Mail on Sunday – 08 November 2009

Simon MacCorkindale and Susan GeorgeCasualty’s Simon: I’ve got incurable cancer

When Simon MacCorkindale suddenly left TV’s Casualty no one suspected that he was keeping a tragic secret: he had cancer and had been given just five years to live. Now, in this raw and inspiring interview, he and his wife Susan George reveal their daily battle to be strong – and prove doctors wrong

FOR more than three years, he kept it a secret even from his closest friends. Former Casualty star Simon MacCorkindale, who played handsome consultant Harry Harper in the popular BBC series, told very few he was battling cancer.  Even after the disease had spread to his lungs and doctors gave him just five years to live, he and his wife, the iconic Seventies actress Susan George, decided they did not want everyone to know.

‘I didn’t want to make a fuss,’ says Simon. ‘We are very private people and wanted to deal with it on our own.’

Their ordeal began when Simon, 57, was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2006, after complaining of stomach cramps while filming in Bristol.

At first, the couple, who have just celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, were told by doctors that it had been caught in time.

Simon, they were reassured, could expect a swift and full recovery after surgeons removed a 2ft diseased section of his bowel. But a year later, they were hit by the devastating news that the cancer had spread to his lungs. It was incurable.

‘It came as a complete bombshell,’ says Simon. ‘It was the last thing in the world that I expected. I had gone for a routine check-up thinking everything was fine.

‘The news hit me like a sledgehammer because right up to that point, I thought I had beaten bowel cancer and it was all done and dusted. All I could think about was how Suzie was going to take the news.’

Speaking publicly for the first time about how fighting the disease has changed their lives, Simon and Susan say they didn’t want people to feel sorry for them. Simon says: ‘We thought no one needed to know because, for the first year or so, we didn’t think it was that serious.

‘On a more practical level, showbusiness is a difficult place in which to work when people think you’re sick.

‘It’s not easy keeping a big secret like this. We have had to tell little fibs, to mask things. The pressure has been enormous. But the news has been slowly creeping out and at least this way we can tell the story in our own words.

‘People also have such a fear of the ‘C’ words – both cancer and chemotherapy. These have a hugely negative impact. But I’m sitting here perfectly healthy. I don’t want people to think that I’m pale, losing my hair, losing weight and on the way out. I’m not. I’m as active as I’ve ever been.’

Simon has turned down theatre work to be at home. Instead, he is helping to compile Susan’s autobiography about her Hollywood days and assisting with the stud farm and equine photography business.

‘It’s important for people who either have this or maybe soon will learn they have to know that. More people are surviving. And I want to tell people to be open-minded. To look at other therapies.

I’m using a mix of different therapies, that work for me. I’m not saying what people should do but if I can help one person to look at what else is out there, then I’d be happy.’

For a man who supposedly has only three years left, Simon is looking remarkably healthy. He’s lost 181b of excess weight thanks to his new eating regime, but it sits well on his 6ft frame.

His brown hair looks thick and luxuriant and his face has the ruddy glow of a man who’s been spending his time outdoors, helping Susan, 59, run their 45-acre Arabian stud farm on Exmoor.

Apart from a slight, persistent cough due to his damaged lungs, he appears to be in very good shape. If anything, it is Susan who is showing signs of stress brought on by her husband’s ongoing fight for his life. Famously blonde, she is rather pale, but determined.

In a frank and, understandably, often emotional interview, the couple explain why they both refuse – even now – to accept the initial prognosis that the disease is incurable. It’s not our nature to think negatively,’ says Susan. Tm the eternal optimist and Simon is entirely indefatigable.

‘We will always look for a way to solve a problem.

I’m not saying that we are away with the fairies. We are practical people, but we won’t get ourselves bogged down by statistics and time frames.

‘Every case is different and a lot depends on one’s mental attitude.

‘We have to believe and never stop believing that we can come out of this thing with a good result. Never underestimate the power of the mind and spirit. I’m not necessarily talking a cure, but the aim is to shrink the cancer – to get rid of it. At the moment we feel that we are winning the battle.’

Simon, who is now receiving a six-month course of fortnightly chemotherapy treatments, has placed his trust in a combination of alternative and conventional medicines. This includes homeopathy, a strict macrobiotic diet, use of Amazonian herbs and spiritual healing.

It’s a devastating blow for someone who had, until then, rarely been ill. But remarkably, the actor, who built a 30-year career on stage and TV playing handsome, often caddish roles, says he still feels ‘lucky’. His condition was diagnosed early.

It was during a hectic six-day-a-week filming schedule in Bristol that he first felt unwell. Simon says: ‘I started to get a very gripey feeling in my tummy.

‘I went as pale as a sheet and started to break out in a sweat, which I didn’t think anything of.
‘Someone asked me if I was all right, and I said I felt pretty grim, but that was about it. I thought, if anything, it might have been something I ate.’

He returned to his hotel room to sleep it off. But when a doctor on set heard about the incident he persuaded Simon to have tests done at the nearby Bristol Royal Infirmary. Initial results revealed slight anemia. Simon was, however, referred to a private consultant and two weeks later he was booked in for an internal bowel examination.

‘It was to make sure everything was fine and my fitness wasn’t masking anything,’ Simon explains. But, after the examination, as he lay recovering from a mild sedative, a consultant told him they had found a malignant tumour in the colon.

‘He told me it was very early stages. That we’d caught it and there were no immediate signs of it penetrating the bowel wall, so with surgery he could whip out a length of colon, stitch me back up again, and it would be fine. I said, “OK, that’s what we’ll do.'”

But first, Simon had to go home and tell Susan. The actress, who appeared with Dustin Hoffman in the infamous cult movie Straw Dogs and was once voted the sexiest woman in the world, drastically cut back on acting ten years ago to concentrate on her passion – breeding horses – and Simon’s career.

Her face intensifies and her voice thickens with emotion as she recalls the moment Simon told her of his condition.

She says:’ “It’s not great,” he said in a deadpan manner. “I have a tumour. I was incredibly shocked and frightened.’ Simon, as befits the Haileybury-educated son of an RAF officer, was his usual stoic self. ‘Pretty soon, we both resolved we would beat this.  We took the “lucky” approach. We still feel very lucky. If I hadn’t been working on Casualty, I might never have been checked. I felt I had been a very lucky boy.’  Simon opted to arrange surgery during a two-week gap in Casualty’s schedule a few weeks later – despite doctors recommending he take ten to 12 weeks to recover. The operation was booked for two hours but took double the time because of minor complications.

Susan, who was waiting with one of her close friends, tearfully recalls: ‘I was a nervous wreck once it went over the two hours. I probably drove the nurses crazy with my questions, but they let me hold his hand in the recovery room until he came around.’

A series of tests was carried out, to see if the cancer had spread. Simon says: ‘About ten days later, we got the results. It all looked very positive. It was very, very early stage malignant, which was good. The cancer hadn’t penetrated the bowel wall, and 27 lymph nodes in the area were also tested. All came back clean and clear. That was very good.’

There was, however, one nagging problem. The results showed a few small spots on Simon’s lungs. The doctors didn’t actually know what they were,’ he says.

They said some people have these specks for years, that they can be brought on by pesticides, the environment, anything, and are particularly common in the US, where I lived for several years.’

Simon, who, with Susan, has practiced yoga for more than 15 years, returned to Casualty less than three weeks after surgery – despite Susan’s strong protest.

‘I wanted him to give himself more time to heal,’ she says. ‘But I understood he needed the distraction and the challenge of doing what he loves.’

Despite being a little overweight, from his time recovering – he wasn’t having chemotherapy at the time -Simon says he felt fine.

He was also booked to have scans on his lungs every three months, to keep tabs on the ‘specks’.

At Christmas 2006, the actor was given a six-month sabbatical from the BBC1 show to make his return to the stage for the first time in 20 years. He joined a touring production of the Agatha Christie play The Unexpected Guest, produced by Bill Kenwright.

Susan remained behind at the 17th Century farmhouse they share, looking after Georgian Arabians, their Arabian stud business. These days, the woman who was once a regular on the London party circuits and who dated both Prince Charles and George Best, is happiest mucking out stables in her jeans and wellies.

‘Animals in general and horses in particular, have been the great love of my life,’ she says, ‘and the stud is a huge enterprise.’ And so, it seemed, their life returned to normal. The couple were confident that they had ‘dodged a bullet’.

Then on May 29, 2007 – a date for ever imprinted in their minds – they received the devastating diagnosis that Simon’s cancer had spread to his lungs.

Simon MacCorkindale and Susan GeorgeSimon says: ‘I went for the result of my latest scan and to show just how blase and cavalier we were by then, I went to the oncologist on my own on my way to Casualty.

‘We really thought it would be fine. But, on that day he said to me, “It’s not good. The spots on the lungs have grown.”

‘I was shocked. He said I had lung cancer – me, who never smoked a cigarette my whole life and always tried to live a healthy lifestyle. He said it was incurable. It was such a body blow that my mind went numb. I managed to ask him what that meant. Had I got 20 years, ten years or five minutes? He said, “Well, five years.”

At this point, the couple hug and show the bond that has kept them strong over the past three-and-a-half years. They are clearly devoted to each other and, says Susan, inseparable. They do everything together, even ‘thinking as one’.

It has, they both agree, been that way since they first met in 1977 at an Ella Fitzgerald concert at London’s Grosvenor House. Susan says: ‘We’ve just found the concert programme from the night we met and Simon’s phone number is written inside it. Isn’t that amazing?’

Both were in other relationships. He and Susan, then two of the film world’s most glamorous actors, became good friends and started dating in 1982. They were married in Fiji in 1984.

With tears in her eyes as she lays a hand on her husband’s arm, Susan recalls how Simon broke the news of his lung cancer to her. ‘I shall never forget that moment as long as I live. He came home and I could tell by look on his face that something was terribly wrong.

‘He sat on the couch and I between his knees. When he told me I burst into floods of tears. We fell into one another’s arms and we cried. We cried lots.’ They shared the devastating news with a few extremely close friends, some of whom had firsthand experience of cancer, and took hope from stories of less conventional treatments.

Simon immediately switched to a macrobiotic diet – which is favoured by Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow and has been credited with health benefits in cancer patients. It meant cutting out foods such as meat, wheat, dairy and refined sugars.

When he returned to star in his last series of Casualty in late 2007, he continued to keep his condition a secret. It was, he says, sometimes a surreal experience. ‘There were times, playing a doctor in Casualty, I had to play scenes telling someone they had cancer, or an incurable disease.

That was a cracker. Knowing what was going on in my own case, made it feel very strange.

‘In my case, it was a waiting game to see what would happen. I took a positive approach.’

Simon refused to stop working. He went straight into a national tour of Sleuth. And just over a year ago, he made another return to the stage as Captain Georg Von Trapp in The Sound Of Music at The London Palladium.

They continued pursuing alternative therapy. Last January, Simon took a week’s leave and flew to Dubai for sessions with a Pranic healer, a system of ‘energy medicine’. He also began using botanicals from the Amazon.

Then after the musical ended its run, Simon discovered the cancer on his lung was growing more aggressively.

To restore his strength, he and Susan spent 12 weeks in Atlanta in America, where he had intensive homeopathy to rebuild his immune system and low-dose chemotherapy – and continued with the alternative treatments.

It seemed to work and in June a scan showed the cancer growth had stopped. Buoyed with optimism they continued their relentless pursuit of alternatives and information. ‘We were very blessed,’ says Simon, ‘being guided to remarkable experts.’ He is now being treated at the London Oncology Clinic, using a renowned specialist, a nutritionist and homeopath.

Simon says: ‘His words, the best words for a long time, were, “What you have now is not life-threatening at the moment”. He has given me the belief that this can be dealt with.

‘On that basis, I have now begun the chemotherapy – a huge decision.’ Now two treatments into the six-month course of 12, Simon is feeling strong. He describes the side effects as ‘virtually negligible’.

But it was, ironically, on their 25th wedding anniversary last month that Simon had a reminder that he is not immortal.

He complained of chest pains that turned out to be viral pneumonia. He spent three days in hospital and, looking back, sees it as a wake-up call.

‘That was rough. It was the first time I realised that it is having an effect,’ he says. ‘But I think Suzie has rougher days than I do.

‘However much you don’t want to leave someone on their own, leaving is easier than staying. I think you can deal with that yourself, more easily than they can. But I say that, and yet we believe I’m not going anywhere.’

Her eyes well up once more. ‘It’s so hard to know that he’s having to go through this. I believe, you know, I really believe we will get through this. I just have a few lonely times, when I cry out from inside.’

Asked if they’ve made plans, in case the worst happens, Simon replies not. ‘Until I feel as though I’m losing – and I’ll have to be in a pretty bad way for that to happen – I won’t.

‘But there’s no doubt that every scan will be a big moment.’


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