Author: Gabrielle Fagan
Jay Aston says she no longer stresses about “silly little things”. After being diagnosed with mouth cancer in 2018, the former Bucks Fizz star was left wondering whether she would ever sing again – or even survive.
The experience rocked her world. But Aston, part of the original band that stormed to victory in the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest and went on to sell millions of records, is still performing with Mike Nolan and Cheryl Baker in The Fizz, a new version of the group. Before lockdown hit, they’d been busy touring and promoting their latest album, Smoke And Mirrors.
The enforced break has given her time to reflect on the “incredibly tough” two-year journey, which “made me re-evaluate my life”, says Aston.
“Surviving an experience like that makes you realise the simple things and pleasures you took for granted.
“We all get so upset about minor things and miss the fact that whatever’s happening, if you’re here it is a good day.”
Aston (59) who’s among a host of celebrities taking part in The Smiling Sessions – online sing-alongs to entertain care homes residents and isolated elderly people, – recalls the moment doctors revealed she had cancer.
“The whole thing was such a shock and completely devastating. Also I had no idea what effect the surgery would have on my voice,” she recalls. “I’m from a show-business family and singing and dancing is in my DNA and part of my identity, and to have that threatened was demoralising.”
Aston, who lives in the Kent countryside with her husband, musician Dave Colquhoun and their daughter, Josie (17), adds quietly: “I wrote my will. I’ve always felt you have to be a realist and face up to things when they happen. So I decided to plan for the worst but hope for the best.”
Aston had originally been told she had lichen planus, a type of rash, by her dentist back in 2015. “It just looked like a tiny white cobweb on my tongue,” she remembers – but by January 2018, the rash had spread to the back of her tongue.
Lichen planus can affect any part of the body and is generally harmless. However, when certain parts of the mouth are affected, there can be a slightly increased risk of oral cancer, and an exploratory procedure found cancerous cells in Aston’s tongue. A few weeks later, she had a seven-hour operation to remove 40% of her tongue.
Although she shed “tears of joy” when she was told the surgery had left her cancer-free, the road to recovery has been long and painful.
Surgeons created a new tongue using tissue from Aston’s thigh, which was fed into her mouth through her neck.
She required months of physio to regain full speech and projection – although her singing voice was unaffected. Her band mates, Aston says, have been incredibly supportive. The years of acrimony around contractual disputes – she and Baker didn’t speak for 23 years – are clearly behind them.
“We’ve had our moments but we have something special that bonds us together. It was also very emotional to get hundreds of messages of support and good wishes from our fans,” says Aston.
“I recorded as many tracks as possible on our album before the surgery, in case the worst happened and I was never able to return.
“I was actually able to start singing again just three-and-a-half months after the operation. It was nerve-racking at first and I had a lisp, which has now gone, but wonderful to know I could still perform.”
Her surgeons took care with the siting of the tissue graft, to minimise the visible scarring on her leg.
Aston says with a smile: “That’s great, as the band’s still asked to perform that skirt-ripping routine – we’ll probably still be doing it when we’re on our Zimmer frames! I have that leg scar and one on my neck, but it’s a small price to pay for life.”
The relief that she’d survive and be around for her family was overwhelming, she says.
“My biggest fear was that I might leave my daughter, who’s my world. I want to be there for her and to see her grow up, get married and see my grandchildren,” she says.
“My husband was wonderful. He was our rock. Dave’s a Northerner who doesn’t show his emotions but he’s been so strong, which is just what I needed. It wouldn’t have helped me to see him upset. We’ve coped for each other.”
Emotionally, she admits it’s been complicated. “There’s this huge feeling of being so lucky and thankful to have come through it, but you also go through different stages as you recover, when you feel very down because of all you’ve been through, and then you go up again.
“Of course, l’ll always be so grateful that it was picked up early and was treatable. I’d urge anyone with any concern, no matter how small, to check it out with their doctor or dentist.”
She readily admits that having check-ups every three months can still be nerve-racking.
“I’m still dealing with the unknown, which you do when you’ve had cancer. You cannot know for certain it won’t come back. You just hope it won’t. The threat of Covid-19 has, of course, added another level of uncertainty to everyone’s lives,” says Aston.
Her resilience has been honed by her past experiences. In 1984, Aston survived a near-fatal coach crash while on tour with Buck’s Fizz, which left her with temporary paralysis and memory loss.
In the years that followed, she lost both her parents – her mother to bowel cancer and her father to Alzheimer’s.
“Ironically, lockdown’s given me time to step back a bit and chill out, which I think I’ve needed,” she says. “I was so anxious to show I was fine after the operation, I think I pushed myself a little too much physically early on.
There are days still when I don’t have too much energy and have to rest. I have to respect the fact my body is still healing.”
Reflecting on how her attitude to life has changed, she says: “After a lot of soul-searching, you realise there’s no point going over the past. Instead it’s about focusing on the present, and I’m now at the stage where I feel positive about the future.”
She says viewing “footage of the galaxy and recognising its enormity and our tiny place within it” helps her stay balanced. “It takes my mind off things and re-balances my perspective.”
Aston adds: “I’ve never forgotten, as a school girl on holiday with my parents, when a very old lady came up to me and pressed a card in my hand.
“The message on it was, ‘Take risks – chances are you’ll never regret them.’ That was the wisest advice. It told me to get out there and live my life to the full, which I have.”
Jay Aston, along with other celebrities, is participating in The Smiling Sessions – virtual sing a-longs for care home residents. They’re raising funds for tablets so more residents can take part and improve their health and wellbeing during such difficult times for the elderly community.