Amy Dowden on being hours from death, avoiding bitterness and the healing power of Strictly

March 14, 2024. Series 7. Episode 84

In this episode I’m joined by Strictly Come Dancing legend, TV presenter and candidate for Britain’s most resilient woman  Amy Dowden.

Amy’s huge success is all the more remarkable as it has been achieved whilst battling Crohn’s Disease which she has been living with since the age of 11.

Last year Amy was diagnosed with breast cancer. When she developed sepsis towards the end of her chemotherapy, her family were told she only had hours to live.

But throughout all this continual crisis, Amy has remained positive, focusing on the future and determined to share her astonishing story – just as she does in this episode – in the hope that it will help others.

Amy is the most brilliant example of someone who, in crisis, has focused on the things they can control whilst putting their positivity to work.



Dare to Dance

Coppafeel –

Stream/buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning:

Some Velvet Morning Website:

Your Daily Practice: Sleep by Myndstream:


Host – Andy Coulson

CWC team: Jane Sankey, Louise Difford, Zach Ellis and Mabel Pickering

With special thanks to Ioana Barbu and the brilliant people at Global


For all PR and guest approaches please contact – [email protected]


Full transcript 

Amy Dowden: And I just kept thinking, this is so unfair, I just want the answers.  I want this to go away.  Or have an operation, take my stomach out if you need to.  That’s what I used to scream when I was in agony.  Just cut me open and take it out.

Andy Coulson: Welcome back to Crisis What Crisis, the podcast that aims to guide you towards a more resilient life and whatever it might throw at you. If this is your first time with us, then please do hit subscribe wherever you’re watching or listening, it really helps make sure that these, I hope useful, conversations are shared as widely as possible.

My guest today is the supremely talented, universally beloved TV presenter and dancer Amy Dowden. Strictly Come Dancing legend, former national dance champion and a contender for the title of Britain’s Most Resilient Woman.

Having taken her first dance steps in a caravan park in Cornwall, Amy’s career has taken her to competitions around the world, a British championship title and a dream role on the show that she’d watched since she was a girl.

Amy can appreciate this success more than most. Indeed, all of her remarkable achievements have come in the face of a series of health crises that would have stopped most of us in our tracks. We’ll talk about Amy’s experience living with Crohn’s disease, which she has struggled with from the age of 11, the illness still has a huge impact on Amy’s life, illustrated so movingly in her powerful BBC documentary back in 2020.

And last year Amy was diagnosed with breast cancer. Months later a second cancer was found, she also developed the potentially deadly condition sepsis.  Somehow, throughout it all Amy has pushed on and pushed through with a sense of positivity and resilience that is truly inspiring.

The show “Dare to Dance”, which Amy was recording when she received her cancer diagnosis is available now on the BBC iPlayer, where she brings her unique Strictly sparkle, doing what she does best – you can find links to this in the show notes.

Now, this is a great time to be talking to Amy because just a few days ago she was given some incredible news. That that long course of chemo and other treatments that she had received had done their job, leaving her cancer-free. Great news.

Amy Dowden, welcome to Crisis What Crisis.

Amy Dowden:                    Thank you so much for having me, and thank you for that lovely intro.

Andy Coulson:                   It’s great to see you. So Amy, last week, after a scan you were told that there was no evidence of cancer. Four truly amazing words to hear, I suspect.

Amy Dowden:                    Yes, absolutely. And something that you dream of. I’d been having some bone issues and I think I’d just kind of like told myself that it had spread to the bones and that was it. And when the doctor said, “We have found something,” your heart just sinks. And then he said, “But it’s not cancer,” and yes, I was crying. I do have impingement of the shoulder and I can get some physio or injections, you know, there are things that can fix that so that’s okay.

But it was really- the pain I was having there, I knew it wasn’t muscle, I knew it was something else because of obviously years of dancing and training. And I guess after everything you’ve been through your mind just takes you to, you know, it’s spread. I don’t know, you always just think the worst after everything I’ve been through.

You’re told at the beginning of chemo that you’re at the risk of sepsis, blood clots. I had it all. So I think I just kind of had got myself to a point where I was adamant. And yes, I cried then with my twin sister afterwards.        And since then I can’t stop but giggle and smile and just know that I’ve been given another shot of life, and I’m going to grab every opportunity along the way.

I’ve met people also going through their cancer battles, one of which is Nicky, a young girl in her thirties as well, and sadly she lost her life along the way. She did so much to raise awareness, the most beautiful, beautiful human. She always said, “Go grab life,” so that’s my motto now, it’s, “Go grab life.” I wore a t-shirt with “Go grab life” on on the last day of my chemo for her, so she’d know that I’m listening and that I’m going to do this for you as well.

Andy Coulson:                   That’s amazing. And for your family as well; your parents, your husband Ben, your sister who you mentioned. All been at your side throughout all of this, so that piece of news as well just must have been an incredible moment obviously for them as well.

Amy Dowden:                    Yes, absolutely. I don’t think- especially my parents, have really slept since May. And you know, I’ve seen the pain in the eyes of what it’s done to them and the toll it’s taking on them. I think people forget it’s not just the individual going through it, it’s their loved ones as well who are suffering so much.

My mum also has battled cancer twice, thyroid and breast cancer, and she said that the worst- it was far worse hearing that her little girl had it, to herself. My twin sister is a midwife and she’d watched all while I had suffered with my Crohn’s, and her and my brother just felt it was so unfair, “Why has Amy been dealt all of these bad cards and not us?” But I wouldn’t want them to have to go through anything that I’ve had to.

But yes, we’re an incredibly close family, and my husband as well who was Mister Positive all the way through it and giving me the tough love when I also needed it. And I had an incredible group of friends, as well. You really learn during these times who your friends and family are, and I’m lucky enough to say that I really truly do have the best. My friends had a chemo group going, that they all came to a different chemo each with me, and you know, would come and take it in turns to come and sit with me at the house.

So Ben, who is also self-employed, my husband, could go to work at least, and give him a little bit of normality. But I don’t think he had any normality throughout it, though.

Yes, we were really, really lucky with our friends and family. They just kind of gave up their lives for the last few months to take care of Ben and I.

Andy Coulson:                   So this amazing support system; your family, your Strictly family as well, we’ll talk about that. But what I really want to do today Amy is learn about you, about your resilience, your quite frankly remarkable ability to persevere through what have been so many sort of layers of crisis. This is not one problem that you’ve had to deal with. From the age of 11 really it is just a remarkable story of resilience, and that’s what I’m keen to talk about today.

So if you don’t mind, let’s go back to the start. Tell me a little bit about your upbringing, tell me about growing up in Wales, in Caerphilly, about what it was like growing up with your twin sister Rebecca, who you have mentioned. I think she was your first dance partner, wasn’t she?

Amy Dowden:                    She was, and I’m so lucky to have a twin sister. Although I don’t know what it’s like not to, obviously, but we truly are best friends. Every milestone in life we’ve been here for each other, I always relied on her and vice versa. And growing up in Caerphilly, a lovely town, you know, full of all our friends and family. Parents who devoted their lives to us children.

I look back at my childhood and only think of happy memories. I started dancing at the age of 8 and it quickly took over my life, and there I- I had like second parents there, Philip and Carol Perry who were my dance teachers, until this day they are still my mentors and have been with me every step of the way.

So I’m very, very lucky, and have got incredibly close friends as well, still at home. But you know, my parents really did do everything in order for us children, to give us the best opportunities in life. My dad worked seven days a week in order for us to be able to go and do the hobbies. They always said that they didn’t care which career we took in life so long as we were happy, whether- if that was working at the supermarket or going off to do other things.

But what they did do is they saw where our love and our passion was and they pushed us.                        So they did everything in order- extra tutoring as well as her dancing. They made sure we all had jobs as well, part-time jobs.

Andy Coulson:                   A work ethic.

Amy Dowden:                    A work ethic yes, but we also had them to look up to. And you know, my dad always would say- I can remember the night I won the British, “How lucky am I to have had you, Lloyd and Rebecca, and the careers you’ve chosen?” But actually we wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t down to them.

My mum would work out what percentages we needed in each exam from our grades and our coursework to be able to get- so we got onto the courses and the universities that we all wanted to, you know. They did, they went beyond and above, and they sacrificed pretty much their lives for us children.

Andy Coulson:                   And would you say that stability has been the bedrock of your resilience? Would you say that that kind of confidence that they’ve given you as well, I’m sure, has been the kind of foundation for you?

Amy Dowden:                    Absolutely, 100%. And watching my dad’s work ethic, and the kindest soul. Everybody who meets my dad, they fall in love with him. Especially at Strictly and all the celebrities, they all know him. If he walks into the room Stacey Dooley is like, “It’s Richard Dowden! I think that’s because of his infectious personality.

To my mum who, you know, growing up I had to watch her with her thyroid cancer battle, where she was always having treatment and Thyroxine to-

Andy Coulson:                   What age were you when that was diagnosed?

Amy Dowden:                    It started just before I was born, but her treatment would continue. She’s got a scar right across here, to then I was 19, no 20-

Andy Coulson:                   So you had a very kind of visceral example of resilience as well, and with that she was behaving in the way that you’ve just described as this incredible mother, a lesson that you obviously were absorbing all the way along the road.

Amy Dowden:                    Yes, and then I was 20 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, where you are very aware and you are very scared of the word cancer and you just instantly think, “I can’t lose my mum.” I remember I obviously had my Crohn’s disease and when they told me I’d become really violently sick because I was so worried and stressed, it’s the worst thing for Crohn’s.

I can remember vomiting all night, and my mum just came and sat on the sofa with me and she just said to me, “Mum’s not going anywhere Amy, you don’t need to worry.” And I think you know, her strength and the way she dealt with it and pushed on, like obviously when I heard the words, “Sorry Amy, it’s cancer,” I knew that my mum’s been through it, that gave me the confidence, do you know what I mean?

Andy Coulson:                   Your mind went straight there, did it?

Amy Dowden:                    Yes, absolutely. And mum’s got through it, and also a very dear friend of mine, Jenny, who got diagnosed in 2020. We’d just been on that journey with her, which also made it quite scary for me because it was very fresh in my mind everything she had been through. We were there every step of the way for her. My husband used to take her children for school for her when she was on chemo to help her out.

But seeing that she had got through it as well, I think I was lucky to have those people around me very close that I knew, okay, I’ve seen success stories from people very close, and like a major impact in my life. So I guess that gave me the determination and the courage and the strength that it’s going to be okay. You never know, obviously your mind does go to the scariest of places as well, but I just kept them at the forefront of my mind.

Andy Coulson:                   Yes. I’m interesting to talk about that, your sort of- the phrase we use on this podcast is your operating system, how you were dealing with it day to day. I’m very keen to talk about that, but let’s just track back a little bit if we may.

So you’re this energetic, buzzy child, talented child, your dancing talent is already evident for everyone to see. You’re competing, you’re excelling, and then one day out of the blue you start feeling unwell. I suspect actually it was more gradual than that, I’m sure. But you start experiencing the symptoms of what will later be diagnosed as Chron’s disease. You are 11 years old, and I think it’s fair to say your life sort of completely changed from that point onward.

So can you just give us a feeling Amy if you can, for that stage of your life and that diagnosis and what it meant in kind of practical terms for you and the family?

Amy Dowden:                    So at 11 years old the pain came on, and the vomiting, the diarrhoea, losing consciousness when I was in so much pain, and I think my family were just so worried. I think we always used to think at the beginning it was appendicitis. I got rushed in, but it was not. I had two cousins with Crohn’s disease, instantly my auntie’s would be saying it’s the same as them, and I think my parents always knew in the back of their mind it’s Crohn’s disease. I was very aware of what was going on around me.

But it took eight years for a diagnosis; eight frustrating years. And at some point it felt like, you know, by the experts we wasn’t being listened to. The GP was always amazing, but at the hospital I wasn’t getting the tests and I wasn’t I guess getting the answers or the treatment, and it took to when I was 19 years old and I got so poorly that-

Andy Coulson:                   So sorry, it was eight years of this before the diagnosis?

Amy Dowden:                    Eight years. And it would come and go, and my mum would do a food diary, we’d be marking off on the calendar a good week you know, then a bad week, and you just never knew when it was going to come.

Also it was embarrassing for me to be going to school and you know, I’ll never forget one time in the science class needing the toilet a ridiculous amount of times, and you know, putting my arm up and everyone laughing. And then the teacher saying no, I’ve been going to the toilet so many times and I just had to run out and go, I was in so much pain. And you know, my parents having to go up the school and explain things.

It was really tough as a teenager. And then you’re like, you know, I didn’t have answers, I couldn’t say to my friends it was this or it was that, or to the teachers.

Andy Coulson:                   Let’s talk about your teenage resilience, then, just for a second. I mean, how were you- never mind the practical details or difficulties of that, it’s the emotional stuff, right? And particularly at a very kind of difficult age where kids can be pretty mean. Just that one anecdote that you’ve given us there, you can imagine that for a child that’s terribly, terribly difficult.

How were you managing that as a teenager? I guess if we go back to the support you were getting from your family that was a factor, right? That you were able to go home and talk about it, one assumes was the single most important thing.

Amy Dowden:                    Yes, and I very much am a talker, I wear my heart on my sleeve, so I would just go home and cry. But I’d just get so embarrassed, I’d be sat in the toilet and wait for everybody to leave before I’d open the door. But I was very lucky that I had a brilliant class at school and they all got to know, because ambulances would be a frequent thing for me. You know, it’s still- you know, it’s a giggle isn’t it, in the past, whether they meant it or not.

And I think I would make it an issue in my head, because I was so conscious of it. Or if we had a supply teacher who had no idea what was going on. It was, it was just- yes, I’d say it was embarrassing more than anything, for me, I felt.

Andy Coulson:                   Yes.

Amy Dowden:                    And frustrating. Because for me I just wanted to be dancing, and every time I was in hospital it meant I wasn’t on the dance floor, I wasn’t at the dance lessons, or it was another competition I was missing out on. And I just kept thinking, “This is so unfair, I just want the answers, I want this to go away. Or have an operation, take my stomach out if you need to,” that’s what I used to scream when I was in agony. “Just cut me open and take it out.” I just wanted my old life back. I wanted to be the Amy, you know, that didn’t have these worries, I guess.

Andy Coulson:                   But what you could easily have done is, you know, because dancing is not a straightforward choice, even as a child, right? It is hard work, physically hard work. You could easily have said, “Actually, with this, this is just impossible.” But you never did. In fact you sort of turned it into a sort of fundamental part of your sort of day to day kind of method of handling the diagnosis, right? It became your- it seems from this distance that it became part of the solution for you, right? To push even harder.

Amy Dowden:                    Yes, it was my medicine. It was my medicine at that time, when I was back dancing, and it gave me something to work towards. Dancing was my happy place, it was my escapism, and it still is now. An escapism from reality.

And I’ll never forget from the age of 8 years old walking into the Tower Ballroom, and earlier that year we’d been to Disney and I’d turned and said, “Mum, this is better than Disneyland, I want to be a professional dancer.” They had to bribe me out of the ballroom with a McFlurry. And I’d watched Kevin Clifton, who you know, later on Strictly, won the championships that day, and I was like, “I want to become a Blackpool champion.”

I had these dreams and ambitions, and dancing really was my happy place. I do wonder what my mental health would have been like, how I would have pushed myself through these excruciating pains, these long stays in hospital, if I didn’t have the desire, the determination to get back on the dance floor.

But at the same time, would I have achieved what I have done if I hadn’t been through what I’ve been through, and the cards I’ve been dealt in life? You know, from being in hospital for six weeks at 19 years old, missing out on Blackpool.

Andy Coulson:                   So how is that then, Amy? Because we can keep attributing this to the wonderful childhood that you had, but in truth there is something in you, even as a teenager, that is so determined and so fixed on what it is you want to achieve in life, that you were- because the easy decision, one might say the likely decision that someone would reach in those circumstances, is, you know what? Of course it can’t be dancing, it’s going to have to be something else.

And I assume that there were people around you who were possibly even saying that. Not your family, who were right behind you, but I’m assuming that along the way there were people saying, “Look, this is just going to be too difficult. This is the wrong choice.” Am I right?

Amy Dowden:                    Mm, 100%. And it made me even more angry and frustrated. Because when medical professionals say, “Stop the dancing,” you’d be like, “Hang on a minute. You’re not living in my body, you’re not living with the pain. How dare you?” And I think that gave me even more determination. “I’m a person that if you tell me I can’t, I will.”

And I think I was very lucky to have found something I’m passionate about, that I loved, at such a young age. And I guess dance was my saviour. And I also knew what it felt like to have something I loved being taken away from me. So like when I hospitalised for weeks on end, or for six weeks at one point, I knew what it had felt like to have my dancing taken away from me, so when I could dance I was going to do anything I possibly could in order to do it.

And I guess, I wonder would I have achieved what I have achieved today if it wasn’t for what I’ve been through? Because it’s taught me resilience. Like, my Crohn’s disease taught me strength, it taught me real pain, so maybe when I was in the training room leading up to the British Championships I pushed myself that little bit harder because I knew what it was like to have excruciating pain that made me pass out. And I think it gave me that like, “I’m going to show you,” kind of thing. And, “I want to be Amy the dancer and not Amy with Crohn’s disease,” I always used to tell myself, and be known for that.

So I do wonder. I think, you know, both have taught me an awful lot in life, but I do think having- it didn’t have to be my dancing, maybe it was- if I had another passion for something else, reading or for, I don’t know, school, or becoming an English teacher. So I think I was just lucky that I found a passion, something I knew-

Andy Coulson:                   So that’s the advice then isn’t it, because this pod is about passing on those lessons. Find something that you’re truly passionate about and put it to work.

Amy Dowden:                    What you love, and taking you away, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   Not just for what it brings of itself as a career or whatever form it takes, but to use it as a means to get through.

Amy Dowden:                    But also like, it doesn’t even have to be a job. It can be a hobby, it can just be something that takes you away from your reality or your pain, or you know. When I’d be in so much pain I’d be thinking about my next dancing dress or the next competition, or how I was going to walk onto the floor. Rather than trying to get fixated on those four hospital walls, which is so easy to. Because I had my twin sister off at university at one point, where- and all I was doing was in and out of hospital constantly.

Andy Coulson:                   With your twin, it strikes me that you’ve got this- you’re obviously incredibly close, but you’re seeing the life, her life running alongside yours, going in a completely different, a healthy direction. That must have been incredibly difficult for you both, actually.

Amy Dowden:                    Yes, it was frustrating, and I think for my twin she would get so upset and anxious, and you know, “Why not me?” But at the same time I’d look at her off living the university life and I was just in and out of hospital and like having these enormous dreams that just seemed to be fading away, and it was just like, you know, you’d go on the social media chat and it was- because they were taking off at that age, and all my friends were living the life at uni and at the time I had no life, you know? I wanted to just scream and shout at the doctors, like, “You’re taking everything away from me. Look what my friends are doing; I want to be doing what they’re doing, not here. Please just give me an answer.”

And the day I found out it was Crohn’s disease I actually kind of celebrated. I don’t think anybody celebrates being told they’ve got a chronic condition, a condition they’re going to have to live with for the rest of their life, but for me it was like, finally I’ve got answers. So finally we can start the medication or surgery or go down the route to, you know, to finally get this in control so I can continue with my life, kind of thing.

And I always remember that day so clearly when it was like, “You have Crohn’s disease,” and I was just like, “Hallelujah,” kind of thing. Like, “Okay, now I can actually begin my life.”

Andy Coulson:                   Before that diagnosis, how were you dealing with the anger? I mean, you’ve said-

Amy Dowden:                    Yes, very angry.

Andy Coulson:                   You’ve got a wonderful phrase, “Don’t get bitter, get better,” which is wonderful. But easily said, hard to do, right? You mentioned, “Why me?” there, which is the sort of- a totally understandable position that people who find themselves in those kinds of circumstances can fall towards.

How did you stay out of that bitterness pit?

Amy Dowden:                    I didn’t stay out of it, I guess I learned that phrase because of it. And I would get so angry and so upset sometimes, my parents would be so worried, I’d just get in my car and drive. Like I wanted to drive away from everything that I was dealing with. But I guess I’ve learned over the years to really talk, to let my emotions out, and that it’s okay to feel angry and upset, frustrated. But I guess as well over time getting my condition under control and being able to go on and live the life that I wanted helped.

But yes, in those moments you know, just remembering that I will get better, and you know, to persevere basically.

Andy Coulson:                   So let’s talk about the operating system in that phase then, right? When you are in the bitterness pit what is that you’re saying to yourself to get closer to the exit?

Amy Dowden:                    I start with, “It’s not fair, why me?” And then all of a sudden it’s like, “Okay, you know this is going to be a couple of days or a week or so of pain, but you will get back to the dance floor,” and then I’d just fixate myself on either a performance or being back with the Strictly crowd, or just something that- or a new costume. Or I’d watch dancing videos on YouTube of my favourite dancers, or I’m listening to a podcast about dance-

Andy Coulson:                   So you’d just focus on something that you knew would give you- even if it’s just for a brief period, a sense of joy.

Amy Dowden:                    Yes, and freedom from my then reality at the time. Yes, absolutely. And little goals; I’d set myself a realistic goal and every day I was working towards that goal.

Andy Coulson:                   Give us some examples Amy of the goals that you’d set yourself.

Amy Dowden:                    So, when I was in hospital when I was 19 for six weeks I was missing out on Blackpool, the British Championships, and that was in the May, then July, at the end of July, it was the UK Championships. And I was like, “Okay, I’m missing out now but I’m going to make it to the UK Championships. I’m going to get fit, and okay I might not get the result I want because I’ve missed out on so much training but I’m going to be on that dance floor doing what I love, surrounded in diamantes and-” you know.

Andy Coulson:                   You sort of visualised it, did you?

Amy Dowden:                    Yes, visualised it. I used to visualise the costumes I wanted, or even just like planning out the next year’s competition calendar or watching back my old competition- at the time DVDs. And you know, trying to learn from my performance, video performance analysis I guess you’d call it now.

Andy Coulson:                   You start dancing with your now husband, Ben Jones.

Amy Dowden:                    Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   Tell us a bit about how the two of you first met and about those early years together.

Amy Dowden:                    So, we used to be each other’s dance rivals, so we used to compete against each other. One would win one and one win the other, and then our coaches thought we would be better together. And so we had a try, what we call in the dance industry a try out, and we just instantly clicked, and we decided to start off this dancing journey together, and then we soon fell in love.

For me, Ben is so- he’s a very different character to me. I’m very like a stress-head, I want everything to be right, I want the results, where he is more chilled and relaxed, and sees- he’s like perfect for me, we’re the opposites. When I was getting frustrated and angry with a dance result he would see the bigger picture and be like, “Okay, we didn’t win but it’s not going to change what we’re doing in the training room tomorrow, we’re always going to be working on this.”

So yes, and he’s far more talented and creative than I am. So yes, I was very lucky to have met him and you know, we were lucky enough to go on and become British Champions, and to have been able to take that title with somebody you love, and that, you know, huge milestone in our life that we always get to share together.

But also he was so understanding of my Crohn’s and you know, he never took it out me when, you know, he wasn’t suffering but he would suffer because he would be missing out on competitions when I wasn’t well enough to-

You know, we went all the way to Paris for the World Championships and you know, he literally had to get me home. As much as- as quick as we started dancing we were like then on the next flight home because he knew I was about to have a flare up and start being ill, and by the time we got to the UK I was in an ambulance going off. And there he is missing out on doing what he loves and what he’s trained to do.

Andy Coulson:                   So that’s literally on the eve of the competition. You’re in Paris, you’re ready to go and then you get struck down.

Amy Dowden:                    Yes, I start being sick and he just knows.

Andy Coulson:                   Right. And in practical terms that is a flight home, that’s straight into an ambulance, that’s into hospital.

Amy Dowden:                    Yes, and then I’m there for a couple of days. And even sometimes now he’ll watch Strictly and he knows when I walk down the stairs with my partner, “Amy’s not well.” He can just tell by the look in my eyes. I will never forget in 2019 he was watching, it was Halloween week, and he knew. He got in the car and he was straight to me and he was there by the time at the end of the show.

Andy Coulson:                   Just from what he’d seen, he’d noticed it on the TV?

Amy Dowden:                    Yes, he knew. And I guess, so he went through punishment but he never took it out on me that we were missing this or, you know, he would always be the one to know, “You need to rest otherwise you’re going to have a flare up.” And you know, that was his career on the line on many a times, but he understood it. And I’m not sure many people would have.

Andy Coulson:                   You achieved a huge amount together. Welsh champions, British Championship finalists, World Championship semi-finalists. But in 2016 your success reaches another level as we touched on, and you win the British Championships. But before that moment you got a call from the Strictly producers, I think. A call that you’d been dreaming about, visualising about I suspect, in those dark moments that you’ve described so brilliantly, about realising a dream that you had from childhood.

Just tell us about that. And you’re then thrown into a dilemma, to put it mildly.

Amy Dowden:                    Yes, so both my dreams came at the same time, I guess. Out of the blue Strictly Come Dancing had called me and they’d asked me to come down. I went down, never in a million years did I think this would progress to anything, you know? They’d scouted me and then they asked me did I want to become the first ever Welsh professional dancer to join the show?

At the time my now husband and I didn’t have a penny to our name. We were competing all over the world, we were travelling back and forth to LA, we had several jobs to be able to fund our dancing career, because you know, other than like say a dance dress or a shoe sponsor you don’t get any funding or help.

Andy Coulson:                   What were the other jobs, can I ask?

Amy Dowden:                    Yes, so I’d be teaching dancing, I was a secretary at a medical company, growing up I’d worked in a hair salon, Pizza Hut, worked in a special needs school which I loved, teaching Zumba classes, dancing classes, just anything, worked for Barratt Homes at one point, to be able to fund it.

And yes, we had a dream when we first danced together to become Blackpool- the British champions, and then this phone call came and they offered me the job, and going on Strictly obviously would have changed everything. You know, we were setting up our own dance school, so just the profile of what it does to your name would have helped us with our business.

Andy Coulson:                   It was transformative, yes.

Amy Dowden:                    [0:32:54] Yes. We were living with his parents, in his parents’ house. Genuinely we wouldn’t have been able to survive if it wasn’t for his parents who put us up and would feed us, because all our money literally went to going back and forth, because our coach lived in America, LA, so we were back and forth there for our lessons every other month.

So that, Strictly was- you know, a childhood dream, and a life-changing opportunity. But then there was the British Championships, and they wasn’t asking Ben if he wanted to go on the show because they were only looking for females at the time. And you know, all British pairings in terms of two partners- partnership, hadn’t took this title in over twenty years. So you know, what a moment that could have been. But also there’s no guarantee you’re going to win. You know, I could have had a Crohn’s flare, or the judges- someone could have danced better on the night, or a new couple could have formed, or you know, anything could have happened. It could have just not been our night to dance well, you know, we’re human.

But you know, how could I take that away from Ben? How could I take that away from our-

Andy Coulson:                   But he wanted you to take it, right?

Amy Dowden:                    He wanted me to do what was right for me, but I knew equally the drive, the determination that, you know, he wanted that British title for him, for his family too. They wanted it so much, they’d sacrificed so much for us. Getting a Blackpool title makes you eligible to judge, because there’s only so many British champions and you’re there, in that programme, that name, that title, a Former British Champion, goes next to your name forever.

It’s like a PhD I guess in our dancing world, and how could I take that away from Ben? How could I like with myself and go off, you know, there was Strictly, and the time I’d spent with Strictly and the process of it, I had seen what an incredible Strictly family there was, and I had friends on the show. But I didn’t know what TV world was like, so I was also going into something that, you know, might not have been for me.

But also I had to make a decision that I could live with for the rest of my life.

Andy Coulson:                   That’s what I love about this story, is that you’re not just- having given us a flavour of just how focused you’d been on achieving that, when the moment comes you’re able to zoom back from that moment and think, “Actually, what does this moment mean in terms of my life? What does it mean in terms of whatever’s going to come further down the road for me?”

Quite aside from recognising the value of this for Ben as well, but you know, it’s unbelievable, it’s a really fascinating thing that having had so much focus on achieving this, when it’s offered to you you’re able to kind of, “Actually no, I’m going to pull back from that and make a decision very much in the long term.”

Amy Dowden:                    Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   Because you didn’t know at all that you’d get another offer, right? When they come, and the moment- when the door opens it opens, it could well shut forever.

Amy Dowden:                    Absolutely, and I always talk about the opposite, like from other pros on the show, they were like, “They’ll never ask you again.” And I was the first ever professional dancer to turn the show down, and you know, a British one at that. Like, crazy. And I was being offered the first ever announcement of being the first ever Welsh pro, but I had to make a decision that I could live with for the rest of my life. And I just kind of told Strictly at the time, I was in tears, like you know, “I hope that if ever this opportunity comes again you can see that I’m loyal, that I’m focussed, and I would give you my everything,” but it just wasn’t the right time in my life.

And I didn’t know at the time, was I making the right decision? You know, I had many people telling me, “No, go do it,” and other people saying, “No, don’t.” But I had to sit back and go, “What’s right for me? Yes, let’s be true to myself.” And I’m so lucky that it all worked- it did all work out.

And I did then the following year get the opportunity. The producer called and said, “Is now the right time?” And the Strictly team, they were so understanding, and when I did win Blackpool they did email straight away to say that I’d made the right decision and that, you know, when they found out that they’d all screamed in the production office and they were happy, applause for me.

But at the time obviously I had no idea, you know.

Andy Coulson:                   Outstanding. And Strictly I know were incredibly supportive with regard to your health and Crohn’s diagnosis, where there had been others who I think had- I think you’d lost jobs, right? You’d lost work because of that diagnosis. There were some people who just didn’t want to take you on, didn’t want the risk that It brought.

But Strictly took a completely different view didn’t they, to their great credit?

Amy Dowden:                    Before Ben I’d go for try outs for partnerships auditions, and as soon as you mentioned your health no, they see you as a risk. You know for each jobs, they don’t want- you know, you’re a liability to them, and it was all about breaking the stigma. And I used to get so angry, because I’m punished enough by living with this condition for the rest of my life. Just because I have Crohn’s disease it doesn’t take away my work ethic, my talents, you know? With everything I’ve strived for, don’t punish me even more.

And I guess when Strictly offered me the job, in the back of my mind it was always like, “Well, when I tell them I have Crohn’s disease it might not even work out anyway.” And I told them and they were like, “Yes, it’s fine. If you can go on and win Blackpool then you can do Strictly. And yes, just make sure you put it in your insurance,” you know, in the contract and everything. And I was like, and they were just like, “All we need to know is what can we do to help you.” And I was just like, “I can’t quite believe this. This is surreal.”

And then after being on the show for two years I was like, “I want to speak out and I want to help others,” I don’t want others to go through what I’ve had to go through, and for work employers to understand, and family and friends to understand, bosses to understand. But you know, I was so incredibly lucky that the production team at Strictly are human and are, you know, they really do care for us dancers.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:39:05] I mean, credit to them but credit to you as well because the work that you’ve done around the sort of, you know, as you are right now, talking about this and shining a light on it I think has made a- I’m sure made an enormous difference to those that have kind of come behind you.

I’m going to keep coming back to this theme of resilience though, of overcoming setbacks.

So, in the pandemic your wedding is cancelled, your highly anticipated solo tour is cancelled, and I think you have a pretty dramatic, very difficult flare up, Crohn’s kind of attack if you like.

Amy Dowden:                    Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   All kind of coming in a very short period of time. Again Amy, how did you get through that period?

Amy Dowden:                    It was such a weird time, wasn’t it? And also we had just took on a new studio, a dance studio, an old gym had shut down and we took on this premises, and we had-

Andy Coulson:                   So you had the financial pressure of that as well.

Amy Dowden:                    Yes, we had major financial pressure there. We’d just spent thousands on doing it up. We’d outgrown our last one which was amazing, and our kids needed bigger and better facilities basically. And yes, we hadn’t even been in there a year, we’d just been in there months, and obviously we wasn’t- no one saw this coming. And we’re both self-employed, and like everybody else overnight everything got stripped back.

Our wedding, which you know, we’d been so excited and looking forward to, and the plans, you know, you knew that wasn’t going to happen. I was on the shielding list and you were scared for your Crohn’s and what might happen there if you get COVID. You’re away from, like everyone else, your loved ones.

It was, you know, a scary time, like everybody else, we had mortgages and everything else to cover, and I’d ploughed all my Strictly money that I’d had into the studio, and it was just all about surviving and just somehow not losing our academy over that time that we’d been- that was our dream and something we’d got to do together, and we couldn’t take that away from the kids.

Andy Coulson:                   But you managed your way through that. That was a day by day, week by week kind of challenge I suspect.

Amy Dowden:                    Yes, and we actually offered our dance academy- all of them had free lessons throughout the whole time because we didn’t- obviously we didn’t know how long it was going to go on for, but we didn’t want our students to lose the interest or to lose what their normality was, and that helped us both I guess.

I did end up quite poorly, and that was due to the stress of it all I’m sure, with my Crohn’s. But yes, we did come out the other side. We were determined no matter what we did, and even to Ben’s parents bless them, they would never have watched us lose it.

And you know, when we came out of COVID it was still a long slog, especially for the performing arts industry. There were so many mums with kids we couldn’t even touch, you know, and we- Ballroom and Latin you’d dance together, and I’d say we’re still coming- the whole of our industry is just coming out of that now, I’d say. Just

Andy Coulson:                   Yes. People assume- they see you on the TV and they think well, you’re alright. I mean, the calculation is that sort of brutal, isn’t it? And yet there are people, you know, we’ve talked about this in previous podcasts, in the creative arts in particular, who were- actors who prior to the pandemic were on stage in the West End who were then delivery drivers. Right? Having to just pull together the cash to be able to get through the week, the month. Because you are all self-employed and it is a vulnerable- it’s a wonderful profession, but it is also a very vulnerable profession.

Amy Dowden:                    Yes, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   So post-pandemic you released an amazing documentary that raised that awareness in terms of the Crohn’s challenge that you faced. You finally get married to the man you love, you appear in Strictly 2020, 2021, 2022. The dancing school is flying I think, you’re dancing on the 2023 Arena Tour.

Amidst all this positivity you’ve punched through so much. We’ve just scraped the surface of it really Amy, but you’ve just- the challenges never really stopped for you. It’s always been part of the background, it seems to me.

And then the day before you are due to go on your honeymoon in fact, you discover a lump on your breast.

Amy Dowden:                    Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   Tell us about that moment, and tell us about the decision that you made immediately after.

Amy Dowden:                    So I was up in Blackpool and we were staying in a little B&B, and the showers are tiny in there. We were up there for- my students were all dancing at the British Championships, it was a crazy day, you’re up at like four-something to get them all ready. I was in the shower, and lucky enough it was a tiny shower, and I felt the lump. And instantly I was just like I disregarded it.

And then throughout the whole day it was in the back of my mind. I’m trying to focus on the kids and then I get home and we’re going to the Maldives the next day on our honeymoon, which we’d been so looking forward to. We’d been so crazy with work since we got married and I went straight off onto Strictly, because obviously we should have got married in 2020, and then the only date available, you know, was a certain date which we had to take because like everybody was postponing their weddings.

So we got married and off I went for six months, and then off I went on tour and everything like that. So we were so looking forward to our honeymoon.

I got home and I checked it again and it was there. And then you instantly go on Google and everything comes up, and I just thought, “I can’t tell Ben because he won’t be going on holiday tomorrow.” We needed this holiday and I was so looking forward to it. But you know, as much as I’m smiling in front of him the whole day it was in the back of my mind, and I just knew, I had this gut feeling, I just knew it was bad.

Andy Coulson:                   Did you really? Instantly?

Amy Dowden:                    Yes. And I’d only just- after being partnered with Tom Fletcher, I’d become so close to Giovanna Fletcher and Tom Fletcher, and I did a Coppafeel trip with Giovanna just the week before my wedding.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:45:21] Coppafeel is this amazing charity.

Amy Dowden:                    Yes, and it’s all about obviously getting women and men to check their chests. So I’d learned the importance of it and I’d, you know, trekked with amazing ladies who had been through it, and you learn a lot about how it feels and how to check yourself. And every day I was rubbing lotion and I could just feel it, and I was just like it wasn’t going anywhere, and the more googling I was doing, and I was messaging my friends who had just been through and asking them questions. I didn’t tell them, I think one kind of worked it out.

And then I got back and I was so busy with my brother’s wedding, I was going to be presenting with the Coronation. Obviously this lump didn’t go away and then I lifted my arm up the one day in the mirror, Ben and I were doing a dance show, and I saw it. And I was just like, “Oh,” and then I just realised the importance, “I need to get this checked.” And then I-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:46:13] And because of your mum, because of your friend, your mind- yes.

Amy Dowden:                    Yes. I just went into overdrive. And then I went, and everything happened so fast. But I knew, and you know, I kind of just like, I’ve got a small chest, I haven’t had children, so I wouldn’t be producing milk. You know, just certain things that it being there, it didn’t come and go so it couldn’t have been part of my cycle, I just had- I just had this gut feeling. And yes, I just knew that it was breast cancer.

So even when they told me it wasn’t a shock, it was still like, “Okay, this is the reality,” but I was expecting it.

And overnight then when you hear the news your life changes, and it changes forever. And it wasn’t even just, “You’ve got breast cancer,” it was- then the next sentence, “What’s your fertility plans?” Because I had a hormone-fed cancer so they were going to need to put me into the menopause, and I’d just got married, my husband’s next to me, and of course we want a family. So that I think was even tougher to take, the news of that, than the cancer.

And then I was originally having a lumpectomy and then they did an MRI and there was more tumours, and then- so I had a mastectomy, and then after the mastectomy the pathology came back and I had ductal and lobular cancer. And then there was chemo, and then you know  with chemo comes everything else.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:47:46] Amy, I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through.

Amy Dowden:                    [0:47:50] You know, and I’m not the only one.

Andy Coulson:                   No, I know. I know you’re not the only one, and I know that your natural instinct would be to go to how lucky you are, but my goodness. Having- it’s not just about that moment, and even that short period of time that you’ve just described. It’s the fact that it’s come after so much challenge in your life, that’s never really left you. It’s been the backdrop to your life.

Amy Dowden:                    The only thing I guess I can take from it was at least I’m used to hospital stays, I’m used to injections and tests.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:48:26] That is what’s called positive thinking, Amy, at its most extreme, if the best thing you can say to yourself is, “At least I know what it is to spend time in hospital.” I mean, forgive me but you’re incredible. I mean, this resilience is just extraordinary.

Amy Dowden:                    Thank you. I guess I’ve been tested more than most, but I guess it’s also taught me resilience, taught me strength and determination and courage. I’ve been at the darkest of places and then I guess you learn to like- you know, you’ve been given a second chance at life to go and grab life. Yes, but obviously it’s changed me as a person forever, that’s for sure.

Andy Coulson:                   Just tell me then, after the cancer diagnosis and what came after, as you’ve described, a second cancer diagnosis. And then also I think at one stage, I touched on it in the intro, you developed sepsis. We’ve talked a lot about sepsis on this podcast; we had the actor Jason Watkins on quite recently, he very sadly lost his daughter to undiagnosed sepsis and has been campaigning on that.

I mean, another moment of- for most people, would only end in despair.

Amy Dowden:                    Yes. I wasn’t- chemo wasn’t really on the cards you see, and then when it was- I knew I had ductal cancer but I didn’t know it was lobular as well, and the surgeon wasn’t expecting that either, so this was just a completely, you know, a turn. I got quite low about it and you know, my oncologist was like, “You’ve got a really good chance of cure, but we’re going to do chemo,” and I didn’t want to do chemo. First of all I didn’t want to lose my hair. Some people might find that silly, but it was my identity, I’m a dancer. But also I knew I wasn’t going to be able to dance then.

And there was a lot to get my head around. The chemo, and that I had to go down this journey. I’d had chemo on the Thursday and by the Saturday I’d collapsed at home and I was rushed into hospital. I didn’t want to go into hospital, I was scared because I knew I had no white blood cells on that day, I’d had a bone marrow injection that morning and I just knew that going into A&E was going to be a massive risk. And luckily enough the ambulance men kind of pushed me; they couldn’t make me but they encouraged me and they did end up convincing me to go in.

I did take a turn in the ambulance, got to the hospital, they rushed me in, and my mum was with me and everyone rushed around me, and then they came back, “No, she’s got an infection but she’s okay.” About 2.30 in the morning my mum left me, and she said I was okay, I was talking. She said, “You were very unwell but you know, we could see you were making improvements.”

And then in the morning my husband had called to see how I was and the nurse said, “The doctor wants to speak to you.” And my husband said, “What?” because obviously my husband is so used to me going in with my Crohn’s, you know, he rings on the day and checks what time is visiting time, what does she need? The doctor needs to speak.

So on loud speaker, my mum and my dad are next to him, and they said, “She’s got sepsis.” And my mum and my dad just like broke to the floor, because we’d lost my auntie last year to sepsis.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:51:56] They knew exactly what it meant?

Amy Dowden:                    Yes, that’s what my auntie had passed away from unexpectedly. And then he said, “And also we think she’s got a blood clot on the lung, and she’s not responding at the moment to treatment. She’s gone unresponsive.” So my parents went into meltdown mode, Ben went into protection mode of them, and when they got to the hospital I wasn’t in the room. I was having an emergency CT scan and the doctor had just said to my- my mum had to walk away. My husband said that he’d said my heart rate and my blood pressure was so low that I probably wouldn’t function more than sixteen hours, my organs would go into failure. They felt I’d gone into septic shock.

They were very worried and the intensive care team were ready to get involved as soon as I’d come up from my scan. Luckily enough they changed the antibiotics and I think eight hours in I-

Andy Coulson:                   You began to respond. But there was a period there where your family were seriously concerned that they were going to lose you.

Amy Dowden:                    I woke up and saw the pair- I saw the pain in my parents’ eyes, and I don’t think they’ve been the same since. It was so tough for them to have watched that, especially after what we’d been through with my auntie. And yes, I don’t think they’ve been same or never will be the same again.

That was just after chemo number one, and then I needed to go again for another chemo. I just got unlucky, and even with having Crohn’s disease I have a low immune system anyway. I’ve met many people who have gone through chemo and that is the big, unfortunately side-effect that, you know, you get a cold and instantly it can turn to pneumonia in a matter of hours. And that you don’t have the white blood cells and you don’t have the immune system to be able to fight back basically. You need help.

But yes, it was a very, very tough time, and at the same time as that all the pros started rehearsing together. The celebrities were being announced on Strictly, and that’s where I just wanted to be. I didn’t want to be battling for my life, basically.

Andy Coulson:                   And you’re still- but you’re still kind of- obviously not through that period, but once you start to recover from the sepsis, or you start to respond to the treatment, your mind is immediately- this is the thing that’s so fascinating to me. Your mind immediately switches to, “Right okay, what next? How do we get through this? What am I going to be doing beyond this?”

You know, and these are all moments when most people, I think, would feel that they are- I think most people listening to this I suspect would feel that you were well within your rights, not to give up of course but certainly to- you know, the “Why me?” bit to be the loudest voice in your- the loudest words in your head. But they never were.

It also strikes me that your pain threshold must be so- I mean, beyond.

Amy Dowden:                    A lot of people say that. I guess because during the time the Strictly family was so great and the producers said they were going to get me involved as much as they could, that was my cling on, do you know what I mean? “Right, I’ve got to get well because I want to go to Strictly next weekend, and I want to be back with the gang.” And maybe if I hadn’t had that during that period, of just going from chemo to chemo and nothing to look forward to, I might have been a very different person.

Andy Coulson:                   Well, it’s your physical pain threshold, it’s your emotional pain threshold. I mean, it’s just remarkable.

Amy Dowden:                    [0:55:44] Thank you.

Andy Coulson:                   You’ve spoken very movingly, Amy, about the effect that losing your hair had on your mental health and your self-confidence. This is something else that we’ve talked about on this pod as well with other guests. There were points I think when you couldn’t bear to brush your own hair and look in the mirror.

Now, that is, as you’ve explained, a central part of your identity, a fundamentally important part of your identity. How did you manage that one in the end?

Amy Dowden:                    So, my husband would brush it and he would hide away all the hair that was coming out and put it into a box so I wasn’t seeing. But I would find it so tough when I’m used to all the glitz and glam of Strictly, and then to, you know, your identity being stripped away. Yes, you don’t want it. I’m very like a feminine girl. My husband would find me crying most nights, and would have to come and chat to me and hug me and then give me some tough love.

I had the decision I couldn’t bear it any more, wherever I’d walked there would be a trail of hair left behind, or waking up in the morning and seeing that hair all over the pillow, and I just knew that, you know, I’d got quite a big bald patch there. It was going to fall out in the next session anyway, so I did take control and wanted to do it.

It was the only thing I felt I could be in control of at the time, and I just thought, “Well cancer, you’re not taking that from me.” So on the Saturday I decided tomorrow I’m shaving my hair. My friends came round and we tried to make it a fun afternoon as we possibly could. I had them dancing of course, and they all cut a piece each. We had NoProsecco to drink and some cake. It was tough but we actually smiled, we laughed and we cried throughout it. I shared the video to try and help others and give them the courage or the hope that they needed, or to show that, “I’m too no different to you guys as well, we’re in this together.”

Andy Coulson:                   Is that control bit, is that a part of the Amy operating system as well? The ability to let go what you know you can’t impact, which is again something that is central to crisis management I suppose, seems to have come very instinctive to you. “I know I can’t control it, so I’m just going to let that go and I’m just going to focus on the things that I know I can have some influence over.” Is that part of your approach?

Amy Dowden:                    100%, yes. For me it definitely helped. But I guess, you know, there’s no textbook on how to deal with this, and everybody is individual and they’ve got to do what’s right for them. But for me, that was the right thing for me to do at that particular time. I’d got my head around it. It wouldn’t have been the right thing to do say a couple of weeks beforehand, but at that time I knew it was what I needed within that part of my cancer journey.

Andy Coulson:                   Yes. So Amy, you’ve had this fantastic news off the back of the latest scan, but obviously because we now understand, we’ve heard the story, your health challenges obviously are going to continue to be a part of your life.

Having gone through this stage, having gone through these incredible challenges though, how has it adjusted, how has it changed your attitude to the years ahead? I know you’re- you’ve talked about it already. You are someone who grabs every moment. But just give us a fuller idea of your sort of- without getting too grand about it, your philosophy now.

Amy Dowden:                    I guess I’m like, I’ve been given a second chance of life and I have lost people along the way, and a friend of mine who always said, “Go grab life.” And you know, that’s exactly what I’m going to do, and that’s why I wore a t-shirt saying that at my last chemo, “Go grab life.”

Andy Coulson:                   Just tell us a little bit about that friend please, just so that the listeners know.

Amy Dowden:                    Yes. I met her, Nicky her name is, and she got diagnosed with breast cancer, unfortunately got to secondary cancer, and she did everything she could to raise awareness, and she was brilliant at it. Her legacy will live on. I reached out to her when I got diagnosed and we become, you know, friends online, we’d send each other voice messages and you know, she raised- she was such a ray sunshine for everything she was going through. She knew it was going to get her but she didn’t- I don’t know, she didn’t let it define her and it gave me that hope.

When I heard the sad news that she’d passed I was like, “I’m going to go and grab life and I’m going to do it for you.” And I know that there are so many people who won’t get the news that I’ve got, and you know, I’m so grateful for that. After everything I’ve had, I feel like I was robbed of 2023, that I’m going to make the most of every single day, every single opportunity, and I learned that in those sentences, “Sorry Amy, it’s cancer,” that your life changes forever.

And you know, you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow so yes, to tell your loved ones you love them, to spend time with your family and friends, but also if an opportunity comes that you’ve dreamed of, don’t put it off, just do it.

Andy Coulson:                   Amy, I’m so pleased that you got that news and I’m so grateful that you’ve come on to the podcast to share your story. It’s an incredible story of resilience, it’s inspiring to hear.

Amy Dowden:                    Thank you so much.

Andy Coulson:                   And long may your recovery continue.

Amy Dowden:                    Thank you. Thank you so much.

Andy Coulson:                   If you’ve enjoyed this conversation with Bryony, please do give us a rating and a review, it really does help. And if you hit ‘subscribe’ wherever you download your podcasts from you will find loads more useful Crisis conversations. You can follow us on Instagram and TikTok, and you can watch the full episodes on YouTube. Just search for Crisis What Crisis podcast. You can also find full transcripts of this and every episode we’ve recorded on our website,  Thanks so much for joining us