JAM guest's fight with cancer
From The Daily Mail
They told me I had throat cancer. I wasn't brave...just terrified I'd miss my boys grow up, says TV's Jimmy Mulville
By Nikki Murfitt
As his sons – Joe and George, both toddlers without a care in the world – played nearby, his natural instinct was to scoop them up in a giant bear hug.
But to do so would have allowed the knot of emotions he was holding in check to break loose.
The anarchic humour of his most memorable shows, including Father Ted, Drop The Dead Donkey and Have I Got News For You, made him a millionaire – but that counted for little as he was forced to face his own mortality.
At the age of 48 he was suffering from oropharyngeal cancer – a tumour on his tonsils.
Normally associated with smokers, Jimmy’s diagnosis, given that he hadn’t touched a cigarette for more than 20 years and ran eight miles a day, was as inconceivable as it was shocking.
‘The weekend I found out was the longest of my life. I wasn’t brave, I just felt very, very frightened,’ he says today, sitting in the private members’ club at The Ivy restaurant in London.
‘Watching my children, I knew I might not see them grow up. There were moments when I’d feel sorry for myself and others when I’d be planning my funeral in my head.
'My dad died at the age of 48 and I had a horrible feeling of history repeating itself.’
Oropharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer that affects 5,400 new patients a year in Britain, and numbers are rising.
The pharynx, the medical name for the throat, is divided into three parts and the oropharynx is one, the others being the nasopharynx (related to the nose) and the laryngopharynx (the throat).
The oropharynx connects the mouth to the top of the throat, and includes the back third of the tongue, the soft area at the back of the roof of the mouth (the soft palate) and the tonsils.
Smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol to excess (and even more so, doing these two things at the same time) are the main risk factors for mouth and oropharyngeal cancers.
Although in Britain it used to be mainly men who suffered, today increasing numbers of women are being diagnosed, which experts believe is the delayed effect of their heavier drinking and smoking.
Obesity, poor oral hygiene, ill-fitting dentures that cause long-term irritation, and even mouthwash containing alcohol have also been implicated as possible factors.
Mouth and oropharyngeal cancers have also been linked to the human papilloma virus (HPV).
There are more than 100 different types of HPV. Some are called the wart virus, because they cause warts on the genital area or skin.
Others are known to increase the risk of some types of cancers, including cancer of the cervix.
Researchers believe there is a link between HPV and certain forms of oropharyngeal cancer, and there is some evidence to show that the virus may be spread through certain types of sexual contact – in particular oral sex – but more research is needed to prove this.
In August it will be nine years since Jimmy, 56, who, as the co-founder of Hat Trick Productions, brought Paul Merton, Angus Deayton and Clive Anderson to British television, was diagnosed.
A slight scar on the right-hand side of his neck as it curves underneath his jawline is the only sign of the six-hour operation he underwent to remove the golf ball-sized tumour and cancerous lymph glands.
But the memories are as fresh as they are poignant.
‘Thank goodness I’ve always been a hypochondriac – it saved my life,’ says Jimmy.
‘I first noticed a small lump at the right side of my neck in August 2001. I immediately went to my GP who said that because I was a non-smoking teetotaller who exercised every day, it was probably nothing.
‘I still wasn’t happy, so I was referred to a doctor in Harley Street who gave me a cursory examination and also told me it was nothing to worry about. I got a third opinion and they said I was perfectly OK, too.
‘There comes a point, even for a hypochondriac like me, when you think, “Maybe they’re right.” I’d had no sore throats and apart from the lump I had no other symptoms.’
Astonishingly, it was a year before Jimmy finally received a diagnosis.
‘I’m a workaholic and lead a busy, stressful life so it was easy to get caught up in the day-to-day running of Hat Trick [the company he co-founded with his then wife Denise O’Donoghue and comedian Rory McGrath] but when the lump was still there after a year I was determined to see a specialist.
'I was referred to Professor Meirion Thomas, a surgical oncologist at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London.’
Jimmy was immediately sent for an ultrasound scan and given a biopsy.
Five days later he was told he had cancer. The writer and producer, who has been married three times, admits telling his wife Karen, 43, was incredibly difficult.
‘Karen’s first husband died from lung cancer at the age of 42, leaving her with daughter Paige who was 11 at the time. She was going through the whole thing again.
'It was a feeling of utter disbelief.’
It was not the first time that tragedy had struck the Mulville family, either.
Jimmy had just finished his French and classics degree at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he’d been president of the famous Footlights club, when he discovered his father, also Jimmy, was gravely ill with a rare strain of viral polio.
‘I was ringing home regularly but my father was never there,’ he says.
‘When my finals were over, my mum, June, burst into tears and said that he was in hospital. He’d been ill for three weeks but insisted on not telling me during my exams.
‘I drove back that night and instinctively put my hand out to shake his hand, but he couldn’t move because he was paralysed. There was a look of shame on his face.
'I know, having been ill myself, that for some reason you think it’s your fault. It was breaking his heart.’
Jimmy Snr overcame the paralysis but never escaped the shadow of polio. A year after his diagnosis, he hanged himself.
Jimmy was 21, and claims it was this that triggered his slow but steady descent into alcohol addiction.
I drank a lot in my 20s,’ he says, ‘but I never really smoked. It was a gradual thing and in 1988, two years after we started Hat Trick, I realised I had to sort my life out.
'I went into rehab and have been teetotal ever since. I asked my doctors, could what I did to myself in my past have caused my cancer? They said it was impossible to know.’
Royal Marsden surgeon Peter Rhys Evans was confident that Jimmy had a very good chance of a cure but after his initial operation warned him that he was going to get worse before he’d get better as he endured six weeks of daily radiotherapy.
Mr Rhys Evans says: ‘Side effects of the radiotherapy include loss of taste and
difficulty in swallowing because the mouth becomes very dry.
'In Jimmy’s case his throat became very ulcerated and he couldn’t eat much for a
Jimmy says: ‘For a couple of months I could eat only blended food because my throat was so tender and the cumulative effects of the radiotherapy meant that by the end of it I felt like an old man.’
At first he had check-ups every month, and after each one he’d phone his mother to tell her he’d got the all-clear.
‘My wife was incredible throughout, she’d tell me to snap out of it when she thought I needed it and was just very practical and supportive while at the same time looking after our young family,’ he says.
The couple have since had son Jack, now seven, a brother to Joe, 12, George, ten, and Paige, 21.
Although officially cured, Jimmy still has annual check-ups.
He says: ‘I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the amazing team at the Marsden, as do my family.’
As president of the Oracle Cancer Trust, the oral cancer charity, Jimmy is spearheading a £10million fundraising drive for a new centre of excellence for head and neck cancers.
The unit will house a radiotherapy research planning laboratory, three new research laboratories and the John Diamond Voice laboratory – named in memory of Nigella
Lawson’s first husband who died of cancer of the tongue.
Nigella is backing the campaign and is its vice-chairman.
‘There are about 30 different types of head and neck cancer. We want to improve cure rates but also the quality of life, especially for those who may be disfigured or
unable to speak after surgery,’ says Mr Rhys Evans.
Jimmy admits: ‘Not only have I been doing a job I love since the age of 21 but I’ve been able to get through a terrifying period in my life thanks to some expert help.
‘I’ve been very lucky. I’m still a hypochondriac, though.’