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Interview with Julie Hesmondhalgh

Posted by: Comms 20 January 2014

Members of Pancreatic Cancer UK's Information and Support team and Medical Advisory Board worked with ITV to develop the storyline featuring character Hayley Cropper who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer back in July last year. 

As Hayley's journey on the Street draws to a close we catch up with actress Julie Hesmondhalgh. We find out how she felt about playing a character diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and whether she thinks this storyline has helped to raise the profile of a disease that has historically had such a low profile.   

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Pancreatic Cancer UK: How did you feel when you found out Hayley, the character you played in Coronation Street, was going to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer? Were you already aware of the disease?

Julie: I was a little bit aware of the disease as a family friend had died very quickly from it the summer before, and had even shared the e-petition on Facebook. But in terms of the statistics, the "silent nature" of the cancer and the shocking survival figures I had very little idea.

Pancreatic Cancer UK: Was it a storyline you had to especially do research for? In the end, could the research really prepare you for Hayley's journey?

Julie: In the first instance, I relied heavily on the work that had been done by the researchers, storyline team and writers at Corrie. They know Hayley as well as I do and I thought they wrote perfectly how she might cope with the diagnosis and initial treatment. I just had to imagine as best I could how it would feel to be told that kind of shocking news.

Towards the end, when the cancer took hold I needed some guidance with regard to the physical aspects of the illness...where would she feel pain? How would she move? I know weight loss is a big part of the disease and did my best to lose as much as possible, safely, in a short period of time. The make up department helped me massively. 

I spoke to Maggie Watts, who I'd been in contact with about the e-petition she had set up calling for better funding into research after the loss of her husband Kevin to pancreatic cancer.  It was during the whole loss of appetite/strawberry storyline and what she told me matched what had been written to a tee. It was an extremely helpful conversation. Maggie was always so supportive despite the very big difference in Kevin's story to Hayley's...he would never have contemplated taking his own life and fought to the end. 

Pancreatic Cancer UK: What were the most difficult scenes for you to shoot? Were there any that were surprisingly uplifting?

Julie: I found it very hard to be Hayley yet without any of her old quickness of movement. To slow her right down but keep her spirit was a challenge. The last scenes on the street in the starlight saying goodbye to Weatherfield were sad and lovely to film. The dying scenes were very hard and extremely upsetting as you can imagine. I love Hayley and it was a goodbye. I'm always painfully aware though that it's just acting and that people are going through this for real every day. THAT'S hard. 

Pancreatic Cancer UK: What has the public response been (for instance via your strong Twitter following) in relation to Hayley being diagnosed with what is a little known disease as opposed to a more common cancer?

Julie: I've been incredibly moved by the public reaction to the story and so grateful to everyone who felt the need to contact me to share their own stories and thoughts. What an incredible privilege. The support for Maggie's petition was overwhelming. 

Pancreatic Cancer UK: What was the most positive thing to come out of this storyline for you/Hayley?

Julie: I'm so proud that we seem to have got something right. The storm over the right-to-die issue has been huge, but quietly over these few months people have been connecting to the love story at the heart of the matter, and some people who thought they'd have to switch off, have seemingly found a bit of solace in seeing their experience reflected in a truthful way. That's worth any amount of awards to me. I'm proud of Hayley and what she's done to raise awareness of all sorts of things, without losing her humanity and gentle kindness. 

Pancreatic Cancer UK: What is in store for you next?

Julie: I'm at the National Television Awards on Wednesday then have the first night of Blindsided at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester on Thursday, then G.A.Y. are having a big celebration of Hayley at the club on Saturday in London after the play, so I'm being bussed down for that. After Blindsided I'm in the play I did last year, Black Roses, which is about the life and death of Sophie Lancaster, the young woman brutally murdered in 2007 because of her goth appearance. It's something very close to my heart, and another story I'm very proud to be part of. 

If you have been affected by the Coronation Street storyline and have pancreatic cancer concerns, please do call our Pancreatic Cancer Specialist Nurses on 020 3535 7099 or email support@pancreaticcancer.org.uk