To listeners of Mark Radcliffe’s Folk Show on BBC Radio 2, his broadcast on October 3, 2018 appeared in no way unusual.
So when the veteran presenter took to the mic at the end of the session to announce that he had “some cancerous tongue and lymph node issues” and would be “disappearing for a while”, his fans were shocked.
“It seemed a bit grand… who should give a toss really?” says the 60-year-old, who’d been diagnosed with head and neck cancer the month before.
“But because I was going to be gone for months I just thought honesty was the best policy.”
Sitting down to his first interview about his cancer journey, Mark is candid about the harrowing experience, but has lost none of his trademark wit.
“They took a walnut-sized thing from deep down on the back of my tongue. Then from my neck, which was the secondary in the lymph nodes, they took something the size of an apple,” he says in his familiar Lancashire burr.
“My wife Bella said, ‘An apple and a walnut? That’s practically a Waldorf salad!’”
Mark was on holiday in Polzeath, Cornwall with Bella, 50, last July when he first found a lump.
“I’d had a beard for a while and thought, ‘Oh it’s too hipster, everyone has a beard now. I’ll go clean shaven’ and as I took it off I noticed something on my neck.
"I thought it was probably a swollen lymph gland but when we got home I went to my GP, who sent me for an ultrasound.
“One thing led to another and I found myself seeing a specialist for a biopsy and being told I had a cancerous growth in my neck.”
The diagnosis came as a shock as Mark had convinced himself there was nothing to worry about.
He recalls: “I had gone to the appointment alone because I didn’t think it was anything important, so I remember them asking ‘Have you got anyone with you?’ and thinking ‘Oh, bloody hell, why?’
“Afterwards, I went and sat by the duck pond at Macclesfield Hospital and thought, ‘Well, I’ve something growing inside me’. Physically I felt fine, so I didn’t really panic.”
Following the discovery, Mark needed a full body MRI at The Christie Hospital in Manchester to see whether the cancer had spread.
“I had the scan on the Thursday and didn’t get the results until the following Tuesday, so that was quite a long weekend,” says the presenter who spent 21 years at BBC Radio 1 before moving to Radio 2 in 2004.
“It’s funny how quickly life changes. When they confirmed that it hadn’t gone elsewhere in my body we were sort of punching the air thinking, ‘Great, I’ve only got cancer in my neck, this is marvellous’.”
Despite this ‘good’ news, the surgeon who operated later told Mark he was lucky he saw a doctor so promptly.
“He said the cancer would have killed me in months, not years,” reveals the father of three who lives in Knutsford, Cheshire.
“I was doing a three-hour radio show every day but hadn’t had any discomfort despite having such a large tumour hidden at the back of my tongue. The cancer grows gradually so everything bends and shapes around it. I’d been clearing my throat a bit more but felt fine.”
Following surgery, Mark required an intensive six-week course of radiotherapy and two rounds of chemotherapy.
“They say, ‘We’ll cut you, burn you and then poison you” so it is pretty miserable.”
Despite this, Mark was surprised to discover those weeks were not the most difficult.
“I finished treatment on December 12 and it was after that I really felt emotionally unstable,” he admits.
“It coincided with Christmas being over and January is a cold, dark, miserable time of year anyway, so for me that was the toughest part.
“I dropped into Maggie’s Centre at The Christie [which offers emotional support to people with cancer] and when I sat down the counsellor said, ‘So how are you doing?’ and I just burst into tears, which is unlike me.
“She asked, ‘Have you just finished treatment?’, and said mine was a familiar scenario.
“For six weeks you see the same staff every day who tell you the treatment is going great. I had a rota of friends who would drive me, so we’d have a chat and a cup of tea. You get sort of institutionalised – it’s all quite convivial.
“Then suddenly you’re at home feeling useless, waiting three months for your results. I was a husk of a person.”
Mark decided the solution was to return to the airwaves.
“I started recording the Radio 2 Folk Show again in January because that isn’t very strenuous, then I went back live, presenting the 6Music weekend breakfast show with Stuart Maconie, in mid-February.
“I’ve done so much radio that I almost feel my heart rate drop when a show starts, but the week before I started back, I began to worry whether I would have the speed of thought to hold up my end of the conversation. Thankfully that feeling vanished within minutes.”
As the operation was so close to his vocal cords, Mark had needed to sign a waiver before surgery.
“I didn’t have any choice and that’s one of the things that helped me stay positive,” he says.
“A lot of the hardest times in life are when you agonise over difficult decisions. They said, ‘This might affect your voice’, which isn’t great for someone who does what I do, but if it’s that or dying then it’s fine, isn’t it? It put everything into perspective.
“My voice wasn’t affected, mercifully. In my head it sounds slightly deeper but on the radio people think it’s the same.”
As for long-term damage, Mark won’t be growing back the beard that concealed his cancer – though not through choice.
“The radiotherapy has destroyed a lot of hair follicles so one half of my face doesn’t grow stubble. It also destroyed my saliva glands, so I have to keep sipping water and at night my mouth dries up totally so I can’t speak at all until I’ve had a drink.
“My taste has fared better than many people’s, but I used to like reasonably hot Indian food and chillies. Now anything spicy is agony so I eat quite bland food. It’s a small price to pay.”
Another knock-on effect was weight loss. “I couldn’t eat for a long time,” Mark says. “At first, after the operation, swallowing was agony, so for days I just had protein shakes.
“But I managed to eat enough that they didn’t put a feeding tube in and I’m glad I avoided that. I remember having tiny bowls of soft stuff like moussaka and shepherd’s pie and my wife saying, ‘Come on, have another mouthful’, but I also felt so sick from the chemo. It was really hard.
“It meant I got out of the habit of eating lots. I still have three meals a day, so my oncologist isn’t worried. And while I wouldn’t recommend it as a diet plan, I enjoy being thinner. I feel really well.”
In mid-March, Mark was finally told his cancer was in remission.
“It’s a euphoric feeling to think I haven’t any of that crap in me any more,” he says. “I’m on a six-month check-up, which I think is a good sign. There’s no reason to believe I should get it again but if I do, at least we will be on it early.”
Having benefited from seeking help quickly, Mark is supporting North West Cancer Research’s head and neck cancer campaign #SpeakOut.
Launching today, it aims to raise awareness among men, who are three times more likely to be diagnosed with the cancer but often ignore early signs.
“This means that when they present, their tumours are more advanced, making treatment more difficult and reducing chances of success,” explains Professor Terry Jones, Director of the North West’s Head and Neck Centre.
Symptoms include a persistent sore throat , the feeling of a lump in the throat, mouth ulcers that do not heal after three weeks, a hoarse voice for longer than four weeks, blood in your spit and difficulty swallowing.
Mark adds: “Don’t think you’re being tough by not getting things checked out, or assuming it’s nothing and not bothering going to the doctors. If you are even slightly worried about anything, check it out. Honestly, why wouldn’t you?”
- To find out more about the symptoms of head and neck cancer, and support North West Cancer Research’s #SpeakOut campaign visit nwcr.org
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