My life in lengths: Surviving polio, living with leukaemia and presenting QVC

Julia Roberts
swimming getty 300x225 My life in lengths: Surviving polio, living with leukaemia and presenting QVC

(Getty Images)

I’ve been a presenter at QVC for almost 20 years and yet still I get asked at every viewer event I attend: ‘What did you do before you joined QVC?’ When I tell people, their response is usually: ‘I didn’t know that about you, you should write a book.’ That’s how the original seed for my book was planted but the idea for the format came about whilst I was swimming in the pool of the house I used to own in Spain.

I had worked out a routine to keep myself fit that involved swimming a hundred lengths, and before you get too impressed I should probably point out that it was only a 12 metre pool. Nevertheless it used to take me just under 40 minutes to complete and it could get quite boring, so for each length that I swam I used to think of things in my life associated with that number. It certainly made the time pass more quickly and it probably helped me keep count too. Then, in July 2011, as I ploughed up and down the pool doing my backstroke and breaststroke, I had a light bulb moment. I could turn One Hundred Lengths of the Pool into the book I had always wanted to write.

When I got home from my holiday I began to compile a list of chapters based on the thoughts I’d had in the pool. Unlike most autobiographies, Chapter 1 doesn’t tell the story of my birth, it is my number in numerology, and Chapter 2 is about coming second in a story writing competition at the age of 10, which leads on to other writing I have done.

Every length tells a story, from my varied career in the entertainment industry, starting as a cover girl on a cookery book in 1966 to my passion for Crystal Palace football club. I do write about my early childhood, in particular contracting the killer disease polio when I was 14 months old, which, as you might have guessed, is Chapter 14.

As I was so young when I was diagnosed with polio, I had to rely on my parent’s account of events for my personal story, but I also did some research about polio generally and it was when I discovered Rotary International’s ‘End Polio Now’ campaign. The figures for naturally occurring poliovirus have been dwindling year on year since the campaign began, there were only 205 new cases in 2012. There is a real chance that the disease could be eradicated globally but we have to act quickly or risk the virus re-emerging. I have joined the world’s biggest online commercial, ‘This Close’, and I will be making a donation from the sales of my book.

I am one of the lucky ones, I am a polio survivor. The disease left me with badly wasted muscles from the waist down on my left side. When I left hospital on Christmas Eve 1957 I was wearing a calliper and my parents were told that this was always to be worn. Fortunately for me they would not accept that my condition could not be improved, so as well as the physiotherapy sessions at the hospital my mum did exercises with me every day and I was taught to swim. The swimming and later dancing classes strengthened my leg but I still had a limp which was more pronounced when I was tired.

For years I would make excuses if people noticed my limp and asked me if I had hurt my leg. Then about five years ago I made the decision that I didn’t want to make excuses anymore. It was not my fault I had contracted polio, I needed to ‘come out’ and give other people in a similar situation the confidence to accept and celebrate the fact that we are different. It was liberating.

I will be doing a sponsored swim later in the spring for this charity and also for Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research. Why this second charity you might be asking? Well, in April 2012, during a routine health check I was found to have an abnormally high white blood cell count. I was advised to see a consultant haematologist as soon as possible and two weeks later, when the results from my bone marrow biopsy were back, it was confirmed that I had chronic myeloid leukaemia. This is a fairly rare blood cancer with only around 600 cases diagnosed in the UK each year.

My consultant, Professor Anthony H Goldstone CBE, told me I was very unlucky to have this condition but very fortunate to have it now rather than 10 years ago. There has been a huge amount of research into this type of cancer, thanks to charities like LLR, and there are now what can only be described as ‘miracle drugs’ to help control the condition.

Julia Roberts’ book ‘One Hundred Lengths’ is out now

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