He’s one of the country’s most legendary TV interviewers, known for doing painstaking research and asking his famous guests all the right questions.
So it’s surprising to learn that when it came to Sir Michael Parkinson’s own health, he feels it was a lack of preparation that let him down.
Four years after receiving the all clear following treatment for prostate cancer, the 84-year-old broadcaster is recalling the most difficult thing about his experience.
“Maybe I didn’t read all the literature, but it did come as a surprise,” he says of the side effects of his operation and radiotherapy back in 2013.
“When I look back at what happened, my treatment and aftercare was fabulous but the one thing that did bother me was I felt I was left to find out about what the consequences might be by myself.”
Many patients suffer erectile dysfunction as well as urinary problems as removal of the gland can damage nerves and muscles close to the prostate.
Less known is that radiotherapy for prostate cancer can create bowel problems for some men, inflaming its lining and causing more trips to the loo, pain in the stomach or back passage and, rarely, bleeding.
Sometimes these settle down after few weeks. For others, the changes last months or years.
“I was lucky and got an early diagnosis of prostate cancer from a blood test and got it sorted out,” says Sir Michael, who lives in Windsor, Berks, with Mary, his wife of 60 years.
“I didn’t need chemotherapy, which was wonderful, but I had radiotherapy. It leaves you with problems because it’s so near the bowels and bladder.
“It never occurred to me that might be the case and they never prepared me for what did happen – and that for me was the worst part of it. I was not really told how uncomfortable the after-effects can be – the problems you have with the bowel or the bladder.
"It is rather remarkable to lie there doing nothing and yet to know they are destroying this thing trying to destroy you,” he adds candidly.
“I’ve been four years clear and that’s wonderful. And while it’s something I’d rather not have gone through, it’s not life-threatening or going to make you drop dead in the street because you’ve got a weak bladder or whatever.
“It is a nuisance rather than an illness. It didn’t change my life fundamentally, but it turns it around a bit as there are certain things you can do, certain things you can’t. So it’s a reorganisation.”
One of those ‘reorganisations’ is ensuring you don’t get caught short when you’re out and about. “I know every shopkeeper is supposed to take you in if you have a problem but they don’t,” says Sir Michael.
“It has only happened to me twice, but it was rather strange – first to have to pluck up courage to ask and then to be rebuffed as if there’s something wrong with you.
“So there’s something to be done, as there’s a problem there. Maybe an awareness campaign…” he ponders.
The reason we are chatting is that this summer Sir Michael is hosting a concert to raise funds and awareness of pancreatic cancer. So why not prostate cancer? “It’s very well funded by the public,” he explains.
“I didn’t realise how deadly pancreatic cancer is until the charity approached me – how potent and underfunded it is.
“Only 7% of people with pancreatic cancer live for five years and only 1% will live for a decade – and that hasn’t changed for 40 years as it’s perilously underfunded.
“My own cancer and others like breast cancer have seen wonderful advances and spectacular success in developing new treatments because of campaigns which have raised a fortune. Now pancreatic cancer needs addressing as it has been terribly neglected.
“When I’ve spoken to Pancreatic Cancer UK there is a great deal of optimism of what the future will be – but it needs funding.
"Public donations are terribly important. There can’t be this disparity between them, it’s like pancreatic cancer is in a relegation zone.”
As with most medical issues, early diagnosis is key – but pancreatic cancer often doesn’t give any obvious warning signs in the early stages.
Symptoms include tummy and back pain, unexplained weight loss and indigestion as well as changes to bowel habits, nausea and bloating.
“I’ve always had quite large faith in the medical profession and don’t hold back – if I have a problem or pain I want to know what it is,” says Sir Michael of how his own tumour was found so early.
“It meant we got it at a very early stage. An oncologist friend said to me one day, ‘the best test for prostate cancer is to stand two or three yards from a wall outside a pub and pee. If you can hit it, don’t come and see me – if you hit yourself rather than the wall, immediately book an appointment’.
“Some people might think that’s outrageous, but if it spreads the message, makes people laugh and gets through to them to go and get themselves checked, where’s the harm?”
- Sir Michael will be hosting a Gala Concert in aid of Pancreatic Cancer UK to help fund vital research into new treatments. Featuring the acclaimed Guy Barker Jazz Orchestra, it will take place on July 11 at Cadogan Hall, London. Tickets at pancreaticcancer ukgalaconcert.com
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