Esther Rantzen on living with incurable cancer: ‘It makes each day even more precious’

Esther Rantzen
'I try always to remember my hero Nelson Mandela’s advice,' says Esther Rantzen. 'Tread softly, breathe peacefully, laugh hysterically' - Rii Schroer

This interview was originally published in July 2023

I’m aware that I’m really lucky to have reached my great age,’ says Dame Esther Rantzen, at 83, ‘and aware that I can fall off my perch at any moment.’

At the end of last year, two days after sending off her new book to her publisher, the broadcasting legend found a lump under her arm. A scan showed it was lung cancer that had metastasised to the lymph nodes. In May, she revealed it has progressed to stage 4.

She is now at her New Forest home and ‘enjoying each day in a granular way that I never did when I was tearing around like a wasp in a jam jar’, she says. ‘Having stage 4 cancer does concentrate the mind, and makes each day even more precious.’

The original subtitle for her book Older & Bolder was ‘My A-Z of Surviving Everything’. ‘I told my oncologist that I’d better change the title,’ she says. ‘He agreed – which is why it’s now “My A-Z of Surviving Almost Everything”.’

Her diagnosis is the reason our interview is being conducted over email. ‘Any conversation longer than half an hour knocks me out,’ she says, ‘even with my nearest and dearest.’

You might expect written answers to be unconducive to an insightful conversation: too slow, over-deliberated, not spontaneous. But it turns out an email conversation with Esther Rantzen is better than a face-to-face with most other people.

She is funny, honest, vulnerable, expansive and quick to reply.

One of the worst things about this disease is how it can take down a person who seems utterly invincible. During Rantzen’s ‘wasp in a jam jar’ years, she was one of the most recognisable faces in the UK.

She presented and produced BBC One’s That’s Life!, which ran from 1973 to 1994, with an audience, at its height, of more than 18 million. It was the first magazine-style series to cover quirky stories about talking dogs alongside serious issues like organ donation.

Esther Rantzen
Rantzen on BBC One’s That's Life! in 1973 - That's Life

After a special episode on child abuse, a phone line staffed by social workers was open for 48 hours, during which around 100 children called in with their own stories of abuse. Rantzen quickly founded Childline, the childhood counselling service that is now accessible online, too.

A mother of three and grandmother of five, Rantzen was widowed in 2000 when she lost her husband of 23 years, Desmond Wilcox. In 2016, an endearing appearance on Celebrity First Dates featured a powerful moment when she talked about having ‘lots of people to do something with, but no one to do nothing with’.

Writing a book of life lessons felt right because ‘with so much life experience, I have opinions on everything’, she says, adding that it was ‘huge fun’ to write. I can attest it’s as much fun to read, partly because it’s very much written in her voice. ‘I had strict instructions from my children not to sound like Saint Esther of the Telephone, but to be myself,’ she admits. ‘I obeyed them.’

In conversation with the author Rosamund Dean, who has written a book on her own cancer experience, Esther Rantzen shares words of wisdom.

Many find a cancer diagnosis puts things in perspective, and provides fresh clarity on what’s important in life. What has it taught you about your priorities?

Mine, it turns out, are my close family and my garden. My beloved sister has flown from Australia to be with me for the most crucial hospital appointments. She’s quite stern with me when I don’t want to eat, or go for a walk down the lane. My children and grandchildren are a huge pleasure.

And my garden constantly shows me something new. Poppies and a wild orchid in my rewilded places. So many new things to delight me, which I missed during the years when I could only spend weekends here.

Childline is your greatest legacy, helping six million children over the years. Today, a child contacts Childline every 25 seconds. Was there a moment when you realised the impact it was having?

I met a young man who had been terribly abused as a child. He used to spread toothpaste on the pages of books to remind himself what food was like. He rang Childline from his school.

It took three calls where he was told the abuse was not his fault, and he could be safely rescued, before he disclosed to a teacher what was happening and was taken into foster care.

At 40, he asked his foster mother if he could change his surname to hers (of course she agreed), and he now runs an agency recruiting foster parents.

Esther Rantzen
After presenting That’s Life! for 21 years, Rantzen remained in our living rooms with her talk show, called Esther, that ran from 1994 to 2002 - Brian Ritchie

It’s a perfect example of what I call the upward spiral. Children who are helped never forget it,  and want to give back. I once interviewed a dozen survivors of child abuse who had been helped by Childline, and they all said being reassured that things could change gave them hope for the first time.

Hope is what makes life worth living. Every one of those survivors had gone on to find a way to protect other children. So I say to our volunteers: it’s not just the child you are talking to you are helping, it may be generations of children.

As someone deeply involved in Childline for many decades now, how do you feel society’s attitude towards children has changed over your lifetime?

Although I didn’t realise quite what a revolutionary idea Childline was when we launched it, looking back I think it has changed attitudes. The idea that we offer the opportunity for children themselves to reach out for help turned out to be a significant contribution to the way we treat children. We believe children need to be listened to.

Childline was launched on the BBC series called Childwatch, which revealed that child abuse, especially sexual abuse, was far more common than the public realised and that the vast majority of it happened within families. So painful was this message that one tabloid called Childwatch ‘the most dangerous show on television’.

I could understand that reaction. It is a horrifying thought that children can suffer in this way, and very tempting to shoot the messenger. But as it is a secret crime, usually the child can only be protected if they ask for help. And we have started to listen when abused children ask for help, rather than dismissing what they tell us as having ‘a disgusting imagination’ as one survivor was told by her teacher.

Esther Rantzen
Rantzen visiting the Childline offices in 2009 - Alamy

Even the way our courts treat child witnesses has improved, though not consistently and not enough. Juries used to be warned that children who disclosed sexual abuse should not be believed unless there is corroboration.

I remember a judge telling me that a child who had broken down in tears under cross-examination had been ‘caught out in a lie’. One boy told me that having to describe the details of sexual abuse and then be accused of lying was more painful than the abuse itself. We still have a great deal to learn.

Do you have a view on the current gender identity conversation around young people?

At Childline, we take what children tell us seriously. This should also apply to children who tell us they cannot bear to live as the gender they have been assigned. Years ago, when I was presenting That’s Life!, I met ‘Mike’ who was desperately distressed and hated his/her girl’s body.

Mike was about 10, and was absolutely sure s/he was in the wrong body, and was in fact a boy. Mike’s mother was terribly unhappy about not being able to help her child and, when I asked how long Mike had felt this way, she said since Mike was six.

Of course, it’s wrong to make drastic changes to a child’s body that they may later regret. But it’s equally wrong to assume that no child really feels this way. They can become suicidal if no support is given. If a child who contacts Childline tells us they are being bullied, we take that seriously. If they say they are being abused, we take that seriously.

If they tell us they feel suicidal because they cannot bear being in the wrong body, we take that seriously. In every case, we see our role as giving the child confidence, and assuring them that they are valued, and that we care about their safety.

You have three adult children: Miriam, 45, Rebecca, 43, and Joshua, 41. What have you learned about parenting, specifically parenting during the difficult teen years?

It’s handy for teenagers to have their mother, someone with a built-in guilt complex, to blame. We mothers do feel guilty much of the time. Working mothers feel guilty when they’re at work because they’re not at home and feel guilty at home because they’re not at work. I certainly did.

Esther Rantzen and her family
Rantzen with her husband Desmond Wilcox and their children in 1982 - Getty

And my children have vivid memories of the clatter of my typewriter when I was at home, which they remind me of whenever they feel it’s the right moment for emotional blackmail. Even when they grow out of the teens and turn into lovely people again (around age 25), a mother’s place is still in the wrong.

In 2012 you founded the Silver Line, a helpline for older people. What have you learnt about the modern experience of old age through that?

The bad news is that so many older people have nobody in their lives to have an enjoyable conversation with. The good news is that telephone chats can fill that gap, to an extent, especially if they’re regular.

In my childhood, older people were at the centre of family life. I saw my grandmothers every week. Now families are so scattered, many older people live on their own, not wanting to become a ‘burden’. That’s one of the two ‘b’ words we hear most often at the Silver Line, the other being ‘busy’.

As in, ‘my daughter’s so busy’, ‘the carers are so busy’. Older people have the worst of both worlds; we are invisible and inaudible. The digital switchover has isolated so many. And we are blamed for being ‘bed-blockers’ when we can’t be discharged from hospital because there is no support for us at home. Any party who promises to create a Minister for Older People to advocate for us will get my vote.

Esther Rantzen and Queen Camilla
Queen Camilla talks to Dame Esther Rantzen on a visit to The Silver Line offices, which provide a free, confidential helpline for elderly people - Richard Martin-Roberts/Getty

Loneliness a huge issue, not only for older people. Is there something we should be doing, at a grassroots or government level, to combat it?

There is no silver bullet. It takes all of us working together to combat loneliness. Talking publicly about it does something to dispel the stigma of admitting you feel lonely. Universities need to be aware of it, and ensure that young people don’t become depressed and suicidal.

When I was an undergraduate, universities were aware of their responsibility in loco parentis. Now that 18-year-olds are officially adults, too many universities don’t stay alert and protective.

As for older people, I suggest that we need to admit we need company, and take the difficult step of reaching out: trying that meeting, that choir, that cookery class. If we don’t enjoy it, we don’t need to go back. But if we do, it may banish loneliness, at least for a few hours.

In what ways have you seen the National Health Service change?

When I was eight, the NHS saved my life with newly discovered penicillin. Now that my son Joshua is a junior doctor, I know how hard he works. Such long hours that, in order to spend proper time with his young family, he has had to go part-time. Things change.

Rantzen in her office at the BBC, Kensington House in 1969
Rantzen in her office at the BBC, Kensington House in 1969 - Getty

When I was a child, I had a local GP who was on call day and night. Now I have a local surgery with a group of GPs, all excellent, and I don’t mind having telephone conversations instead of trips to the surgery.

Of course, the treatments have improved, and technology has changed hugely. I’ve discovered a new condition that hits you during the months before your next scan, and until the results. It’s called ‘Scanxiety’.

In Older & Bolder, you say ‘the killer question’ is, what do you do for fun? Because many older people sadly can no longer remember. What’s your own answer to that question?

So many older people ringing the Silver Line have told me that it’s been years since they had fun. If I were Prime Minister, I’d bring in a law that everyone must have fun at least once a day. I have loads of fun. My children and grandchildren invariably make me laugh.

I have got a new hobby: writing letters to the papers, including of course The Telegraph. You kindly published me, even when I outed myself as an ardent Remainer.

My garden is a constant pleasure. It’s great fun watching the tadpoles grow legs and shed their tails. An extraordinary development; it makes human puberty look like nothing.

I love playing Wordle, and listening to BBC Sounds: Mark Steel’s In Town and Martin Jarvis reading PG Wodehouse. And communing with Boots the cat, who adopted us and now rules the household. I try always to remember my hero Nelson Mandela’s advice: ‘Tread softly, breathe peacefully, laugh hysterically.’

Esther Rantzen
'My garden is a constant pleasure,' says Rantzen - ITV/Shutterstock

You are obviously an optimistic person – do you feel positive about the future of humanity?

Ukraine saddens me hugely. How can Russia create such a horrible, pointless war? Given that we humans can do that to our own species, maybe the planet would be better off without us.

But then I remember the wonderful people I’ve had the privilege of knowing: the Childline and Silver Line staff and volunteers, and Sir Nicholas Winton, who saved a generation of Czech Jewish children. We have to remember the proverb ascribed to Edmund Burke: ‘For the triumph of evil, it is only necessary for good men to do nothing.’ And women, of course.

You were asked to apply for the job of BBC One Controller, which would have made you the first female controller of any television channel. Is it true that you turned it down out of fear?

Yes, I was a complete wimp. Although being controller is such a huge, demanding job it would have meant I spent far less time supporting Childline. And I would have had to give up That’s Life!, which would have meant not exposing Crookham Court, a boarding school owned by a paedophile who employed several paedophile teachers and routinely abused the boys.

Three of them went to prison as a result of the That’s Life! investigation. In the end, I made the right decision. Maybe not a complete wimp, then. Just a bit wimpish.

After our email exchange, I call broadcaster Rebecca Wilcox, Rantzen’s middle child. She describes her mother as ‘always hilarious and massively curious’, and regales me with anecdotes, adding ‘these are the PG ones; there are others she’d kill me for telling you’.

During the birth of Rebecca’s first child, Rantzen was jokingly dismissive of her daughter’s all-natural yoga-breathing birth plan, responding with ‘epidural, epidural, epidural’. In hospital, during a sharp contraction, she again said ‘epidural’, causing Rebecca to fling a plastic cup of water in her direction. ‘The nurse was so upset, not because my birth plan had been undermined, but because I had dared to throw water at a national treasure,’ Rebecca laughs. ‘In the end, mum was totally right. She always is, annoyingly, but it sometimes takes a long time to realise it.’

Her mother’s diagnosis is ‘too sad to think about, I’m trying not to go into that area at the moment’. She explains that Rantzen’s coping mechanism has drawn on the skills that always made her such an exceptional broadcaster. ‘She just adores making her oncologist laugh.’

Esther Rantzen
Rantzen: ‘With so much life experience, I have opinions on everything’ - Esther Rantzen/PA Wire

Rantzen’s elder daughter, Miriam, agrees. ‘Mum has an incredible gift for happiness and fun,’ she tells me over email. ‘Dad took us every Sunday to the rehearsal day before recording of That’s Life!, and we would hide in the dressing room – behind a curtain or under the dressing table – and spring out suddenly to surprise her. She would not be able to stop giggling at the inadequacy of our attempts to hide.’

Miriam, who has ME and lives at home with Rantzen, is clearly extremely proud of her mum. ‘It’s very moving when people helped by Childline or the Silver Line share what her work means to them,’ she says. ‘But my overriding gratitude is for everything that Mum has taught me about cultivating joy, and being creative and undaunted in the face of challenges.’

In May, Rantzen revealed she has been trying a new cancer treatment, but needs to wait for a scan to see if it’s been working. She tells me she’s ‘still waiting’.

In the meantime, she’s happy hunkered down at home in the New Forest, surrounded by her family, with much to be proud of and no regrets. She’s keeping busy, but it’s a different kind of busy these days.

‘I’d better get on with sorting out my paperwork,’ she tells me, ‘and I assume that whatever bulbs I decide to plant in autumn will please whoever is around to enjoy the spring blossoms.’

Older & Bolder: My A-Z of Surviving Almost Everything, by Esther Rantzen (Ebury, £16.99), is out now and available to buy from Telegraph Books