Tragic minister’s widow is on a cancer crusade

It was the longest and quietest car journey of their lives.

After husband James was diagnosed with lung cancer, Cathy Brokenshire was desperate to talk and digest the news with her partner of 31 years.

But as Northern Ireland secretary – one of the most closely guarded positions in politics – the presence of police protection officers made conversation impossible.

The pair still had to tell their three children and James also faced telling the then-prime minister Theresa May he was standing down as a Cabinet minister.

From his initial diagnosis to his death three years later in 2021 aged 53 from an aggressive form of the disease, James, a “never smoker”, became an indefatigable campaigner for lung cancer awareness.

Devoted wife Cathy has since taken up the cause and last week completed a walk along the East Sussex coast to add to the £163,000 she has raised for the Roy Castle Lung Foundation so far.

“James lost his fight to change lives and help,” she said. “If I can save one family from losing a loved one or improve outcomes by raising awareness and access to screening, it’s enough.”

Cathy recalled the dreadful day in December 2017 when the devastating news came through.

“We came out of that consulting room and then got into the people carrier that was hired for him,” she said.

“Naturally you would want to talk about the diagnosis to try and digest the news. But we didn’t speak in the car because there were two police protection officers with us.

“It was so emotive and personal we didn’t want to discuss this with people outside the family.

“We just sat dumbstruck.”

The silence lasted throughout the hour-long journey from the hospital to pick their three children up from two different schools near their home in south-east London.

Cathy said: “It wasn’t until about five hours later when the children were in bed we could have a conversation about it.”

READ MORE: The ‘less common’ symptoms of lung cancer

James left his job in an international law firm to become an MP in 2005, going on to hold a number of ministerial roles at the Home Office until he was appointed Northern Ireland secretary in 2016.

In August 2017, he became alarmed after he coughed up blood while clearing his throat. Although he had no other symptoms he decided to get it checked and was later diagnosed with lung cancer.

Initially, treatment to remove part of his right lung appeared successful and he returned to Parliament in 2018 as communities secretary.

In April that year he became the first MP to raise a debate on lung cancer in the Commons and used his own experience to highlight the need for better awareness.

During the speech he urged people not to delay seeing a doctor. “I could have left it. I could have said ‘It’s a one off; it’ll just sort itself out’,” he said. “I did not, because I trusted my instincts. Too often people find out that they have cancer too late, and that is what we need to change.”

James continued campaigning even after his lung cancer returned in January 2021 and right up until his death.

Around 48,500 people die from lung cancer every year – the third most common form – and up to 27 per cent of these are not linked to smoking.

Cathy, a former City banker, is now supporting the NHS and Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation to promote targeted lung health checks as a national screening programme is rolled out. It will assess or scan all those at risk between 55 and 74 and is expected to save 9,000 lives a year. And the close friend of Fiona Castle, the wife of actor Roy, another non-smoker who died of lung cancer in 1992 aged 62, said: “If we can get more people diagnosed early that means we are less likely to lose loved ones.

“We all know someone who has died of lung cancer and on the back of that we must spread the word.”

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