Interview: Sir David Steel, politician

Sir David Steel had no symptoms and no history of ill health so it was a shock when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Nine years on, he knows he is one of the lucky ones and is campaigning for increased awareness

SIR David Steel is looking as dapper and clean-shaven as ever. What? Not even a sprinkling of facial hair to mark Movember (the month, in case you didn't know, that encourages chaps to grow a tache and raise awareness of men's health issues)?

"Unfortunately not," he laughs. "I've only done that once before and it wasn't a great success. I'm happy to encourage other people to do it though."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Still, fuzz or no fuzz, few would doubt his commitment to the cause. The veteran politician and onetime presiding officer of the fledgling Scottish parliament was "pole-axed" when, nine years ago, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Now 72, he says he had had no symptoms and had been merely getting a routine health MOT when his doctor suggested he get a blood test.

"It was completely accidental," he says, "I had no idea there was anything wrong. But the test showed up positive. It was a shock, of course."

Speaking exclusively to Spectrum in the wake of the announcement that two groups - the Prostate Cancer Charity Scotland and Prostate Cancer Support Scotland - are to join forces in the fight against the disease, he admits he's one of the lucky ones. His cancer was caught early and treated successfully, but that isn't always the case.

"The Big C strikes terror into everybody's hearts," he admits. "We know that thousands of men every year die from prostate cancer so it was a bit alarming, but mine was caught at a very early stage so I was able to reassure my family that my life wasn't in danger."

He describes himself as a typical man, in that he rarely "bothered" with doctors. "I've had very little dealings with hospitals. I wouldn't even have been able to tell you where my prostate was or what it was and I think that's true of most men.

"Initially I found it difficult to talk about," he admits, "because I was so ignorant but I find it much easier now."

And what does he tell men faced with the same situation? "I always tell them the most immediate after-effect is that you need to know where the nearest loo is because you don't get much notice." People might laugh, he says, but it's the practical stuff that makes a difference.

Personally, the most helpful advice for him came from an unexpected source - a gentleman of the press. "One of the photographers on the local paper rang me up and said, 'Look I've had exactly the same thing and I've been through it just a month ahead of you. Would you find it helpful if I came and talked to you and told you what it's like?' I said, 'Absolutely.'

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"That was, in a sense, more helpful than all the medical talk because, as the recipient of the treatment, he was able to warn me, for example, that the most difficult bit would be the last week and the week the treatment stopped, and he was absolutely right. So I was able to pre-plan the time I would be away on the basis of what he told me.

"The sad thing," he adds quietly, "is that he was caught rather late and he died later of the disease."

Steel is full of praise of the work support groups do and still attends his local one in the Borders whenever the House of Lords is in recess. "They are extremely useful because you're meeting people, or relatives, who have gone through the same process. And that's tremendously helpful to the patient.

"I think it's absolutely crucial that men who suddenly find themselves diagnosed with prostate cancer have somewhere else that they can go to talk to other than medics. I am full of admiration for medics but they talk medicine. What you need to do as an ordinary patient is talk to other patients who have been through the experience."

And, with the merging of the two charities, he believes the help available is going to be even greater. "We are going to have a really strong prostate cancer charity in Scotland," says Lord Steel proudly.

"I think what is so peculiar about prostate cancer is that the range of treatments are so varied and really the patient needs help and advice to discuss the various options for treatment, and I think having that from the new charity is going to be very, very helpful."

Prostate cancer is now the most common cancer among men in Scotland. People like Nelson Mandela, Robert de Niro, Stirling Moss and Roger Moore have fought that battle in the public eye. Others, like Frank Zappa and, more recently, Dennis Hopper, have sadly lost the fight.

"I never thought mine would be fatal," says Lord Steel. "I also had the advantage in that my brother Michael was professor of medical science at St Andrews and I was able to discuss it with him. He's a cancer specialist, so at no stage was there any anxiety."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

There had been no history of male cancers in the family, he says. "But on the female side, my mother died of cancer. At my brother's instigation, the female members of the family all had preventative operations - removing ovaries - because it can be genetic."

His own treatment began with promises of a revolutionary new process, then continued with endless discussions over the pros and cons of surgery versus radiotherapy. He recalls: "My brother said there was this new treatment which involved shooting radioactive pellets into the prostate rather than going through daily radiotherapy. He said, 'It's an American technique and there's only one person who does it and he's in Leeds, but I could arrange for you to go down to Leeds and have this.'

"I mentioned it to the oncologist in the Western and he said, 'He's been up teaching us and I'm about to start.' I said, 'Wait a minute, I don't think I want to be a guinea pig.'"

He had to take a course of pills to try and reduce the size of the gland and was scheduled to be patient number eight, "which I thought was going to be a bit too early. But anyway, the pills didn't work so I wasn't eligible."

His alternatives were then surgery - as recommended by his urologist - and radiotherapy - as recommended by his oncologist. Many men are reluctant to opt for a surgical procedure as it can lead to erectile dysfunction or loss of sex drive, though the younger the patient, the lower the risks of these side-effects.

"I rang my brother and said, 'What should I do?' He said, 'You have to listen to both and make up your own mind,' which I thought was not very helpful, but that was how it worked. In the end it came down to the fact that because I was presiding over the Scottish parliament at the time, radiotherapy was really the only sensible option. I think I was only away for two weeks."

He describes going through the treatment as "irritating - I suppose that's the right word, because everybody knew and watched. I found it annoying not being able to do all the things that I normally do," he adds. "I felt completely washed out which was very strange for me as I have never really suffered any ill-health in my life."

However, he accepted the attention was inevitable. "And people were very caring; in the parliament everyone was extremely kind."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

After receiving the all-clear, he says he was "relieved, and full of admiration for the nurses and the radiographers. It's very fast - someone's in and out every ten minutes. The only thing I didn't like was that the waiting room was full of people, some of whom were at death's door, and we were all mixed up together."

Still receiving check-ups every six months, he says he is now "OK" and continues to campaign for increased awareness. "I think many men, perhaps most men in Scotland, don't like talking about prostate cancer. It's not really a subject of conversation. Contrast it with women having breast cancer, which everyone talks about, and there is a noticeable difference between the two.

"Prostate cancer is much more common than people realise - 19,000 men in Scotland are living with it at the moment and 2,500 men are diagnosed every year. These are the ones that are known about but of course there are many more that are not discovered. It is a subject that needs more awareness." n

Celebs who've bared all to raise awareness for charity:-

Robbie Williams kicked it all off in 1999 by donning a pair of fake breasts for the charity Everyman. Now men's cancer charities are almost as famous for their tongue-in-cheek campaigns as for the work they do in research.

In 2005 Rachel Stevens gave men a hands-on demonstration of how to check for testicular cancer.

And earlier this year Jesse Metcalfe, Adam Garcia, Craig David and Dr Christian Jessen became naked Cosmopolitan centrefolds for Everyman. The same charity has hosted a five-a-side football match featuring stars including Rick Parfitt and singer Paul Young, as well as testicular cancer survivor Jason Cundy, a former premiership footballer.

Nightclub owner and reality TV star Fran Cosgrave, meanwhile, helped launch a Butlins bingo game to encourage men to check themselves regularly for testicular cancer, using the phrase "eyes down, check your balls".

England rugby player Phil Vickery joined the charity Orchid to promote its Tackle It campaign, also for testicular cancer. His clothing company Raging Bull designed a range of leisurewear to help raise funds and awareness.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Closer to home, cheeky Scotland football manager Craig Levein bared his buttocks for prostate cancer charity Prostate Scotland.

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 14 November, 2010