I advised EastEnders star Barbara Windsor on cancer storyline

Clinical nurse specialist Victoria Harmer explains her role as medical adviser to TV’s EastEnders

Cancer often takes the leading role in television, film and radio storylines. This has also been the case in the most recent episodes of TV’s EastEnders.

Peggy Mitchell, played by national treasure Dame Barbara Windsor, has had the task of portraying on the small screen what a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer means to someone with cancer and their family.

The storyline was thoroughly researched, and the process followed by the production team was meticulous. It is vital that medical fact informs storylines so that they can be portrayed with credibility and sensitivity.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK, and although survival rates are good, people do die from it. I was delighted to be a part of this popular BBC soap, giving advice to the cast and crew who take their responsibilities seriously.

I also helped with the scenes last month when the character of Sonia (Natalie Cassidy) – who is a BRCA mutation gene carrier – felt a breast lump and went for an appointment with the breast team.

Scoping a storyline

The process starts with researchers scoping a storyline and detailing the timeframes they need to adhere to. Then come the scripts, which are colour-coded according to their nearness to completion. I read them, adjusting some words that would be used by the actors, and removing those which would be inappropriate. I also offered advice on who would break bad news at hospital appointments, and who else should be in the room at the time.

Once the scripts were finalised, I was lucky enough to go on set, making myself available in case any questions arose during filming.

I gave advice to the hair and make-up departments, especially on someone’s appearance post chemotherapy. It was important to get chemotherapy-related fatigue across in the scenes, and guide them on how the pain of disseminated breast cancer may be experienced.

Wonderful cast

As an avid watcher of EastEnders, it was fun for me to see Albert Square, particularly the Queen Vic, in all its glory. The square seems to have its own climate, and the days I was there were really cold; so cold in fact that the costume department gave us hand warmers to put in our clothes to keep us warm.

Bumping into some of the wonderful cast was exciting, and quite surreal. The scenes with Peggy Mitchell – who died after taking an overdose in Tuesday’s episode – were amazing to watch – Dame Barbara’s acting pure poetry in motion. She has a gift which stands out, and shines like a true star.

Family dynamics

The producers of EastEnders wanted the plot to have some complicated family dynamics, illustrating the thoughts and feelings people have when a loved one is diagnosed with an incurable disease. This was done incredibly well; I salute all involved.

Dame Barbara did a magnificent job portraying Peggy’s disease in a realistic and sensitive way. I feel incredibly humbled and privileged to have been part of this marvellous opportunity, which fits with the extended role of a clinical nurse specialist, and the skills we can use to raise awareness of breast cancer.

I hope my input reflected well on the marvellous team I work with every day at Imperial.

About the author

Victoria HarmerDr Victoria Harmer (@VictoriaHarmer2) is team leader/clinical nurse specialist in breast care at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in London

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