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I made friends with my brain tumour – and called her Britney

In 2015, I didn’t have a period for 10 months, but a doctor confirmed I wasn’t pregnant so I decided, “Right, clean bill of health then.” Besides, I was at drama school in New York and couldn’t afford American healthcare, so I didn’t investigate further. I also developed bad peripheral vision in my left eye, but when I went for an eye test, they said, “There’s nothing wrong with your eyes.” I was lacklustre and didn’t feel much joy in life, which isn’t my personality, but I was still able to shrug it off.

I returned to England to see my parents and best friend Ellen Robertson for Christmas, went to my GP about the missing periods, had a blood test, and he sent me for a precautionary MRI. It felt almost glamorous – it was only when I had the scan that the reality of it hit me.

The following day, I went to see my grandma, but when I came home my mum, dad and Ellen, who happened to be visiting, were ashen faced. The hospital had been trying to call me on my mobile, but couldn’t get through, so they’d rung my parents’ house to say they were concerned about a growth on my brain. I called them back and they asked me to come in the next day and look at the scans.

I just thought, “It’s not going to be sinister, they’re being cautious. I’ll go in and they’ll say, ‘Oh it’s fine, it’s fluff, just do a big sneeze.’”But it was really quickly not fine. It was a brain tumour.

The doctor told me I had a pituitary adenoma and I needed surgery to remove it. Clearly, this was a terrifying prospect. Yet the way I handled it was all down to Ellen, who was by my side throughout. She said, “Well, we’ve got to make the best of it.” We’d been close since school and carried our arguably creepy childhood co-dependence through to adulthood, and now we had this time back in my childhood bedroom to regress and make our friendship stronger, if that were possible.

Ellen moved into our house. The spare room became her court jester HQ and she was like my games and activity manager. I was never alone and we coped through laughter – all emotions were heightened and everything was a hundred times funnier. I think at any other point in my adult life if I’d said, “Stop everything because I want to put a sumo suit on,” my parents would have been like, “This is not normal behaviour.” But when you’ve been told you have a brain tumour you have permission to react in any way you want to.

We decided my tumour needed a name, because it’s just so gruesome saying “tumour” all the time. We knew she was a woman just by virtue of how strong she was. And then we thought, “Well someone who knows a thing or two about having a tough time but still being fabulous is Britney Spears.” Plus Britney and brain have a nice alliteration thing going on. And it felt like I couldn’t get too angry at Britney. She doesn’t mean it – she doesn’t want to be there either, stuck between my pituitary gland and my eye socket.

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But the darkness crept in two months later, after surgery, and I felt sad a lot of the time. I was very unwilling for Ellen not to be around at all times, even when I was high on morphine. I’d wake up and if Ellen wasn’t there I’d call her, thinking, “Ellen needs to know how long I’ve slept for and that I had a cup of tea today”.

We decided to make sure there were funny things going on to help us through it, whether it was impressions of doctors and nurses, Ellen’s obsession with the coffee machine in the waiting room, or me creating a monologue of my brain talking. It’s Ellen’s fault we ended up turning my experience into a comedy show. I couldn’t really imagine it, plus it felt too emotional. But Ellen and my dad, a comedy nerd, were convincing. They wanted a happy ending, a way we could make it all not be for nothing.

It happened really fast. By August, we were performing Britney on stage at Edinburgh Fringe. Physically, I had recovered but mentally, emotionally, I was still processing it all. Doing the show was cathartic – there’s nothing more restorative than talking about a grim moment in your life and a bunch of people standing up and clapping. After that, we started performing Britney regularly to sell-out crowds.

Then Britney, the tumour, came back. Doctors said it could be in 18 months or 18 years, or it may never happen, but an MRI scan in 2018 showed it was growing, and fast. It was awful. I was so, so angry, and hit my lowest point. I’d just got the lead part in the Channel 4 drama Pure my dream my whole life – so to be told “you’re sick again” felt unfair. You can’t dangle this incredible carrot and then put a brain tumour in front of it. I needed radiotherapy but I was stubborn and said, “Not until I’ve filmed this show.” Fortunately, the doctor said it would be safe to wait.

Filming was an incredible distraction. When it was finished, I did six weeks of daily radiotherapy. Ellen was there with me at every appointment. It was crazy successful and, while there are still bits of tumour left behind, they’re not actively doing anything – I think of them like an old costume Britney left behind.

Our stage show has now become a TV show. We performed at our local village hall for friends and family, including a lot of raucous octogenarians, and Mike Bartlett – who wrote Doctor Foster – was there because he lives in the village. He said it should be a TV show and offered to produce it. At first we felt like we’d told the story and digging it up again felt unnecessary, but then we thought we might always regret it if we didn’t. And if it’s useful to other people going through anything similar, that would be great. Britney changed everything. I like to think of her as the best-worst thing that ever happened to me.'

“Charly and I sat next to each other on the bus on a school trip to France and within about an hour we were both like, “Oh OK, this is it forever.” By the time we got off that bus we’d got a million private jokes. We had huge ambitions of being performers and hosting Saturday Night Live .

I was at Charly’s house when her mum got the phone call about her tumour. The first thing Charly asked to do was dig out the sumo suit in her loft for a photoshoot in the garden – that set the tone for the whole experience. There was humour in the darkness, so I thought it would be a good idea to do an Edinburgh show to take back control of this horrible thing that was happening. The show really is a love letter to our friendship.”

Britney is available to watch on BBC Three from Tuesday 30 November.

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