Interview with Rank cover star Alexandra Bastedo (no Smiths/Moz content)

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Why Casino Royale beauty Alexandra Bastedo was truly happy to have a mastectomy

By Roderick Gilchrist
Last updated at 12:41 AM on 28th July 2009

Early one morning in February, actress Alexandra Bastedo was lying awake in bed pondering how to pay the bills for her animal charity when she brushed her arm lightly against her right breast and felt a lump.

It was only the size of a pea, but she was in no doubt what it meant.

Twelve years earlier, Alexandra had been diagnosed with cancer in the same breast. Although the disease had been successfully treated with a lumpectomy and radiotherapy, Alexandra knew it could return at any time.

‘No oncologist will ever tell you the cancer will never come back,’ she says.

An emergency mammogram and biopsy confirmed the new lump was cancerous and the surgeon suggested another lumpectomy. But this time Alexandra wanted a mastectomy.

‘If I’d had a mastectomy the first time, I wouldn’t have been in this situation again,’ she says.

So, just four days after discovering the lump, Alexandra was in a Harley Street clinic having her breast removed.

‘When I woke up, I was extremely happy because I knew the cancer had gone and it wasn’t in the lymph nodes either because they’d also been taken out,’ she says. ‘I was now able to get on with my life.’

But a mastectomy not only leaves physical scars, it can also have a psychological effect. For a legendary beauty defined by her appearance, it would be fair to assume it is even more distressing. At 63, Alexandra is still strikingly attractive.

As a young woman, she was one of the most beautiful actresses of her generation. At 20 she co-starred in Casino Royale with Peter Sellers and David Niven.

A year later she was cast as the heroine of Seventies ITV cult series The Champions. Alexandra was pursued by many of Hollywood’s leading men, including Warren Beatty and Steve McQueen. She had a passionate affair with Omar Sharif.

Shell made her its poster girl, putting her image on roadside hoardings across Europe. Alex was also the official pin-up mascot for the Royal Hampshire Regiment. The glamour roles continued in later life. She more recently played a model friend of Joanna Lumley’s Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous.

It would be understandable for Alexandra to be devastated by her loss, but this is not the case. ‘I thought losing a breast was relatively unimportant,’ she says now. ‘After all, it’s not a leg or an arm - not anything that is involved in your day-to-day movement.

‘I haven’t dwelt on it at all,’ she adds, before admitting: ‘Well, there are moments when I’m trying to pick a dress to wear in the evening when it does become difficult. But there was one benefit from the operation.

‘As any woman of my age would know, you develop a bit of crinkly skin between the breasts, so I said to the surgeon, “If you can get rid of that while you’re operating, it would be terrific”, and she did.’

She has no doubt that fertility drugs, taken when she married theatre director Patrick Garland at the age of 36, triggered the disease. Alexandra stopped taking the drugs after a couple of years when she gave up hope of having children. ‘If I hadn’t taken them, I’m certain I wouldn’t have had a thing wrong with me,’ she says.

her mastectomy, Alexandra did not consider having reconstructive surgery. ‘I have friends who have been through it and they have suffered great pain from the process - first the surgery to remove the breast, with all that implies physically and emotionally, and the painful process of recovery; then implants, which again is invasive. I wasn’t prepared to endure all of that.

‘I also have friends who have had the mastectomy without reconstructive surgery and they live wonderful lives. I took great heart from that.’

Instead, Alexandra wears a special bra and says: ‘There’s even one filled with a substance that imitates the movement and texture of a real breast.’

There is perhaps a significant reason for this fortitude. Her brother Lindsay died from cancer in 1996 at the age of 46 after being ill for seven-and-a-half painful years.

‘Lindsay was the most beautiful boy,’ she says. ‘Even now when young girls see his photo in my home they all want to know who he is. He had a tumour of the salivary glands.

'The cancer eventually entered his spine and his brain. For two-and-a-half years he was wrongly diagnosed and the chance to catch it early enough to save his life was missed - the doctors said he had Bell’s palsy because his face had dropped.

‘In fact, it was disfigured by cancer. My sister Jill and I suspected he was getting the wrong treatment and we eventually got him to the right specialists.’ Lindsay underwent an eight-hour operation, which involved taking muscle from his shoulder and putting it in his face.

‘It was agony,’ says Alexandra. ‘Both times when I had surgery I thought of him. After what Lindsay went through, what I’m having is a doddle. What’s the big fuss?’

In fact, the first time she had cancer she told no one - ‘I couldn’t let my mother know; she had been through so much with Lindsay I didn’t want to put her through it all over again.

‘But it did change my lifestyle. I went on an anti-yeast, non-dairy diet and I take a mass of supplements. Vitamin B complex for the nerves and to prevent depression; B1, which keeps away bugs; vitamin E, which helps with skin, nails and hair; and evening primrose oil, which helps with hormones.

‘I also take folic acid - the fulcrum around which everything works - magnesium, which relaxes muscles and nerves, and zinc for hair and skin. I know people will say, well it didn’t stop her getting cancer - but thanks to complementary medicine, I do have a very good immune system, which means I never get colds or flu.’

She says the support of the friends she told about her cancer has helped greatly. Prince Charles and Camilla invited Alexandra and her husband Patrick on a cruise in the Aegean after her lumpectomy. She laughs when she reveals Charles was so concerned for her health that he would fetch afternoon tea for her himself.

Alexandra says it is the 150 rescued animals - a menagerie of donkeys, Shetland ponies, longhorned sheep and cats - she cares for at her West Sussex animal sanctuary that have been her real salvation. ‘I know they would have all been on their way to the abattoir if it hadn’t been for me and I want the sanctuary to survive after I have gone,’ she says.

The ABC sanctuary is in the grounds of her home in West Chiltington, near Arundel. Although the charity is well-supported by trustees and volunteers, funds are always a concern. ‘My acting earnings have been used for rescuing animals,’ she explains.

says she knows many famous actresses who have kept their mastectomy a secret for fear of losing work and that many of them have had plastic surgery as well. Kirk Douglas, with whom she made a film, told her that if plastic surgery could prolong her career by five years she should have it. Alexandra doesn’t agree.

‘I always say you shouldn’t underestimate the loss of what you really look like. You have a face with character. Get all that removed and you become a blank canvas. But some actresses get addicted to surgery.’

Her own resistance to cosmetic surgery hasn’t stopped her working - she recently appeared in East-Enders and also in the 2005 Batman Begins film - but this is not enough for the upkeep of the sanctuary. ‘Now I am older and parts for older actresses are scarce, I can no longer afford to fund the sanctuary on my own,’ she explains.

So she hosts open days and other events, including a recent auction to raise money to keep the donkeys and ponies in hay next winter. Among the items sold was a 1970 Pirelli calendar, a collector’s item which featured Alexandra splashing in the Caribbean surf.

When asked how she could bear to sell such a poignant reminder of her youth, especially now after her mastectomy, she replies: ‘I’ve no children to leave my memorabilia to, and it was so long ago. It’s best to let go of all of that if the animals can benefit.’

• To contribute to Alexandra’s animal sanctuary, write to: PO Box 2195, West Chiltington, West Sussex RH20 2XB or go to www.
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