It’s been a bit of a year, to say the least. Twelve months ago, there I was, practising my almost non-existent culinary skills for a special fundraising edition of The Great British Bake Off.
I spent two days in the tent, making friends with Sandi Toksvig, Noel Fielding, judges Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood and my fellow contestants. Having a laugh, and raising money for charity at the same time. Happy days.
It was all in aid of Stand Up to Cancer. How ironic, then, that while I was making a hash of my crêpes Suzette, I was unwittingly carrying advanced prostate cancer.
One year on, it’s a very different life; trying to live normally, while dealing with the effects of this pernicious disease as well as the treatments employed to defeat it. So much has changed.
After the bombshell of the diagnosis, my family and I decided to keep it under wraps for several months while we came to terms with it, and faced up to my having fewer days on this earth than I’d expected. The estimates ranged from ten years (or less) to a rather more optimistic 18. Getting to 80 wouldn’t be bad at all.
So when the Bake Off special we’d recorded last autumn went on air in March, it seemed like the best moment to reveal my condition. The cancer, the consultant told me, had spread to the bone – through my pelvis and hips, down into my legs, up my spine and across my ribs. No wonder I’d been unable to cross my legs! Now at least I knew what was causing the pain.
In 40 years of broadcasting, I don’t think anything I’ve done has had quite the impact that this did. Radio Times broke the story on its front cover, with a beautiful article written by my old Breakfast sofa pal Sian Williams. The effect was extraordinary. [The day Radio Times went on sale, Prostate Cancer UK took 205 calls – the busiest day in its history.]
The Bake Off episode, with a rather weepy epilogue from me, gained an audience of nearly six million, and donations to Stand Up to Cancer afterwards exceeded expectation.
That was just the beginning. There followed a Twitter avalanche of support from friends, colleagues and people I’d never met, wishing me all the best. Hundreds emailed me at Classic FM. Some sent cards and letters, even the occasional book; although the one entitled Talking about Death I thought was a touch premature. But if love could have cured me, I’d be a healthy man now.
The main reason I went public was to show men that it could happen to anyone. It’s a disease that can creep up on you without any tell-tale symptoms. I’d had my prostate checked when I was 40, and again when I was 50. I thought that had put me in the clear, but it didn’t. There were no early warning signs, and by the time I felt anything, it was too late.
Fortunately, for many others it hasn’t been. A lot of men got in touch to say they had gone to get checked. And a number of wives told me they’d made their husbands go. Some have written to let me know what happened next:
“Dear Bill, I thank you for my husband’s life. After watching you on television a few months ago my husband reluctantly went for a PSA blood test. He was found to have prostate cancer and had his prostate removed. He has now had the all clear.”
What can you say to that? It doesn’t make everything worthwhile, but it certainly helps to know that someone will stay alive as a result of my experience. It’s gratifying, then, to see the head of the NHS, Simon Stevens, confirming that more men are coming forward and being treated as a result of the experiences of Stephen Fry and me.
And yet, strangely, there has been a counter argument. I heard that a number of doctors were unhappy because they were being inundated with requests for prostate checks. Friends told me they’d been turned away. In the long run this surely doesn’t make sense, as catching cancer in the early stages must surely be cheaper than treating someone whose disease has advanced. It’s up to each individual GP to decide whether a test is necessary. But if you’re a man and your waterworks aren’t functioning as they should, and particularly if you experience back or bone pain, then in my view it’s not unreasonable to make a fuss about it.
While all this was going on, I was wading through seven months of chemotherapy, an infusion of chemicals designed to destroy the cancer cells, administered every three weeks. Although it’s improved a lot over the years, people will still tell you that having chemo is no fun. To begin with, I wondered what the fuss was about. Sure, you get a few bad days in the first week of each cycle, but it eases after that.
What I hadn’t realised was that the effect of the chemicals is cumulative.
Each round felt worse. I kept my hair, more or less, but lost my sense of taste. I had days when all I could do was lie down and wait for the feeling of crushing fatigue and nausea to pass. By the time I reached round six – supposedly the end of the treatment – I was more than ready to stop. But then, as we weren’t making enough progress, the consultant asked me to do four more.
It felt as if the chemo was now taking on a character of its own, like some malevolent gremlin. It would take me on. Grind me down. During the bad phases, I wondered if I’d ever recover from feeling sick and tired and depressed. The three or four “dark days” seemed to last for ever. It seemed that only when it had me pinned down, completely at its mercy physically and mentally, would it release its grip.
I coped by watching TV. Lots of it. Thank heaven for box sets. I did all three series of Narcos, plus The Sopranos, Fargo, Suburra, Gomorrah and all 67 episodes of Game of Thrones. You can tell I wasn’t exactly having a laugh, but it helped to pass the time. Presenting my weekend radio programmes on Classic FM – where I’ve had tremendous support – was also good therapy, and something to focus on. And the music, naturally, helped me relax.
After the eighth round of chemo in July, I asked the consultant to release me from the treatment. I just couldn’t bear it any longer. We ended up doing one more, and then called it a day. When I was first diagnosed, my PSA (prostate-specific antigen) level – the standard marker, determined by a blood test – was 583. It should have been less than five. We got it down to the 50s, so we’ve made some progress. The cancer has stopped spreading, but it hasn’t been beaten back entirely. We’re at a stalemate. If the chemo had worked completely, I’d get two years off treatment before the cancer reared its ugly head again. Instead I’ve been given a couple of months off. After that, we’ll try something else.
Along the way, I’ve also had any number of tests, and scans, and too many examinations involving rubbergloved fingers probing where one wouldn’t normally want them to. Plus an operation to insert 25cm of plastic tubing, due to complications with my kidney – a procedure that has to be repeated every six months.
Bill Turnbull on BBC Breakfast in 2002
There have, of course, been plenty of drugs, too. My daily dose of steroids has slapped an extra stone and a half on my once godlike physique, and I’m experiencing the joy of hot flushes, thanks to a male menopause-inducing hormone treatment. If the temperature goes one degree above normal, I turn beetroot and sweat cascades down behind my ears. I spent much of our holiday in Italy this year with a damp tea towel on my head – more Compo than Lawrence of Arabia. It’s all just too much fun.
That’s not what bothers me most, though. It’s the fact that having cancer is so relentlessly boring. You go to bed at night thinking about it, and it’s still there when you wake up. It’s there all day, every day – a fact of life you have to get used to. And it’s a massive pain in the backside.
People in the cancer world talk about coming to terms with a “new normal”, and that’s still happening in the Turnbull household. In many ways not much has changed. I still work when I can, commentate on matches at the mighty Wycombe Wanderers, and tend my bees.
They’ve had a harder time of it than I have this year, fending off hordes of wasps, who invaded and destroyed two of the hives. That’s what a hot summer does. The cancer may have some influence on my life, but I try not to let it rule everything. We eat a lot less meat now, and generally our diet has become healthier. Who knows – every little thing can contribute to extending survival. And I’m still optimistic about hanging around for some time yet.
Of course I wish I’d got myself tested earlier. But I didn’t, and that’s that. The people I feel for are the younger patients, children and teenagers, who have so much to live for and have every right to wonder why fate has picked on them.
People tell me it took courage to declare my illness. I can’t agree. Sometimes it’s easier to be open about difficulties than to hide them away, and one of the best things we can do about cancer is to talk about it. The more light we shine on it, the more we share our feelings – and our fears – the less power it has. And what I’ve done is nothing compared with the work of the wonderful Rachael Bland, a former BBC colleague. She died recently at the age of 40, only two years after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and yet she managed to contribute so much to others through her podcasts and blogs. That, my friends, was courage indeed.
I’ve been lucky. I’ve been blessed with wonderful support from friends and family. I’m getting the best possible treatment at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London. I have a fantastic GP, and my admiration for the nursing staff who’ve dealt with me knows no bounds. Along the way, I’ve encountered some fascinating people. One fellow chemo patient was a woman who managed to beat off multiple sclerosis, only to develop cancer. Twenty years on, she has to have treatment once a week, and yet she is the personification of dignity and calm.
But I’m not sure about “battling against” cancer. Can you really fight something that’s inside you? All you can do is follow the treatment the doctors recommend, stay positive and hope for the best. I do believe, though, that we certainly should all stand up to cancer, acknowledge it, and say we’ll do our utmost to defeat it. And that’s what Stand Up to Cancer is all about.
Stand Up to Cancer airs Friday 26th October from 7pm on Channel 4
Bill Turnbull is donating his fee for this article to Stand Up to Cancer. And 100 per cent of all donations goes to Cancer Research UK in support of the SU2C campaign