“My life, as I knew it, is in the past tense”: Bill Turnbull opens up about his cancer diagnosis

Bill Turnbull filmed his Bake Off special for cancer awareness – then discovered he had the disease. Now, as he tells his friend Sian Williams, life is for living

Bill Turnbull and Sian Williams

This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write. My friend Bill Turnbull has prostate cancer and it has spread.

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He was diagnosed a few months ago and kept it to family and close friends. Now, he wants others to know, so that they might think about being tested before it’s too late.

He told me in his typical, no-nonsense Turnbull way, back in November. I’d dropped him a text asking if he was OK after his stand-in on Classic FM had said he was “under the weather”.

He texted me back: “Sadly my being under the weather is a euphemism for something rather more serious. I was diagnosed last week with prostate cancer, which wouldn’t matter too much, except they think it’s spread to the bone. Cue a miserable weekend. Naturally, family very upset. Anyway, I know I can trust in your discretion. Got a bone scan this week and have been in touch with a ‘top bloke’ at the Marsden. So we’ll see. Lots of love, Billy xx.”

In later messages, he said he felt “truly uplifted by the love and support of the few that I’ve told over the past few days” and that he’s “blessed to have a loving family and an amazing wife. Whatever happens, I’ve had a wonderful life so far. I’d just like to get a bit more out of it!”

Over the following months, there are updates about keyhole kidney operations, hormone injections, chemotherapy. One laugh-out-loud message comes during his weekend shift at Classic FM. “On combo of hormones and steroids at mo. Should be an interesting programme today. Here’s BEETHOVEN!!!!”

Bill Turnbull

His keen sense of humour may help him get through the worst of this. Three years ago, I’d sent him similar, surreal messages following my double mastectomy for breast cancer.

Our friendship spans more than 25 years, including spending over a decade together on BBC’s Breakfast sofa. We have always trusted one another with the everyday flotsam and jetsam of our lives: kids, heartaches, achievements, disappointments. Cancer.

Now, through this interview, Bill wants to make his illness known, to encourage more men to get checked. So it is that we find ourselves back on a sofa together – this time in his front room at his home in Suffolk.

He looks tired. “Knackered from chemo” and on a cocktail of drugs that “leaves me looking not quite like the Adonis that you remember”, as he puts it.

How did he know something was wrong? “Well, it’s stupid, really. I’m cross with myself,” he says, jumping up to stoke the fire with ferocity. He had prided himself on not visiting his GP in four years. He’d had prostate tests at 40 and 50, there was no cancer in his family and he “wasn’t aware there was something going on inside me”.

But the disease, which had been developing in his prostate, had spread to his legs, hips, pelvis and ribs. “Maybe if I’d got it earlier and stopped it at the prostate, I’d be in a much better state,” he says.

Were there symptoms? Well, he’d experienced aches and pains for a year or so and his “pee pattern” had changed, but he’d assumed it was just “old age”.

When the pain could no longer be dulled by pills, he went for a blood test. He was called back the next day. “The GP said, ‘It’s clear you have prostate cancer and that it’s spread to the bone.’ And all of a sudden you’re in this dark chasm.”

He was sent immediately to a consultant, who he hoped would come up with a different conclusion. He didn’t. Bill asked him about the survival rate: “He said, ‘Ten years’, and then, crazily, I drove home and thought – did he say ten years? Five years? What did he say? It was all such a blur.”

“Were you on your own?” I ask. “Yes, sadly I was. Neither me nor Sesi [his wife Sarah] had twigged how important that day was.”

Bill Turnbull and Sian Williams

It was a “bleak weekend” for the family and Bill says, “Those first few days were probably the worst days of my life.”

He gets most upset talking about the impact on his children, 29-year-old Henry, Will who is 28 and, especially, 26-year-old Flora, who was at home at the time. “It’s really hard to know what to say, when you want to protect them,” I say. “Yes, yes,” he agrees, “especially when Flora came in.”

He gulps and lets out an embarrassed laugh as the tears begin to well. “So she sat down and we said, ‘We’ve got something to tell you’, and she could see we were upset and asked why. And then we had to tell her.”

His voice cracks. “Horrible moment. And the boys… I think Sesi told them on the phone, I don’t remember doing it. That first moment is a real shell shock. You can’t remember the precise words, you just remember the hammer blow.”

Bill shakes his head. “The worst thing is, you carry it through the day and then you go to bed at night and wake up in the morning and it comes to you again. I have got cancer. I’ve still got cancer. It wasn’t a bad dream. And that takes a lot of dealing with.”

At 62, he’s realised, “the contract I thought I had with life has been shortened quite a bit.” People with bone cancer have an average life expectancy of about ten years, he tells me. Perhaps 14 with chemotherapy. His consultant’s ambition is to get him to 18 years.

If he does, “I wouldn’t have any complaints. The only thing is, I don’t want the rest of my life to be defined by the illness.”

He reminds me of our late editor on Breakfast, Alison Ford, who died of breast cancer in her 40s: “She had said, ‘I don’t want to die dying,’ and I can understand that,” Bill says.

Bill Turnbull on BBC Breakfast in 2002
Bill Turnbull on BBC Breakfast in 2002

Has the illness changed him? The steroids make him a “bit shorter of temper, where you can feel your inner Hulk bursting to get out”, and the hormones can make him weepy and emotional, so he has “a little cry, either on my own or with Sesi. It’s a good way of releasing the tension.” He smiles.

“Obviously I don’t do it in public or while I’m on air.” Despite the tears and the treatment, “life is very liveable”.

He says he’s lucky. That others have it far worse. That he’s working and will continue to do so. And he refuses to draw up a bucket list.

“You have to be positive, don’t you? I know I’m not going to get cured and I’m realistic about the long-term prospects, but they’re not bad. Most importantly, I really do think I’ve had a wonderful life, with amazing experiences as a reporter and a presenter. And if it was all to end tomorrow, I couldn’t have any complaints. I’ve had a really marvellous time.”

I ask him why he talks about life in the past tense. “My life, as I knew it, is in the past tense. You have BC, Before Cancer, when you had a normal life, and then there’s After Cancer, when things are very different.”

As an example, he tells me about a newsletter he’s reading, describing a wine that will mature in 2030. “I thought, ‘Oh. Not much point me buying that one then.’ And I realised if things progress as they do on average, I can’t plan beyond 12 years.”

He certainly doesn’t think as far as 20 years. Does anyone? “But gosh, I would like to see at least one grandchild and there’s still lots of time for that to happen. It’s not like I’m going to pop my clogs in two years’ time.”

Yes, he thinks about death and no, it doesn’t scare him. “I’ve always been aware that I’m going to die.” He laughs. “That’s cheerful, isn’t it? But it happens to all of us and yet it’s the one thing that no one wants to talk about. Does it frighten me? No. It saddens me that I’m not going to be around as much as I thought with my wife and family. It’s a shame.”

But, he says, having a limited life expectancy changes your view of things and gives you a determination to make the most of the time you have left. An appreciation of what you have. “And I do need to plan to make sure my life is spent well. To make sure all the days count.”

There is an irony to the timing of all this. Bill was diagnosed as he was recording the episode of The Great Celebrity Bake Off for Stand Up to Cancer (shown on Tuesday 6 March and repeated on Sunday 11 March at 3.05pm on Channel 4).

Bill with Noel Fielding on Great British Bake Off: Stand To Cancer
Bill with Noel Fielding on Great British Bake Off: Stand To Cancer

“When I was making my cupcakes, I had the disease and didn’t know it,” he says. (A short filmed update about his cancer will be screened as part of the programme.) And on the same day as our chat, Stephen Fry announces he’s been treated for prostate cancer, too.

But he caught it early and Bill says that’s another good reason why men should have their PSA (prostate specific antigen) levels checked. “If one man gets tested who might not otherwise have gone to their doctor, it’s worthwhile.”

We head to the kitchen for a lunch of soup, bread and cheese. As we gossip and giggle, I look up, noticing a tiny figure on the wall, sitting on a small red sofa. A marzipan Bill, which topped a cake given to him on his last day at Breakfast in February 2016.

“The legs fell off and I had to stick them back on,” he laughs. “It’s like me. Bits and pieces flaking away. If the head falls off, we know we’re in real trouble.”

We part with a hug and he gives me a pot of honey and promises to visit soon. He says he’s “more fragile and emotional” because of this disease, perhaps “more sensitive and understanding of others”, too.

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But he’s the same Bill I’ve known for ever. Warm, strong, positive and full of laughs and life. Hopefully for many more years to come.

Stand Up to Cancer is a joint campaign between Cancer Research UK and Channel 4. It starts with the Bake Off celebrity specials (beginning with Turnbull’s episode on Tuesday 6th March at 8pm) and will culminate in a live evening of fundraising in teh autumn. 

Since its launch in 2012, Stand Up to Cancer has raised more than £38 million, which has helped fund 40 new trials and projects, involving 10,000 cancer patients. 

Research projects include the development of a “chemo-package” to deliver treatment at the best time for the patient; testing arsenic as a weapon to make cancer self-cannibalise; and using viruses to seek and destroy cancer cells while boosting the immune system.

For more information and to order a free fundraising pack, visit standuptocancer.org/uk/bake-off

For advice on prostate cancer symptoms go to cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/prostate-cancer

To donate £10 or £20 to Cancer Research UK, text Ten or Twenty to 70404 (full terms and conditions at SU2C.org.uk/terms)