14 November 2020

Harlequins and England rugby’s Jess Breach opens up about her mum’s cancer battle and the importance of ‘family’

As England’s Jess Breach runs out at the Stade de Alpes in Grenoble for today’s autumn international against France her focus will be on one thing - the game.

But over the last year, concentrating on rugby has been tough as she has watched her mother battle with cancer.

And today, in an exclusive interview with NewsChain, the 23-year-old Harlequins star talks about the ‘horrible thing to go through as a family’, and how her rugby ‘family’ has helped her cope.

Breach’s mum, Patricia, was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2019, something she says was ‘hard’ to hear.

“I went home to see my parents one weekend and my mum was acting really off and, if I'm honest, quite horrible. I spoke to my dad about it and said 'is mum okay? Is she in trouble at work?' and he was like 'she'll tell you in due course'.

"I was like 'okay well I'd rather know now than later' and I said 'I'm not leaving until you tell me’ and he said 'she's going to see someone because she thinks she has a lump in her breast’.

“So I think I had a little warning before everyone else so it wasn't as much as a shock to me when it was diagnosed as breast cancer.”

And although she knew  it was a possibility, Breach says it was still difficult to take when the news was confirmed, particularly as she lives away from the family home in Sussex.

"One time in Kingston at a Bill's restaurant, it's so weird how you remember all this information, she then told me that she was going to see people about it and she was waiting for results. Then I was in the car with my boyfriend when she rang me and told me.

"So, yeah, I think it was quite hard but I think I had quite a few opportunities to ask her questions. We still weren't certain, so when I found out I was sad but it wasn't as much of a shock, like my brother only found out when she told him. 

“But yeah it was hard, especially not living at home. I think that was the worst thing. I couldn't see her or help her, it was just her and my dad. My brother only lives ten minutes away so that was quite nice and they have quite a good supportive friend group but because I lived an hour and a half away that was quite hard.”

More than a year on, Breach says her mum, who is a nurse, is better now and has been ‘fantastic’.

"It's had it's ups and downs. I think as she's a nurse she is quite mentally strong and never takes people's care, she always wants to look after herself. It's challenged her and made her be aware that she's not invincible and no one is.

“But she's been fantastic and everyone has throughout the whole process and I think she realised that it's a horrible thing and a horrible thing to go through as a person and as a family. But she's back to work now and we just have to wait. It's a five year, you have to wait five years as it could come back, but hopefully it doesn’t.”

While her mum is better, Breach does recall a particularly difficult time when she was due to play DMP Durham Sharks when her mum was quite ill.

"I think there was one time that sticks in my head, we were playing DMP at home for Quins and I went to see her at my aunties on the Friday and this was when she was going through chemo. She would have good weeks and bad weeks, so she could do stuff towards the end of her chemo but not at the beginning so it was like every three weeks.

"She went to travel up to see my auntie and we went to lunch on a Friday and she didn’t eat her lunch and said she didn't feel very well and I said ‘why don’t you stay at my auntie’s, as my auntie only lives an hour away from our home. So I said 'just stay there and then either come to the game tomorrow or stay there and I'll come and take you home’. Like I said before, she doesn't like people fussing or worrying about her so she was like 'okay I'll stay and I'll drive home because you've got a game’.

"The game was alright, I think I scored like five tries, but before the game I was really crying and I didn't know what to do because I knew she was ill and my dad was away on a rugby tour with his girls team. I was like I don't know what to do. Quins as a whole were really supportive and said if you don't want to play you don’t have to play, you can go now. 

"But she'd want me to play. If she saw I wasn't playing she'd be annoyed and so I played and at the end of the game I just rushed off and Leanne Riley came with me, came home with me. 

“It was an awful experience to see her in that state and then we had to take her to hospital and she was really ill. I think that moment will stay with me forever, just the whole process to think that there is life outside of rugby. Family is big, important to me as a whole and I think it is for a lot of people. You do it [rugby] for your family but your family is as important as your rugby career.”

When Breach spends time with her family now she values it as ‘quality time’.

"You never expect it, you don't expect your mum or a family member to get diagnosed with cancer. It's a life threatening illness and some people aren't as fortunate as we've been with my mum.

"But yeah I think it has brought us together and [made us realise] the time we spend together is quality time now and that we don't take it for granted. If they can come to a game it's great, but if they can't we take time to go and see them during the week.

“Now Covid has been a thing this year it hasn’t been as much as I'd like to see them but I went home for the beginning of Covid because of my ankle [injury]. That was nice to spend some time when she was better and we could do things together, go on walks and stuff which I think is nice.”

And she added it’s not only brought her family closer together but she has realised how much she is cared about in the rugby community as well.

"I think it's just made me aware of how important family is and how caring and open everyone is. Harlequins as a club were very open and were like if you need to have time away, you need to not play a game [you can] and so were England.

"I think that's nice to know that you're cared about, even though rugby is first, you're still cared about as a human being and your emotions. I think it does drive me on and I think some part of me when it was all high up in the state of it, when she was diagnosed, I was thinking ‘oh I just want her to see me achieve’.

“I think you start overthinking things and worrying that they're not going to see that or have the opportunity to watch you but luckily at the moment it's all a-okay. Hopefully they’ll be able to watch games soon but yeah I think it's definitely driven me to be a better person.”

Breach will be in action for England in their match against France on Saturday. Kick off is at 1.15pm and it is available to watch on BBC Two.

The best videos delivered daily

Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox