Almost three years ago Emmerdale actress Leah Bracknell was given the most brutal news – she had terminal lung cancer and had just months to live.
Many people would have crumbled in the face of this devastating death sentence. But not Leah.
She vowed to use it as a chance to set an example to her grown-up daughters Maya and Lily on how to face life’s most extreme challenges.
And she believes her positivity and refusal to listen to the predictions of doctors has helped to keep her alive.
Despite the odds stacked against her, Leah, 55, is still hoping for her “impossible miracle” – and refuses to think about death.
She is currently pain-free and on an immunotherapy clinical trial which is keeping her cancer stable.
Leah lives in hope that this treatment could provide a cure – boosted by her positive thinking and a psycho-spiritual, which she called “a combination of mystical magic”.
Leah says: “People think, ‘Oh, she’s crazy’, but I believe in thinking outside the box. Medical science is an amazing thing and it is keeping me alive, but it has limitations because it is to do with the logical mind.
“But things we call miracles, things we don’t understand, happen all the time, they happen outside the realms of logic and scientific data. Nobody knows why they happen, but it is possible for the impossible to happen. I still hope I could get my impossible miracle.
“And if not, I am going to have a bloody good time along the way.
“I don’t need to go and fulfil a bucket list, that’s not my style, I just want to do the things I want to do while I am healthy and strong, I won’t let myself live in fear, I’m just going to live a good life.”
Listening to Leah talk with such optimism about her illness is humbling.
It was three years ago, in September 2016, that she was rushed to hospital with difficulty breathing and a tummy so swollen she looked pregnant.
Doctors performed a life-saving operation to drain fluid from around her heart – but discovered she had stage 4 incurable lung cancer.
The first oncologist she saw gave her little hope, saying there was no option other than palliative care. She had just months to live. But she says that almost from day one of her heartbreaking diagnosis she refused to contemplate death.
Drawing on her experience as a yoga teacher and shamanic healer, Leah used her mind as medicine.
“I sat myself down and thought, ‘How do I want to live now?’” she says.
“The focus is all on dying. So I thought, ‘How can I get the most out of my life, who do I want to be?’ You can still live a rich life whatever s*** is thrown at you, and I probably wouldn’t have thought like that before being diagnosed.”
Leah finds solace in her blog, Something Beginning With C, and is writing a book she hopes will help others in similar situations and their families.
And far from seeing herself as a cancer victim, or battling cancer, she has styled herself a “cancer rebel”, inspired by joining the Extinction Rebellion climate change protests in London earlier this year.
Leah says: “A lot of the labels around cancer are very military – you battle cancer, you keep fighting it. A lot of language is very negative – victim, sufferer, cancer-stricken. But that was not how I would describe myself.
“So I thought, ‘How can I reinvent that for myself?’ It was a pretty brutal diagnosis I had – stage 4 and there was nothing they could do.
“I was looking at months. So the actor in me thought I don’t like this casting, how can I cast myself in a more heroic role?
“The idea of rebel had been used by Extinction Rebellion and there were people like me – grandparents, children, a diverse section of people saying, ‘No, we don’t agree with what’s happening, we want to make change’.”
Leah said from the start that she would go to any lengths to live.
She embarked on an intensive protocol using cannabis oil containing THC, inspired by evidence that it can cause cancer cell death. It also helped her with the effects of chemotherapy.
She had never been a recreational user of the drug and for her it was a big step to see cannabis as a form of medicine – but it is one she has no regrets about. In the end she made her own cannabis oil from the plant.
She says: “I’m running out of time, I’m terminal and I’m doing all I can to prolong that and I’ve also broken the law. I’ve made myself into a criminal because I used cannabis.
“I’m not going to do what I’m told – and that includes dying when you say I’m going to die, that includes accepting your prognosis, that includes people telling me what medicines I should or shouldn’t take.
“Thankfully I’m not in any pain. I struggle with getting out of breath quite easily, that’s the frustrating thing for me. In the past I would’ve used the cannabis. I used it for pain relief and while having chemotherapy.
“I’m aware there needs to be more research but I’m a big advocate for it being something that should be available to people. I believe it worked for me on several levels.”
London-born Leah, who played Zoe Tate in the Yorkshire soap, is the daughter of TV director David Bracknell and Chinese-Malaysian actress Li-Er Hwang.
Her real first name is Alison, but she took Leah as a professional monicker in honour of her mother’s first name.
Six months after her cancer diagnosis she quietly married her partner Jez Hughes and it is he who has been by her side throughout all the mental and physical trauma she has faced.
“My husband is like my rock,” she says.
“He is by my side a lot of the time. He has been a great sounding board.
“I think we support each other as well.
“My family do OK. I’m not positive all the time, but I am optimistic.”
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