James Brokenshire’s widow calls for better lung cancer care in wake of his death

Cathy Brokenshire highlighted that the disease also affects non-smokers like her husband, who died at the age of 53.

Cathy and James Brokenshire
Cathy and James Brokenshire

The widow of James Brokenshire, who died after suffering from lung cancer aged 53, has called for a national screening programme for the disease to improve poor survival rates.

Speaking publicly for the first time since the former government minister’s death last October, Cathy Brokenshire said she was determined help others avoid a similar fate.

She told the PA news agency: “I miss him on a daily basis, he was my best friend.

“But I’ve got no choice and I have to get on with it.

“We’ve got three kids and I can either sit and cry my eyes out and be in a heap on the floor, or I can try and bring some positivity from what has happened to us as a family and help promote the cause.”

Mrs Brokenshire wants to help break down the stigma surrounding lung cancer, with many people incorrectly believing it is only caused by smoking.

She said of her husband: “He never smoked and my understanding is 15% or more people that suffer with lung cancer never smoked.

“People’s natural assumption is, ‘well they bought it on themselves because they smoked, everybody knows not to smoke’.

“But that clearly isn’t how it happened to him.”

Mr Brokenshire, who served as Northern Ireland secretary and security minister, was first diagnosed with the disease after coughing up a small amount of blood in 2017.

He underwent surgery to remove the upper lobe of his right lung, after which appeared to be making a full recovery.

The pandemic meant that some of his regular scans were delayed for several months, and after he again coughed up blood in December 2020, it was confirmed the cancer had returned and the rest of his right lung was removed.

Last summer, he learned the disease had spread to other parts of his body.

Doctors tried various lines of treatment, including immunotherapy, but an infection developed in his remaining lung and his condition deteriorated as he struggled to get enough oxygen.

James Brokenshire
James Brokenshire pictured leaving 10 Downing Street in 2017 (David Mirzoeff/PA)

Mrs Brokenshire fought back tears as she recalled her husband’s final days, saying her emotions are still raw.

She said: “We had one of those really heartfelt conversations like in 9/11 when people knew that they were going to die on the airplane phoning their loved ones, he was phoning me.

“We told each other how much we loved each other and how we’d enriched each other’s lives.”

A few days after being put on a ventilator, Mr Brokenshire passed away on October 7.

Mrs Brokenshire said his death came as a shock.

She added: “I’m just so grateful we had the chance to say goodbye and he didn’t suffer.

“When he knew he was going on a ventilator, I think he knew what was going to happen to him.

“But prior to that no-one had given us a terminal diagnosis.

“The last time he saw the oncologist, he said, ‘you’re young, you’re fit and well’.

“He was still doing 15-20,000 steps a week, he was still working.

“(The oncologist) said ‘this isn’t the end of the road and we’re trying these immunotherapies and we’ll see what happens’.

“But unfortunately, he ran out of time and science wasn’t quick enough.”

Mr Brokenshire was a vocal advocate for better lung cancer screening, using a debate in Parliament in April 2018 to raise the issue, and his wife said she wants to “pick up the mantle”.

She is working with the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation to get lung cancer services back on track after they were dealt a blow by the coronavirus pandemic.

Patients had less access to GPs and surgery, and NHS England’s targeted lung health check programme, launched in 2019, stalled.

Fewer people recognised the symptoms of lung cancer – such as a persistent cough – due to the similarities to Covid symptoms.

Mrs Brokenshire urged people to take notice of differences in their health, no matter how subtle or trivial they might appear.

She said: “Early diagnosis is key.

“And raising awareness so things don’t get ignored and people go to their GPS and get these things looked at.”

James Brokenshire death
Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the House of Commons as MPs paid tribute to James Brokenshire (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor Handout/PA)

Mrs Brokenshire was speaking ahead of a ceremony to name a Southeastern Railway train after her husband at London’s Cannon Street Station on Monday.

She said: “He would be tickled pink, he loved trains.”

As the Conservative MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup, Mr Brokenshire had worked to get more services on the line.

His wife said: “It’s lovely that the constituents that he campaigned for since 2010 will be able to travel to and from work on a train with his name on it.

“And for me personally, if I go up to London, I’ve got a chance of getting on a train and in effect, my husband will take me up to London”.

A tribute page set up by the politician’s family for people to share memories and photographs, and donate to the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation in his memory, has raised more than £65,500.

To find out more about the fundraiser, visit jamesbrokenshire.muchloved.com.

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