Bill Turnbull says he nearly quit ‘unbearable’ cancer treatment

Aamna Mohdin
Bill Turnbull, a former presenter of BBC Breakfast, says cancer has been a ‘massive pain in the backside’. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/PA

The former BBC Breakfast presenter Bill Turnbull has told of the debilitating effects of undergoing chemotherapy for prostate cancer.

The Classic FM host, 62, revealed he was diagnosed with the disease at the end of last year, and it spread to his legs, hips, pelvis and ribs. After eight rounds of chemotherapy, Turnbull said he asked his consultant to release him from the treatment because he “couldn’t bear it any longer”.

“We ended up doing one more and then called it a day,” he told the Radio Times. “When I was first diagnosed, my PSA (prostate-specific antigen) level – the standard marker, determined by a blood test – was 583. It should have been less than five. We got it down to the 50s, so we’ve made some progress. The cancer has stopped spreading, but it hasn’t been beaten back entirely. We’re at a stalemate.”

Turnbull was diagnosed while recording an episode of the Great Celebrity Bake Off, to be broadcast on Channel 4 for the Stand Up To Cancer fundraiser. “When I was making my cupcakes, I had the disease and didn’t know it,” he said, describing the first few days after being diagnosed as some of the worst in his life.

He paid tribute to his colleague Rachael Bland, who died aged 40 after blogging about her treatment for breast cancer, saying she showed “courage indeed”. He also described how box sets and music, as well as support from family, friends, colleagues and the public, have helped him cope.

“It’s the fact that having cancer is so relentlessly boring,” Turnbull said. “You go to bed at night thinking about it, and it’s still there when you wake up. It’s there all day, every day – a fact of life you have to get used to. And it’s a massive pain in the backside.”

In 2015, Turnbull left BBC Breakfast after nearly 15 years. The following year, he announced he would be joining Classic FM to present two weekend morning shows.

Prostate Cancer UK told Radio Times its telephone service had its busiest day ever when Turnbull revealed his diagnosis, with calls up 400%. In the days after Turnbull’s announcement in March, visits to the health information page on the charity’s website increased by 190%.

Turnbull has previously told the magazine he hopes he can live for another 18 years. His blood count has been brought down by the chemotherapy, but he said the disease could return within months.

Though he had prostate tests aged 40 and 50, the presenter said he was annoyed at himself for not having visited a GP in four years – and encouraged others to get tested.

Angela Culhane, the chief executive of Prostate Cancer UK, praised Turnbull for sharing his story. “Awareness of prostate cancer is increasing and more men are having potentially lifesaving conversations with their GP, coming to us for more information and spreading the word,” she said.

“In the meantime, being aware of his risk is a man’s greatest defence against prostate cancer. Men over 50, black men and men with a family history of prostate cancer are at higher risk and should speak to their GP.”