When Frazer Hines was diagnosed with bowel cancer he told just three people. Now heading an awareness campaign, the actor talks to Sarah Freeman about his secret battle with the disease.
In the winter of 1999, it appeared to be business as usual for Frazer Hines. A regular in pantomime, he was playing to packed houses at Grantham Theatre Royal, tap dancing through the various big numbers and encouraging the usual audience interaction.
What no-one in the cast or backstage crew knew was that Frazer had recently been diagnosed with bowel cancer. In fact, only his then wife, the water-skiing champion Liz Hobbs, and two close friends knew that each morning he was driving to hospital in Nottingham to receive chemotherapy treatment.
“I took the decision early on that I didn’t want anyone to know and besides I had a frilly shirt which hid the catheter,” says the 66-year-old, still best remembered in Yorkshire for the 22 years he spent playing Joe Sugden on Emmerdale. “I was doing a lot of theatre at the time where there’s always an understudy to fill in if you become ill, but I was worried about word getting round. I didn’t want producers to find out and think, ‘Well, we best not cast him, he might die on us halfway through filming’.”
Prior to being diagnosed, Frazer had been feeling unusually tired, but had put it down to age and admits that had it not been for an unusual Christmas present bought by his friend, the showbiz agent Peter Charlesworth, he might well have continued to have ignored the warning signs.
“He got me a check-up at a Harley Street specialist and thank God he did. At the end of the examination, the doctor said, ‘Frazer, everything is fine, but over the next few months if you notice anything unusual about your stools, use this to take a sample and go to your doctors’. He handed me what looked like a lollipop stick, I made some quip, put it in my pocket and went on my way. About six months later, I was wearing the same suit, put my hand in the pocket and thought, ‘What’s this?’ The very next day I noticed the blood.
“When you hear the word cancer it’s like swallowing a bowling ball, but everything also fell into place. I’d started having a quick nap on the sofa after breakfast. That wasn’t like me, but I’d put it down to working too hard or just getting older. Obviously it wasn’t, I was exhausted because I had cancer.”
During the operation to remove part of his bowel, doctors, who gave him just a 25 per cent chance of survival, discovered the cancer had spread beyond the bowel wall
“I woke up and there were tubes in every orifice,” says Frazer, whose brother died at the age of 41 from lung cancer. “Part of me thought, right that’s it, life begins again right here, but the surgeon said, ‘You’re not out of the woods yet, it could attack your liver and kidney’. Let’s just say I didn’t start any long books.”
While advised by the oncologist responsible for his subsequent chemotherapy treatment to take it easy, Frazer refused to pull out of the panto run. Acting has been in his blood ever since he made his film debut at the age of 10 and he’s always lived by the old adage that the show must go on.
“When people hear chemotherapy, they think my hair will fall out, my face will look grey, I’ll feel sick all the time, but I have to say that wasn’t the case for me. I always joke that if anything my hair grew. There was another man, a Mr Whittaker, who having chemotherapy at the same time. Every morning we’d have a laugh and a joke, so much so that some of the other patients complained about us, but as the nurse said them, ‘I wish you had the same outlook’. You have to see chemotherapy as the good stuff kicking out the bad. People deal with these things differently, but had I given up work, I expect I would have ended up drowning my sorrows in a bottle of scotch.”
Talking now, Frazer seems relentlessly positive, but he admits he did have dark days and part of the reason for keeping his battle secret was to avoid being constantly reminded about the disease.
“I didn’t want to the cancer to define me. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me and say, ‘Frazer, take it easy you don’t have to do the tap dancing routine’. Somehow I felt that would be giving in, I needed to keep what sense of normality I could.”
Frazer went for his final check-up two years ago and with the shadow cast by the cancer having lifted, he’s not only begun to talk about his own experiences, but he is now spearheading the Government’s new Be Clear on Cancer campaign to raise awareness of bowel cancer, which kills 13,000 people each year in Britain alone.
“When you know you’ve got five years of check-ups, it’s impossible not to feel anxious whenever you feel a twinge in your stomach and even now I shy away from saying I’m in the clear. It feels like tempting fate,” he says. “Last October I had a twinge in my stomach. I hadn’t been exercising or playing cricket (he’s a regular with the charity side The Lords Taverners) so I knew I couldn’t have strained a muscle. Of course my first thought was it had come back. It hadn’t, but it’s something that always lingers in the back of your mind.”
While survival rates from bowel cancer are steadily improving, England lags considerably behind other developed countries such as Australia, Canada and Sweden and key to successful treatment lies in early diagnosis.
“If you have a brain tumour or breast cancer, people are much more open about talking about it, but there is a sense of embarrassment surrounding bowel cancer,” says Frazer, who has just finished his first ever pantomime as director and is about to head off to Colorado for a Doctor Who convention – during the 1960s he was Patrick Troughton’s assistant, staring in 117 episodes. “The bowel is as much a part of the engine which drives the body as the brain or the heart and that’s the message I really want to get out.
“Since my treatment I’ve heard about so many people who have had bowel cancer, but it’s still a subject no one really wants to talk about. I can understand that, for years I didn’t want to talk about it, but if I can do anything to raise awareness and get people over the embarrassment factor then I will. As I tell people, ‘Would you rather a doctor take your trousers down once or the undertaker remove them forever?’”