As we draw towards the end of the year, it’s natural to compare expectations versus our actual lived reality of the past eleven months.

One person whose 2023 played out dramatically differently to how she pictured it is Strictly Come Dancing professional Amy Dowden.

Not long after she and husband Ben Jones (her former dance partner, with whom she runs a dance school) touched down following their picture-perfect Mauritian honeymoon in April, Amy was diagnosed with grade three breast cancer.

The South Wales-born dancer, 33, shared the news with her hundreds of thousands of followers. And, in the months since, she’s become one of the UK’s most recognisable – and rooted for – patient advocates.

It’s thanks, in no small part, to how generous she’s been with sharing raw insights along the way.

There was the emotional video, uploaded in mid-September, in which loved ones took turns to help cut off her shoulder-length, dark blonde hair. It’s been liked over 281,000 times.

Or another, uploaded earlier this month, where a teary but triumphant-looking Amy rang the bell at Birmingham’s Good Hope Hospital to signify the end of her chemotherapy treatment.

And now, in another triumphant move, Amy’s fronting Women’s Health‘s December issue.

In her cover interview, Amy reveals why she decided to pose for the cover of our magazine without wearing a wig and just how much it’s meant to her to still have a role in this season of the BBC’s shiniest-floored show.

Plus, she shares why – even after all she’s endured – she really does not want, or need, people’s pity.

How Amy’s experience with chronic illness inspired her to be so open about her breast cancer journey

South Wales-born Amy is no stranger to health challenges. She’s spoken at length about her experience with Crohn’s disease – a chronic, incurable gastrointestinal condition – in her acclaimed BBC documentary Strictly Amy: Crohn’s and Me.

‘Finding out I had Crohn’s [Amy was diagnosed age 19 following eight years of symptoms] I didn’t ever have anyone in the public eye to look up to or to say to my friends, “That’s what I’ve got”,’ Amy recalls.

‘And I just had a little moment: I imagined teenagers being able to go to school and being able to embrace [not having hair] or go swimming and just be like, “I’m like Amy who’s off Strictly.” And that just gave me the confidence to go, “Yeah, let’s do this”.’

Mark Cant | Women’s Health UK

If someone receiving a cancer diagnosis so young – following two decades of struggle with a debilitating health condition that’s seen her hospitalised on multiple occasions – feels blisteringly unfair, that’s something not lost on Amy.

Does she ever feel angry about it?

‘Oh yeah,’ she confirms, without hesitation.

‘I always say, I never asked [for] this to happen to me. I’ve always worked so hard. I’ve always been a good person. I looked after myself, I’ve exercised well, haven’t smoked…I do get angry. I just think I’ve been dealt a difficult one.’

‘I think it’ll take a while to accept,’ she shares. ‘It took me a long time to accept my Crohn’s. Until I’m back dancing and back to my normal self, I don’t think I will accept it.’

What’s brought Amy joy, during chemotherapy and beyond

Amy is, clearly, itching to get back in her dancing shoes.

While that won’t be possible for this season of Strictly (fracturing her foot, days after finishing chemotherapy, precludes her making that much-longed-for return) she’s still very much at the heart of the series.

‘Watching Strictly has been a great help,’ she shares. ‘I’m my fellow professionals’ biggest cheerleader. I know people are like, “Yeah, yeah…” but we’re the best of friends.’

‘Honestly, not a day goes by without Dianne [Buswell] checking in on me; Carlos [Gu]; Katya [Jones]… production have gone above and beyond to make me part of the series as well,’ she adds.

‘To have no part in it would have been soul-destroying. And not good for me mentally, whatsoever. I don’t know what I would have done, I’ll be honest with you.’

Then there’s been the support and care of her husband, Ben Jones. ‘He’s been through so much with me with my Crohn’s but I guess, like, nothing will ever break us now,’ she shares.

Acts of service – and close attention – seem to be his love language. ‘If I mention something once, he’ll buy it, or if it’s a food I want, he’s cooking it.’

amy dowden in a gold dress

Mark Cant | Women’s Health UK

Amy’s steadfast friends – who have taken it in turns to go with her to chemotherapy appointments – have played a fundamental role.

Then there’s the community of women with breast cancer, who Amy calls her ‘pink sisters’.

‘I never thought at 32 I’d be diagnosed with breast cancer,’ she tells WH. ‘It’s a club you would never wish to be in, but when you’re in it, it’s the most loyal club you could ever be part of.’

‘I can speak to my fellow pink sisters and instantly they get it.’

Why it’s important to avoid making people dealing with health issues feel ‘other’

You probably could have guessed that underneath the gleaming smile and abundant sequins our cover star has a heart of gold.

But Amy is also a powerful and perceptive voice on the way we act around – and engage with – people who are unwell.

‘I just want to be treated as normal,’ she says. ‘When I’m walking outside and I’ve got my headscarf on, I don’t want looks of sympathy or feeling sorry for me – I’m Amy.’

‘Sometimes, people don’t know how to address it,’ she says of the awkwardness many feel around serious illness.

‘Just ask how I am – I will answer you. We don’t want you to feel sorry for us. We’re embracing it. Stand strong with us…Don’t give me that pity look – I don’t need it!’

Here’s to standing with our loved ones while they face health challenges. And saluting those – like Amy – who are drawing strength from sharing.

Read the full Amy Dowden interview in the December issue of Women’s Health, on sale now