I felt a physical relief, a breeze that fluttered and made my hair blow. The consultant told me he was confident I had throat cancer that had spread into the lymph glands and I held his hand with joy and looked up to the heavens, like a South American footballer after scoring a goal. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
Around the middle of June I noticed that one side of my neck was much bigger than normal. I was shaving at the time, and had to look from several angles before I believed the mirror.
Because the first thought, when you notice a large abnormality on your body, is to assume the mind has made a mistake. Any explanation seems more plausible than the body having radically changed shape. Maybe the reflection is distorted by an eclipse of the moon or the Northern Lights? Have I got my left gland mixed up with my thigh?
I Googled ‘Why is one side of my neck suddenly much larger than the other’? Most of the answers suggested glands do this to fight off an infection, so there’s nothing to worry about “Unless it hasn’t gone down after two weeks.”
After two weeks I told myself it had, sort of, gone down, in that it was only a bit bigger. So I called the doctors at exactly 8am to make an appointment, the way you have to, in the same way that millions of people try and buy tickets to see Taylor Swift at the exact moment they go on sale.
I made an appointment for the following week, then went to France for a wedding and almost forgot about it.
The following week I was in the doctor’s office, talking in the blokey way that men often talk to a doctor, saying ‘I’m sure it’s nothing, I ‘m sorry for coming’.
He felt my neck and throat and said “I’ll book you in for a scan at the hospital”. Then I went off to play football.
Nearly two weeks later I hadn’t heard about this scan so I rang the doctor, where someone told me to ring the hospital. So I rang the hospital and heard a long message telling me if I went to the hospital I would have to wear a mask because of Covid.
Then I was told to press something like 1 and then 3, then 8 and 5 and then the phone went dead. So I called again and pressed all the numbers again and thought ‘This lumpy gland better turn out to be life-threatening after all this’.
Eventually I spoke to a gloriously jolly radiologist who asked me to ‘come in on Sunday morning, darling, we’ll find a slot for you sweetheart’. So after the Sweden v USA Women’s football penalty shoot-out I drove to the hospital, having given the lumpy gland little thought.
I lay on a blue plastic bench, where they covered my neck in sticky jelly and she placed a machine on my throat that looked like an electric shaver from the 1970s. And in the next moment everything changed.
The radiologist looked at this screen with a look that you see on an actor at the end of a soap opera episode, that says ‘something BIG has happened’.
She rolled the shaver and looked at the screen again, closely, quizzically, as if she was in a science fiction film and was getting readings that showed I wasn’t human, then rolled it back a half-turn, concentrating quietly.
“It’s very enlarged”, said the radiologist, “it’s very uneven, and hard. I’m booking you for a fine needle aspirational biopsy.”
“Biopsy?” I thought, “But that’s how cancer starts. It always starts with a biopsy.”
The next morning the doctor called me, and sent me a text that started URGENT REFERRAL.
All those times I’d been frustrated that I couldn’t get urgency from the doctor, and now they were yelling I was URGENT and I wanted to be lackadaisically forgettable again.
There would be a phone appointment with a doctor on Thursday, I was told. I was asked if I’d suddenly lost weight, if I had night sweats, if I couldn’t swallow properly, was I out of breath, was there blood in my mouth, did I smoke, how much did I drink?
These were all unsubtle cancer questions, as obvious as a detective leaning towards you in a cell and asking if you have any evidence that you were alone at home on the night of the murder.
The doctor who called from the hospital was Polish and asked all the same questions and said it was very good that I had no symptoms. I asked whether he thought I had cancer. He said “Not good. Chances not good.”
I froze. “Do you mean the chances that it’s cancer are not good? Or that MY chances are not good?”
“Chances”, he said, “Chance not good.”
One issue I’ve often complained about is the habit of tennis commentators on the radio, who say ‘Oh and he’s hit that shot into the net’. I sit in the car yelling at the radio ‘WHO? WHO has hit it into the fucking net’?
This situation was similar. ‘WHOSE chances are not good? Mine or the cancer’s’?
‘Ah hah, yes, I mean unlikely you have cancer’.
The biopsy would be within the next week, he said, the hospital would contact me with a date for this appointment.
Ten days later I rang the hospital, listened to the Covid message, pressed all the numbers, was put through to someone who told me I was someone else, left on hold, a cancer version of when you ring SKY to change your TV package or call the shop that didn’t deliver a fridge on the day it said it would.
I was given a date for the biopsy and then I was given a date, four weeks later, to discuss the results.
On the day before the biopsy, I was called by someone who said “Instead of waiting four weeks, you can come in on Saturday to discuss the results.”
“That sounds much better”, I said, “But will you have the results that quickly?”
“No”, she said, “They won’t be ready.”
“What’s the point in coming in to discuss the results, if you haven’t got the results?”, I said.
“Do you not want that appointment then”, she said.
“Well, I do, but only if you’ve got the results”, I said.
“I told you, we won’t have them”, she said, and she was right, she had already told me that.
Throughout this time I’d told my son, my daughter, my agent and various friends about the story, each time feeling a slight sense of failure, because a comic depends on leaving any audience feeling at least a bit jollier than they started. And there seemed to be no way of telling this without causing anxiety and worry and very little joy. I couldn’t make these gigs work at all.
Maybe a cancer scare is more suited to authors of thrillers.
To add to the jeopardy, I was in the exciting early slightly hesitant stages of a new relationship that seemed extremely promising. So one evening I had to say ‘By the way I might have cancer’.
There are countless books, websites and forums in which detailed advice is given on how to act, what to look out for and what to say in these first months of a potentially lifelong partnership. I doubt if any of them say ‘why not liven up a romantic evening by mentioning that you may have cancer’?
Despite this, I still half-believed it would turn out I’d only twisted my neck be sleeping on a badly designed pillow.
But a biopsy makes everything seem grotesquely real. Lying on another blue plastic bench, I was told the fine needle wouldn’t be enough as the lump was too big. I need a ‘big needle’ biopsy. My head was turned away ready for the big needle, and I wondered how big this needle was. In my mind it was five feet long, the sort the wile-e-coyote would use for capturing the Road Runner.
Then I was asked questions about which doctor I had seen somewhere and when I’d had an endoscopy and it sounded like they were asking ‘has your biopetremedarist given your trisinomadon levels’? And ‘which Calvinologist measured your polyglutomas’?
A few moments later I could feel the big needle sinking into my lumpy neck to extract the cells it needed, and the doctor said “Hmm suspicious.”
By now I was used to the heightened tension in any room with a doctor that has any relation to cancer diagnosis. You become alert to the slightest facial change they display. The tiniest wrinkle of a nose sends you into a spiral of despair, ‘what did that wrinkle mean? They’ve discovered I’ve got no stomach’. ‘Look at the way the nurse is holding the pen. It’s a grip that is consumed with the melancholy air of catastrophic news. I’m done for’.
“Very hard tumour”, the doctor said as I got up. It was hard to tell myself his comment didn’t suggest I had a very hard tumour.
Now I would have to wait four weeks for the results, that would be presented to me in an office.
Was this to drive the drama to the maximum, as if the system was designed by Simon Cowell? As they’re about to tell you the results, does a bass drum start like at the end of the Strictly Come Dancing Results Show? As the doctor is about to tell you, do they stop and say ‘but now we’re going for an ad break. We’ll be right back to reveal the results’.
The doctor told me I would be contacted before this appointment, with the results “in around seven days.”
So the days after the biopsy were more terrifying than the biopsy itself. Every call from an unrecognised number stared at me with menace.
The cold-caller from PC World must wonder why I answered the phone with ‘yes hello hello yes Oh my God let me just steady myself OK oh my God’.
Several people had told me that if the results were ominous, I would hear quickly. So when five days passed I felt confident.
At a meeting with the consultant I was told my biopsy was still being checked, and I was booked in for an MRI scan and a CAT scan and I became aware of what someone had warned me, that cancer, or even potential cancer can be a full time job.
I became used to medical people tapping my arm to raise a vein for a blood test, telling me they couldn’t find one, and replying ‘I’d make a terrible junky’ which they ignored.
Then, just after I’d come off stage from presenting some awards in a hotel in Paddington, I got back to my phone. I noticed an e-mail that said “We apologise for the inconvenience but your biopsy result was lost in transit. So you need to arrange to come in again for another one.”
I strolled to the underground in a trance. How could this happen? Had the system for taking biopsies to the testing centre been outsourced to Deliveroo? Maybe they’d mixed my biopsy up with some chilli sauce for a Mexican takeaway, and some poor sod had spread it on his burrito.
Did I trust them to take another one? What would they do with it this time? They might send off some milk from the fridge by mistake, then I’d be told I didn’t have cancer but I did have an alarmingly high level of calcium.
Then a completely new person called me and said I had to go in for a repeat biopsy the next day “To see what stage of cancer you have.”
Hang on”, I said, “No one has said it’s definitely cancer, are you saying it’s definitely cancer?”
“Yes”, she said, “Had no one told you?”.
A friend who used to be a nurse advised me it was essential to be a “polite pest.” If you don’t understand what they’re telling you, you must ask. Politely.
For each appointment you wander through this mysterious system of tunnels and lifts and pink zones and blue zones, corridors in which trolleys swing from unexpected side-turnings carrying someone with an oxygen mask, cleaners and pharmacists and surgeons and radiologists coalesce to create this extraordinary factory of living, and then there are the patients, staring on their seats, awaiting calls into rooms that haven’t been decorated since 1983 to be told what their x-rays, scans and blood tests mean. And you’re just one patient, to whom this appointment means everything.
And many of them are paid appallingly and treated with contempt and their minister was sacked and went on I’m a Celebrity so don’t take out your frustrations on them.
But it’s reasonable to ask politely how they could have lost the biopsy and forgotten to tell me I had fucking cancer.
I was called in to see a consultant so I went with my son. As we arrived the doctor looked at his screen and said “I’m afraid it’s not good news, Mister Steel.”
Never, do you realise how much you want to live, until a doctor in a meeting about cancer says “I’m afraid it’s not good news, Mister Steel.”
The biopsy had been found at a different hospital and the results had come back from an MRI scan and a CAT scan and I had to go to another hospital the next day, to learn the details, which he couldn’t tell me, though he could tell me the lump was definitely a secondary cancer which meant I had cancer in at least two places.
“Is this deadly?” I asked.
“Touch wood”, he said. And he touched some wood, which I suppose was being professional.
My head ran into a series of extreme areas. Two of my closest ever friends, Linda Smith and Jeremy Hardy died of cancer.
I was with each of them in their final days and often wonder about the sheer randomness of how long we’re allotted. If I conked out now, would that be unlucky? I would be still be luckier by several years than either of them.
I wondered if my son and daughter could carry on living in my house if I died, or would that involve me filling in a pile of complicated forms and trying to remember forgotten passwords?
I wondered if it would be fair if my son had my car and my daughter had my record collection.
I pondered what the jokes would be. Would someone say there’s a new radio show called ‘Mark Steel’s in Ground’?
I tried to have a normal day. I went to the Oval as I’d planned weeks earlier, to watch the cricket with two friends. I told them what had happened and after they’d sympathised we discussed who was the greatest all-rounder out of Ian Botham and Ben Stokes.
I went to my weekly French lesson in which I speak French with the adorable Fatima. Forlorn and gaunt, I was explaining how the hospital had lost my biopsy, ‘ils ont perdu le biopsie’.
With resignation she tapped me on the arm. ‘La biopsie’, she corrected me, ‘la biopsy est feminine’.
But during this awful day I had another train of thought. Throughout these weeks my partner had been astonishingly calm and supportive, just emotional enough but with a complete absence of panic. At all times she’d suggested I shouldn’t see my diagnosis as having two possible distinctly opposite results, in which cancer is doom and ‘not cancer’ will be resolved with a packet of Strepsils.
Most cancers now are seen as curable. Even the ones that aren’t curable are treatable and patients live for many years. My generation was brought up thinking cancer was as final as being beheaded but that’s no longer true. If it’s cancer there will be a plan to deal with the cancer.
The next morning, again with my son, we sat in a waiting room preparing for these details. “I just want one win”, I said, “I feel like a football team that’s nine games into the season and I’ve not had one win. Every meeting, every scan, it always gets a bit worse.”
NOTHING is as nervy as a meeting like this. I sat on the chair as requested and tried to convince myself that whatever the next moments revealed, it wasn’t too bad.
“The first thing”, said the doctor, “Is we have looked at the scans and there is no cancer in your lungs.”
“There’s your first win of the season”, yelled my son.
We explained to the doctor why he’d said that, and he said that as a football fan he understood.
“Next I have for you a good draw”, he said. We think the primary cancer is a lump in your throat and that is very treatable.”
Then there were some details about surgery and glands and chemotherapy and radiotherapy and PET scans and taking six months off performing but I didn’t hear any of that as it was the moment I was assured I would almost certainly live through this.
He was sorry I would have to cancel some shows, but at that point I’d have been delighted if he’d said I would be alright although I would have to spend my life placing raisins into bars of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut.
I looked to the heavens I don’t believe in and sighed for two minutes.
At the PET scan the following week, I was injected with radioactive dye and had to wait an hour before being placed under the machine. The nurse said “Mister Steel, this scan you are having today is the Rolls Royce of scans.”
This was the moment when I was closest to weeping. This nurse was so proud, of the equipment she was associated with, of the ingenuity she was administering, of the expertise she was included in.
Thirty years ago my situation may have been fatal, just as measles would have been 100 years ago. But now it probably won’t be. Because physicians and doctors and scientists have dedicated themselves to blasting away these cellular mutations, because nurses and cleaners and caters have run the hospitals, having arrived from all over the world, because campaigners and writers and trade unionists created a Health Service and defended it from those who try to undermine it.
As well as this, there is nothing like cancer to make you feel the depth of warmth around you. My son, daughter, partner and so many friends have taken me to appointments, listened to my complaints, lived each moment, took the piss, told me they can’t wait for my voice to not work for a few months, talked about cricket and been utterly fucking magnificent in every way and I adore them all even more than I ever did.
The results of the PET scan, the Rolls Royce of scans, showed there is no cancer in me outside of the neck and throat area, so there should be no reason why a combination of treatments won’t cure it all.
As I write this I am a few days from an operation, that I hope will confirm the location of the cancer, from which a programme of treatment can begin.
The current estimate is that I should be able to start performing again in around six months.
If not, c’est la vie, that’s LA vie.
So that’s my current state of affairs. I have cancer, but it’s a cancer that can be got rid of. I feel like there’s a leopard in my house, that’s locked in a room. I’ve contacted the leopard authorities and they assure me they are used to dealing with leopards like this, and they have a plan for removing the leopard, though it will take a while, and once in a while I can hear it growl.
And that’s all very reassuring.
Even so, several times a day I think to myself ‘hang on, there’s a fucking leopard in my house’.