My husband, Marc, and I are sitting in our favourite place in the world, on the deck of a little cafe on Lancing beach in West Sussex. Marc’s in his usual seat, side by side with me in my wheelchair, watching our younger son, London, 13, and his seven-year-old cousin, Xena, laughing with glee as they play in the waves. I often wonder how different things might have been if I still weighed over 21st. Would I be able to enjoy these precious moments with my family in the way I can now?
As a child, I’d always been slim then, when I was 15, I lost my best friend, Cara, to meningitis. To begin with, I’d turned to food as a means of coping with my grief, but it soon became a habit. Over the years, my weight went up as I rewarded myself with food when things were good and comfort ate when I felt bad.
For years, I’d been getting numbness in my legs, but by the age of 29, things had got so bad I couldn’t walk very much at all. I was admitted to hospital where tests revealed I had secondary progressive multiple sclerosis (MS), a lifelong condition that affects the brain and spinal cord, causing problems with vision, arm or leg movement, sensation or balance, or a combination. While symptoms differ from person to person, I was severely affected. Visiting me in hospital, Mum took me for a push around the grounds with the boys, when she suddenly lost control of my wheelchair on a slope. I came to a stop in a bush, but I now weighed over 21st and they couldn’t get me back to the path. Eventually, a kind passer-by helped, but I could tell my son, Deon, then 11, was worried.
‘Mum, if you’re going to be in a wheelchair, how will we do things together if we can’t push you?’ he asked
It was the innocent question of a child, but it cut right to the heart of the matter. I was determined to live a full, active life despite my MS, and I was sure I couldn’t do that unless I lost weight. Not long after I’d returned home, a Slimming World leaflet dropped through my door and I decided to join.
Going to group on my motorised scooter was nerve-racking, as I knew it would make me stand out, so I sat in a corner of the room, hoping I wouldn’t be noticed. ‘Don’t worry, if I can lose weight then you certainly can,’ said a warm, friendly voice. I looked around and saw that the woman talking to me had a walking frame. Leaning in close, she gave me a lovely smile that instantly lifted my spirits. Doreen, it turned out, had lost around 5st since she’d joined.
From that day, I stopped relying on the jars of pasta and curry sauce that had been our household staples and began to plan our meals in advance. I still had enough mobility to cook our dinners and we tried Slimming World versions of all our favourites – chilli con carne, spaghetti bolognese, Chinese takeaway-style meals and tasty curries. To my complete surprise, I fell in love with cooking!
And I discovered that going to group not only gave me an hour to think about myself and my journey, it was also just the kindest and most supportive place. I always came away feeling inspired
When I was made redundant later that year, it would have been easy to give up, but there was no way I was going to let it stop me from getting to my goal. By now, things like getting into the shower and pulling myself up from my wheelchair to dress myself had become noticeably easier.
In a year and nine months, I hit my target weight. But while I’d been shedding stones, Marc had been putting them on. I knew that his worries about my health had him seeking comfort in food, and I promised I’d now help him lose weight.
From then on, Marc followed Slimming World with me. We also exercised together. I was determined to keep my upper-body strength, so I built up to going to the gym four times a week with Marc. He lost over 6st, and I couldn’t have been more proud of what he achieved and the wonderful support he gave me.
A new chapter
In April 2016, feeling slim, fit and determined to live life to the full, I mentioned to Marc that I’d had an idea I’d need his help with. He smiled at me, but couldn’t disguise his slight trepidation. ‘I want to be a Slimming World Consultant and run my own group, so I can help other people,’ I said. ‘What do you think?’ Marc smiled. ‘We’ll all need to get involved,’ he said, ‘but I think it’s a brilliant idea!’ And so my Slimming World group in Littlehampton became a Bunby family affair. Deon and London would help me set up when Marc was working late, and Mum would always be there for me. And my amazing members would help us pack up afterwards.
Two years ago, we discovered Marc had leiomyosarcoma, a rare type of cancer, in his leg. Having lost his mum to cancer as a teenager, and his dad nine years ago, he took the news very hard.
‘What will happen to you and the boys if I’m gone?’ he asked. All I could do was reassure him that I’d be there for him every minute of the day. Later, when the doctor told us that an operation to remove the tumour had been successful, we both blinked back tears of relief. Marc has since had six more operations for leiomyosarcoma in other areas of his body, and we are still going through that journey together.
Then we got the news that my sister, Toyah, had a brain tumour. Nine months later, in February 2018, she died at the age of 29, leaving behind her six-year-old son, Noah. Her death devastated the entire family, especially my amazing, resilient parents – who must have thought there was nothing else that life could throw at them. Toyah had been so proud of my achievements with Slimming World, and would even regale the nurses at her hospice with stories about me. Knowing how proud she’d been of me helped during that dark time, and rather than turning to food as I’d have done before I started my slimming journey, I relied on my support network at group.
I felt as though everyone was rooting for me and that gave me the strength I needed to get through my grief without comfort eating
Last September, after more than trebling the number of members in my Slimming World group, I opened a second group in Lancing. I get so much joy from helping people with their weight loss journeys. After the blow of being made redundant years earlier, I felt like I’d found my purpose – and the job I was always meant to do.
With my self-esteem at an all-time high, I came across a company online looking for models with disabilities for various campaigns. ‘Why couldn’t I do that?’ I thought. Before I could change my mind, I’d sent in my application. After visiting their base in Sheffield, I was put on their books for paid work. So far, I’ve taken part in a photo shoot for Comic Relief and a River Island campaign celebrating diversity, called Labels Are For Clothes. I know that without my Slimming World family, and the incredible support from Mum and Dad, Marc and our boys, I might never have developed the confidence to take it on.
Feeling strong and knowing I’m doing the best for my family is helping me to stay positive, because as time goes on, my condition will only get worse.
Losing weight has given me the confidence to fly the flag for people with disabilities, which I’d never have dreamt would be possible at my biggest. When I was announced as Slimming World’s Top Target Consultant, I felt so proud – not just of myself, but proud to represent everyone who’s achieved their dreams while living with a disability. I really hope my modelling will help to make wheelchair users more visible and I want to give others hope that, after an MS diagnosis, life can be fuller and richer than you ever imagined. I’ve brought a sense of meaning to my life – and whatever happens to me in the future, I’ll know I’ve made a difference.
Losing weight with mobility issues
‘A common misconception is that people think they won’t be able to join Slimming World if they can’t stand on the scales,’ says Natasha. If this is a concern, contact your local Slimming World Consultant to see what systems they have in place.
‘For those unable to use the scales in group, we offer a manual weigh-in,’ says Dr Jacquie Lavin, Slimming World’s head of research and scientific affairs. ‘You get weighed by your health professional – for Natasha it’s her physio – then let your Consultant know.’
‘Accessing group is also a concern for wheelchair users,’ says Jacquie. ‘So we work closely with Consultants and venues to help them consider any reasonable adjustments they’re able to make, such as providing an access ramp, disabled parking spaces and toilets.’
For Natasha, Body Magic has played a big part in helping her to maintain her weight loss. ‘Depending on a person’s mobility, they may be able to do some activity at a gym, and many pools have good accessibility. Plus, doing everyday things like getting in the shower make an important contribution to keeping muscles active,’ says Natasha.
‘Body Magic is about finding the activities that suit you, that fit in with your life, your confidence and level of ability – so you don’t have to miss out on its benefits,’ says Jacquie.
Watch Natasha’s story here
*Weight loss will vary due to your individual circumstances and how much weight you have to lose.