Labour MP Wes Streeting says his battle against a shock cancer diagnosis at just 38 was boosted by an amazing show of faith from Keir Starmer.
The party leader promoted him to the Shadow Cabinet only weeks after learning of his life-changing illness.
Now Wes has been galvanised in his resolve to fight for the NHS and stand up for the vulnerable in his new role as Shadow Child Poverty Secretary.
In an emotional first interview, Wes – who announced his return to Westminster last week – tells how he helped fight a local election campaign despite finding out he had a malignant tumour on his kidney in March.
He hid his illness from many colleagues to knock doors in 20 constituencies in the run-up to the May 6 vote, before taking time out for life-saving surgery.
Wes, MP for Ilford North in London, said: “I feel so lucky to be alive and I’m more than aware it could have gone a very different way for me. It’s been scary.
“I feel so privileged that the month after I was given the diagnosis I was
also given the chance to make a difference to the way we come out of this global health crisis. It’s been a difficult time and I’ve learned a lot, but I’m here and so grateful.”
Wes had just driven four hours from his London home to campaign in Bury, Greater Manchester, when his hospital called to deliver the shattering news.
His world stopped in a frozen community centre car park as a doctor broke the news.
Wes said: “The words ‘kidney cancer’ were still ringing in my ears when colleagues knocked on the car window. I just got out, and started knocking doors while in the back of my head, I was thinking, ‘I have cancer’.
“It was only when I got back to my hotel that night that I rang my partner Joe and my parents and told them.
“I did a practice run with my constituency office manager first to see if I could get the words out without crying, as
I didn’t want to upset them.
“They wanted me home, but I needed to finish what I’d started.”
Little did Wes know that his own party leader would lift him in his darkest hour. Keir learned of Wes’s diagnosis on April 18 and promoted him to the Child Poverty role three weeks later on May 9, only three days after the local elections.
Wes said: “Keir appointed me in the middle of my cancer journey knowing I’d be out of action a few months. It was an extraordinary show of faith from him, and it gave me hope for the future too.”
“He came to my constituency on the campaign trail the week after I found out about it and visited me in my office.
“I told him about my diagnosis and he was amazingly supportive. By total chance, he even met my surgeon in a pub and told him to take good care of me.
“On a Sunday night a few weeks later he called me and said he wanted me in the Shadow Cabinet with a child poverty brief. I don’t just want Keir to be Prime Minister because he’s a decent man, I think he’s the best PM candidate put forward by any party in over a decade and I’m determined to help get him there.”
Today Wes’s prognosis is excellent. He has lost his left kidney but he’s cancer-free. It has just a 2% chance of returning, thanks to quick-acting NHS doctors.
Wes said: “If this has taught me anything it’s the value of our NHS and how it should be cherished, not squandered and left to rot by this Government.
“I went in for a scan thinking I had kidney stones after excruciating back pain. I did, but I also had a 7cm tumour in my left kidney. Symptoms for kidney cancer are very rare in early stages so if it weren’t for those doctors, I’d be walking around now with no idea I had cancer.
“Having fought successfully to save my local A&E at King George Hospital in Ilford, I never imagined a visit there would save my own life. I’ve never had to use the NHS for a serious illness and it brought home how incredible it is that we have it, free at the point of use.
“Both my nans fought this disease. My mum’s mum, Libby, died from lung cancer in her 50s. It was my first experience of loss. When dad’s mum Heather was seriously ill with cancer I went to see her to say goodbye in 2014, but thanks to the NHS she’s just turned 80.
“I have friends and colleagues who have suffered and are suffering with it. We must protect this amazing resource.”
“People ask me why I carried on campaigning after the doctor called me, and that’s partly it – because there is so much for Labour to fight for. The biggest worry I have now is about NHS waiting lists of more than five million. When it comes to cancer treatment, timing is vital. Now I’m back, I’m determined to fight for other cancer patients.”
His brush with mortality has also made him determined to work with the rest of the Shadow Cabinet to push for a post-pandemic NHS recovery plan.
John Alevroyiannis/Daily Mirror)
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Wes, who lives with campaigns consultant fiancé Joe Dancey, 44, has been an MP since 2015. He has always called on his own life experiences as motivation for his political battles.
Formerly president of the National Union of Students, it was as Shadow Schools Minister that he quickly became known for scathing speeches attacking the Tories. He focused on giving the least fortunate young people opportunities – and in his new role he vows to do the same.
“I couldn’t be more invested in working on child poverty strategy, as I grew up in poverty myself,” he says.
“I lived in a council flat in Stepney in a single-parent family. I relied on free school meals and I remember regularly sitting in the dark when the meter ran out and Mum couldn’t afford to top it up.
“I used to think I was unlucky, but when I meet kids in my own constituency living in temporary accommodation, today I realise how lucky I was. Things are getting worse, not better. Now even work doesn’t always pay – one in six working families are in poverty. No child should go hungry and no parent should have to choose between heating and eating for their family.
“This Government has zero strategy for solving the child poverty crisis – four million kids live below the breadline. That must change.”
The impressive politician – tipped by many as a future hope – has also learned lessons about his home life since his illness.
“Being sick has reaffirmed how important friends and family are to me in a way I think many people have realised over the last 18 months.
“I came round in the Royal Free after surgery and couldn’t have Joe or my family with me. It was scary. The nurses were amazing but it dawned on me how much pressure they are under. We went into a pandemic with 40,000 vacancies and it’s got worse.”
Looking to the future, Wes says: “A cancer diagnosis makes you realise how much you rely on others and how precious time with them is.”
“I’ve just celebrated 10 years with Joe and I appreciate the time we spend together – and with our friends and relatives – more now than ever before.”
And now he’s back at work. “I won’t shy away from pushing this Government to act in the interest of voters,” he says.
Wes reveals he received a message from Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie after his diagnosis. “I got a letter, which was lovely. It said I’d proven myself a fighter in politics and now I would fight cancer too. I was very touched by it.
“And Boris isn’t wrong. I am a fighter – and the fight for Labour, the NHS and our country continues.”