Handsome actor Ben Richards and his beautiful wife Helen look the image of a perfect, contented and healthy couple as they stroll through the grounds of St Michael’s Manor in Hertfordshire.
But what these photos don’t reveal is the heartache that they are experiencing. After surviving the agony of losing seven babies before full term due to a rare genetic condition, the couple are now reeling from the shock news of Ben’s recent cancer diagnosis.
Speaking with admirable honesty about his illness for the first time, Ben reveals to hello! that he is suffering from bowel cancer.
“The hardest battle for me is not so much the physical side, it’s trying to keep positive,” admits Ben, who is known for his starring roles in The Bill and Footballers’ Wives. “There’s a daily thing of trying to stop yourself from getting down. Some days it beats me and I’m against the ropes and I lose a round. But then I fight back.”
The oncologists are “very confident of a full recovery”, but Helen admits she’s still upset that despite her “nagging”, Ben didn’t seek help sooner. He had noticed blood in his stools but admits he was a “typical bloke” and put off seeing his GP for several months.
“I think about ten per cent of my energy had gone, but I hadn’t really noticed,” he says. “I’d put it off for a while.”
Helen looks at her husband with a wry smile. “It was a loooong time,” she says. “Five months.”
A ‘BOLT OUT OF THE BLUE’
The diagnosis, which was a “bolt out of the blue”, came just two days after Ben visited his GP.
“The consultant said, ‘Okay, Mr Richards, you do realise you’re going to need chemotherapy and radiotherapy?’” says Ben, whose voice becomes softer and slower-paced as he recalls the painful conversation. “It was like the wind had gone out of my sails, like someone had punched me in the stomach.
“The consultant’s phone started to ring and he was about to turn it off. I said, ‘Why don’t you take that so I can take in what you’ve just told me?’
“About a hundred things go through your brain,” says Ben, who is telling his story in the hope that it will encourage others to seek medical attention before it is too late. “He came off the phone, and I said, ‘Are you saying what I think you are?’ He said, ‘Yes, you’ve got a six-centimetre tumour in your bowel.’”
Ironically, Helen was at another Hertfordshire hospital at the same time. She was having injections in her stomach ahead of a planned visit to a Spanish fertility clinic, where she was due to undergo artificial insemination.
“I called Ben to see how his appointment was, and he was really quiet and cagey,” recalls the likeable Helen, 37, who lives with Ben and their two dogs in a modern Hertfordshire townhouse. “I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ and he kept saying, ‘Nothing, it’s fine, but I need you to come later and have a meeting.’
“I said, ‘If you don’t tell me, I’m going to think it’s something really bad, like cancer.’ He just went silent. I literally dropped the phone and ran outside and sat in my car and cried.”
Helen collected Ben from hospital that evening and they drove home, largely in stunned silence. At the time, Ben was involved in a theatre
workshop of Sir Tim Rice’s new musical adaptation of From Here to Eternity.
“That also saved my life,” says Ben. “Because I was doing that, I delayed my plans
to fly out to Los Angeles [for TV pilot season] by two weeks.”
The couple admit that the cancer diagnosis is testing their 15-year relationship to its limits.
“Some people lean very heavily on their partners, but I had to work it out in my own head first,” admits Ben. “It’s selfish but it’s what I needed. You forget how much it is affecting your partner, your parents, your sister, your best friend. You are just concentrating on the day-to-day and trying to stay afloat. It’s difficult for Helen, who feels like, ‘I’m struggling, let me in.’”
Helen agrees. “I do feel pushed out,” she says, looking into her husband’s eyes. “You’re just so focused and you don’t talk as much as you usually would.”
She also admits that she is “scared” and that they’ve put their plans for a family on hold.
“I think if I do end up getting pregnant, then what if Ben were to die on me?” she says. “I know they’ve said that won’t happen, but there is a part of me that’s going, ‘I don’t want to be here on my own with kids. I want my husband around me.’
“On a daily basis someone says, ‘I don’t know how you cope.’ What else are we going to do? What choice do you have? You hear so many stories of people that have had it really bad and you think, ‘There are always hundreds of thousands of people worse off.’”
“There are moments when I start to feel grumpy,” adds Ben, who is a patron of Chestnut Tree House hospice in Sussex. “But then I think about what someone else is going through and I’ll think, ‘What are you complaining about?’”
Do the couple consider themselves to be strong people? “Yes,” they answer immediately, in unison. Helen then gives the matter further thought. “But there are days when you get up and you cry for 20 minutes in the shower,” she reflects softly. “Or you find yourself drinking more than you should, just thinking, ‘I can’t cope.’
“Every morning you wake up and it feels as if you’ve been really drunk and you want to go back to sleep and pretend it didn’t happen. Then you realise, yes, it did, and you’ve got to wake up and get on with life.”
Helen feels that she’s coping better every day, but the reality can hit her at different times. For instance, three weeks ago Ben took her to watch The Descendants, a film whose storyline revolves around a woman in a coma.
“That was a great thing to take me to,” she laughs. “I was projectile crying.”
Ben is almost at the end of a five-week course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. He will then have a five-week break before having an operation on his bowel. After two months of recuperation comes another operation, with more chemotherapy possibly to follow.
His treatment won’t be completed until the end of August, but Ben says he is feeling “alright” physically and has even managed the occasional session in the gym. He has also been buoyed by the tremendous support he has received from fans on Twitter.
But the side effects of the chemotherapy have hit him harder than he thought they would. On the evening of his first chemotherapy session he had optimistically scheduled a concert, but had to pull out.
“I’ve never cancelled a gig,” says Ben, who is also a musical theatre star and has appeared in West End productions including Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. He describes the side effects as like “your worst hangover, then double it. I just curled up in a ball.”
Sadly, this isn’t the first time that the couple’s world has been turned upside down. Helen has been pregnant five times, including twice with twins, but has lost the babies each time.
“We could both have children without any problem, but together it’s nigh on impossible to have them,” explains Ben.
Ben and Helen each carry an incredibly rare gene, which has meant that all their babies have suffered from diastrophic dysplasia – a disorder that affects bone and cartilage development – and they were advised to terminate the pregnancies before full-term. The couple were told that the chance of this happening during their first three pregnancies was one in 17 million.
“That’s the hard one not to get bitter and angry about,” concedes Ben. “It’s just not fair to see my wife go through that over and over again.”
Helen has also been very unwell during each pregnancy. “Each time you’ve convinced yourself that maybe it will be alright this time and you’ve tried to make plans,” she says. “Then you fall to pieces.”
But their shared grief has brought the couple, who have been inseparable since meeting while filming a TV show in Germany 15 years ago, even closer.
“I get told daily, ‘I can’t believe you haven’t split up,’” says Helen, “but why would we?”
“I’m proud it hasn’t torn us apart,” adds Ben. “It could have done.”
They haven’t ruled out trying for children again, but Ben is more optimistic than Helen, who admits: “My picture of us with two healthy children is blurred now.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Ben is unable to work until his treatment ends, but may soon have a meeting with a casting director of what he describes as a “prolific TV show” in Britain. And next week he is giving a fundraising concert in his home town of Bognor Regis, which is “helping take my mind off things”.
He is also using his unexpected time at home to teach himself to cook. Lying around the house moping is most definitely not his style.
“I don’t think you’ve cried yet, which I find quite bizarre,” Helen tells her husband.
“I did a little one, in the spare room,” he says, gently. “But then I was, ‘Okay, enough of this, let’s get on with it.’”
Ben claims the experience has been life- changing. “I’ve learnt how strong I am mentally. I will view life differently,” he asserts. “As human beings we take every day for granted. But I will look at my life, and every day, as a gift.”
Ben turns 40 at the end of this month and will celebrate his birthday with this renewed attitude. The couple are going on holiday to Mexico for his actual birthday and then holding further celebrations for those close to them.
“The support of family and friends has been much needed,” says Ben, who met up with fellow former The Bill actor Bruce Byron after his most recent radiation session.
“I’m fully aware that I’m very fortunate in many ways,” adds the star, whose attitude is inspirational. “There’s a Nietzsche quote that I’m thinking of having tattooed on me when I’m better: ‘What does not kill me, makes me stronger.’ And if this doesn’t kill me, it will make me stronger.”