My photo diary of my breast cancer treatment: I wanted to help others who are suffering

When Tiggy Walker was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, she was devastated. She had nursed her husband, radio DJ Johnnie Walker, through cancer, and when she found she had it, he became her carer. Tiggy has documented her story in a new book, Unplanned Journey

I am Tiggy Walker. 52 years old. Married. No kids. One dog. I’ve made ads for 30 years for everything from bags of salad leaves to flash cars.

My husband is Radio 2’s DJ Johnnie Walker. Bit of a radio legend. Life with him is never dull. Ever. At the epicentre of our lives is his schedule of shows, interviews and other appearances. I am his agent and his manager.

I 2013 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had to face it full-on. I had no idea where this journey would lead but a deep instinct told me to get captured photographically, and I contacted Bella West. The diary I wrote alongside was catharsis.

What resulted is Unplanned Journey, which can hopefully help support others, be they a breast cancer patient or their carer.

Documenting my experience of cancer

If I have one regret about my husband Johnnie Walker’s fight with cancer 12 years ago, it is that I never took photos of him at his worst. It sounds callous, but the comparison between him then and now is inspiring.

Thus, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, a voice inside told me to have my own journey recorded. I had no idea what lay ahead but I knew there would be physical changes and thought they might be interesting.

Bella West is a photographer I knew from a distance. I put the idea to her and she came on board with total dedication. She was at my lumpectomy operation, consultations, most of the chemotherapy sessions, the radiotherapy and plenty of private moments at home.

“Call me if you’re going to be sick,” she told me, although there was not enough warning for that.

Of the many shoots we did, the most intimate was the day I realised my hair was falling out. It is when shampooing in the shower that you notice it most. It pulls out in tufts.

So that is where she photographed me. She captured my sadness and resignation that something I hoped I would avoid had finally struck me.

Shaving my head

It was not long after that she snapped away as Johnnie shaved my head. It was not something either of us could have imagined when we married. He was nervous at first. I felt very sad for him.

As for me, I got the shock of my life when I looked in the mirror. You never imagine you will see yourself bald.

Unplanned Journey. Seeing shaved head. 620x349
Tiggy’s shock at her shaved head. Photo by Bella West

It was a few months in to our project that Bella sent me some shots. I was topless in most of them and the images hit me hard. I had aged, gained weight, and one breast was not only scarred but noticeably smaller than the other. I didn’t dare show them to Johnnie.

I wouldn’t even open them on my laptop, preferring to keep them small and less threatening on my phone. I thought, ‘What HAVE I done?’.

Fundraising for Carers UK

Just before I had been diagnosed, I had joined the fundraising board of the charity Carers UK. Now that both Johnnie and I had experience of being carers they asked us to be their joint patrons. I went to see the head of fundraising, Dee Brecker and the chair of the board, Jeff Hayes.

I took a deep breath and told them that before I could accept, they had to see what Bella and I had been doing. As I hit play on the slideshow on my laptop, I wanted the ground to swallow me up. I was so scared and embarrassed. By the end Dee was in tears and Jeff speechless.

I offered them the images for an exhibition and Dee said: “It should be a book too”. As I had kept a diary throughout to help me process the emotional and physical changes I was going through, I knew that a book would be easy for us to assemble.

Writing the book

I discussed the idea with Bella, who started to shortlist images from the 2,500 she had taken. I started editing my diary. I was conscious that to put it all in would be both boring and indulgent.

I tried to extract the parts that might be a support to others. I am brutally honest in my writing and I didn’t change that for the book. I felt that if I tinkered with the words I would lose the raw emotion of what I had felt at the time. Nothing is as real as that.

But the story was still unfolding. We had to decide whether to stop at the end of the Herceptin [chemotherapy] treatment, or keep going until I had been operated on by the plastic surgeon. We decided on the latter because it is a happier ending.

Unplanned Journey book cover

An unexpected silver lining

They reduced the scarred breast to make it look normal again, and matched the other one in size. Having disliked my large breasts all my life, this reduction was certainly the silver lining: it has had a profound and positive effect on my self confidence.

Our book, Unplanned Journey, was designed by Bella. She never touched a word of my writing and I never questioned any of her photo choices.

We worked respectfully and harmoniously side by side. I am so proud of what we have achieved.

Unplanned Journey is published by Troubadour. All proceeds are going to Carers UK

Tiggy Walker is now well and currently clear of cancer, though she is still being monitored closely