A campaign to help chef Tim Bilton and his family make memories doubled in just a few days. He talks exclusively to Catherine Scott about living with incurable cance
Six years ago Tim Bilton seemed to have it all.
He was about the fulfil his dream of opening his own fine dining restaurant, he’d appeared on the BBC’s Great British Menu and was tipped as a future Michelin star chef.
Then suddenly his world came crashing down. Just as he was about to open The Spiced Pear in Hepworth, he was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer.
But he was determined not to let it stand in his way.
“I was very driven,” he admits. “I knew what I wanted to do. I loved my wife and children, but I was focused on the restaurant.”
Straight after chemo and radiotherapy at Sheffield’s Weston Park Hospital, Tim was back behind his stove.
“It didn’t occur to me to stop working. I just carried on.” And for two years he did, but behind the scenes his battle with cancer continued. Then in the summer of 2015 Tim discovered the cancer had spread to his saliva glands and he was forced to admit that he needed to take time away from the business.
He underwent eight hours of surgery which affected his speech, saliva and – devastatingly – his sense of taste. But surgery was only the beginning.
Four weeks after the operation he underwent radiotherapy again to his head and neck.
For six weeks he travelled every day from his home in Holmfirth to the Weston Park Hospital in Sheffield. Often he was too ill to drive himself and his wife Adele had to take him.
“It is impossible to describe how terrible I felt,” recalls Tim, 47. “There was days when Adele, who is only tiny, had to literally drag me out of bed and take me to the hospital. It got to the point where I just couldn’t take any more.” The radiotherapy left his mouth so sore he struggled to eat and lost four stone and became dangerously dehydrated which meant numerous trips to the hospital. It was hard on all the family. Tim’s two boys Henry and Charlie were just 10 and four at the time.
But what made it worse was that Tim became completely withdrawn. “I had been in the public eye as a chef and when the cancer came back I just wanted to withdraw from everything. Looking back now I know that made it really hard on Adele as people would constantly be asking her how I was which was really difficult.”
Gradually he built his strength back up and in March 2016 was well enough to attend the Yorkshire Evening Post Oliver Awards where he was presented with an outstanding achievement award by Michelin-starred Michael O’Hare. He received a standing ovation from his peers.
As his strength returned, he needed something to keep him occupied and so contacted Robert Nicholson at Cannon Hall Farm to see if he could hone his butchery skills.
“He offered me a job, which isn’t what I was after at all,” says Tim. But for the last two-and-a-half years he has been helping
to develop the Cawthorne attraction and farm shop’s food and beverage offering and loving it. “I loved being back in the kitchen again. It is such an amazing place.”
Life looked to be back on track for the Biltons.
“I was going for check-ups every six months and my consultant was talking about extending that to every 12 months. I was feeling good.”
But then in February this year Tim started with a niggle in his knee. “I thought it was an old footballing injury and went for some physio and she suggested I should see my consultant.”
Tim started to fear the worst and a series of scans confirmed his concerns. The cancer had returned and, even more devastatingly, there were signs of it on one of his kidneys.
“I am naturally a pretty positive person and so I thought they could just chop off my leg and I would be okay.” Although that was an option, doctors said there was a worry this could increase the spread of the cancer. Instead they advised him to have dual immunotherapy, it would not cure his cancer but might stop it spreading. He is currently undergoing the treatment which again is making him very ill.
It also left the Biltons with another difficult decision, what to tell their children.
“We have one rule in our house and that is no lies,” says Tim. “And the same goes for my illness. We have always been honest with the boys, although it was very hard.”
Tim also decided that unlike the first time his cancer returned this time he would talk openly about the disease and the effects the treatment has on him.
“There seems to be a lot out there about women’s cancer but not so much about men’s. We just aren’t very good at talking about our health.” Tim’s blog, onaknifeedge, is an honest look at his treatment and living life with stage four incurable melanoma.
Tim and Adele have had to have some difficult discussions abut the future.
“They are conversations you never want to have, but you have to be realistic,” says Adele. “We just don’t know how long Tim has and so we live day by day and try to make the most of every moment.”
The family has been overwhelmed by the messages of love and support following a Go Fund Me campaign set up by friends Laura and Nigel Holliday.
The couple set up the fund www.gofundme.com/msw8x-making-memories to help Tim, Adele and their boys make some memories and to help ease the financial worries while Tim undergoes treatment.
The fund has nearly doubled its original target and stands at £9,000. For Tim, a proud Yorkshireman, it has caused mixed emotions, but he says the messages have been overwhelming, including those from celebrity chefs Raymond Blanc and Tom Kerridge
“So long as the two boys and Adele are happy then that is all that matters to me. She is my world.”