“I just live and breathe it” – the woman who made a life-altering career change
Julia Bradbury’s fans always felt as if they knew her. She was the indestructible, outdoorsy one on TV usually found in a cagoule and hiking boots, with a slab of millionaire’s shortbread in one hand, an Ordnance Survey map in the other.
In the past year, however, viewers have seen a very different side to the star, a former BBC Countryfile presenter. Julia has been filmed at her most vulnerable in hospital, at home weeping in desolation and – a career first – has taken her top off to reveal her breasts on screen.
The 53-year-old was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2021 and underwent a single mastectomy the following October. In award-winning ITV documentary Julia Bradbury: Breast Cancer and Me, she allowed cameras to follow her before and after the operation to remove an aggressive, six-centimetre tumour.
“You cannot hear the words ‘You have cancer’ without thinking, ‘I’m going to die,’” says the mother of three today. “It makes you confront your own mortality and all the things you might lose. Like most people I had this naive self-belief, I didn’t ever think it would be me. I felt invincible and it was devastating to discover I wasn’t.
“Telling my little ones ‘Mummy has cancer’ is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. You can’t go through all that mentally and physically and not be changed by it. I see my life now as being in two halves, before cancer and after.”
Julia looks fantastically well, sitting in the back garden of her London home, under a canopy of trees. She’s wearing sports kit, having just completed her daily exercise session following a healthy breakfast.
It’s a stark contrast to her previous mad dashes to a TV set fuelled by bacon butties, biscuits and sweet coffee.
“I’ve learned a lot of life lessons since my diagnosis and one of them is that if you don’t make time for your health, you will have to make time for your illness,” she admits ruefully.
“I always thought my lifestyle was healthy-ish, but I was skating by on small amounts of sleep and multi-tasking. It took cancer for me to re-evaluate how I was living and working. It was all too much, I was too busy. Looking back now, I ask myself if that’s partly what made me vulnerable to breast cancer.”
Her response has been a two-year quest to learn how to live more healthily, making lifestyle changes that reduce the risk of her cancer returning. The presenter, who is the face of ITV’s Britain’s Best Walks, has now written a book, Walk Yourself Happy, in which she shares her knowledge about diet, sleep, exercise – and soothing jangled nerves.
“It’s a sort of manifesto for my new life,” she says. “But at its heart it’s about doing what I have always done, which is walking in nature. I love being outdoors but it’s taken cancer to make me understand how crucial that is for our health.”
Julia is mother to son Zeph, 12, and twin daughters Xanthe and Zena, eight, with her long-term partner Gerry. She endured several years of infertility and miscarriages before having Zeph naturally and the girls via IVF treatment in her early forties. What with her busy family life and her hectic TV schedule, she had a full diary.
“I had worn myself out,” she says simply. “This lifestyle overhaul isn’t just about recovering from cancer, it’s about keeping myself fit and well in the years to come. I hope to be around when my kids have kids and I don’t want to be the kind of granny who sits in the corner.
“It’s never too late to start creating new habits. Walking every day in nature – whatever your nearest patch of green looks like – that’s the foundation of good health for us all.”
With her journalistic training, Julia has done a year of meticulous research for her book, including interviewing world-renowned experts such as Professor Russell Foster (sleep) and Professor Tim Spector (nutrition).
In the course of her inquiries, Julia was shocked to learn that, according to research by the World Health Organisation, around 40% of cancers are preventable with lifestyle changes. So while she is still to be found in her favourite Fair Isle jumpers making walking programmes – her latest, filmed in the Republic of Ireland, is to be broadcast on Channel 4 – she is now set to write a second book about wellness.
She’s come a long way in the three years since she discovered a lump in her left breast in 2020. A mammogram suggested it was just a mass of benign cysts and it was not until her follow-up appointment a year later that the lump was identified, via ultrasound and a subsequent biopsy, as cancerous.
“I was chatting to my consultant about our summer holidays when he spotted a tiny dark pinprick and I knew from the way he paused that he’d found something worrying,” says Julia. “My whole world just fell away.”
A gruelling mastectomy would follow but thankfully she was spared chemotherapy.
“And then it was about building a new kind of life,” she says. “Walk Yourself Happy isn’t a book about cancer. It does chronicle what happened to me but it’s more about what I did in response. You can’t guarantee yourself good health but you can certainly safeguard it.”
Julia gave thanks for her recovery with a pilgrimage to the Peak District with her partner and children, her devoted big sister Gina, her father Michael and her mother Chrissie. She climbed Mam Tor, which means Mother Hill, bursting into ecstatic tears at the top.
“Cancer has bisected my life and I felt I had to go and say thank you for the second half. There was only ever going to be one way to do that for me – I had to go for a walk.”
Julia’s tips for a healthier life
Take regular breaks in nature during the day. Connect with whatever green space you have.
Soak up daylight for 20 minutes, 7am-9am, to set you up for the day and get your sleep cycle in sync.
Your body and brain need it to repair and recharge.
Read up on types of daily breathing for relaxation.
It staves off physical and cognitive decline.
Avoid highly processed foods and cut down on refined sugars and alcohol.
Walk Yourself Happy: Find Your Path to Health and Healing in Nature by Julia Bradbury (Piatkus, £20) is out now
Julia Bradbury will be appearing at the Henley Literary Festival supported by Saga Exceptional on October 7 at 4pm.