birthday tomorrow [Friday]. This time last year I had my surgery on the second of March and I had my birthday while I was recovering from that surgery thinking ‘will I see my next birthday’, and we’re going to be celebrating it. It’s that, it’s grabbing that.
“I’ve said don’t buy me things, give me experiences. You don’t need things, you need people.”