25 Feb 2014

Award-winning writer of BBC dramas Silk and The Village, Peter Moffat, talks to us about his dad’s fight with prostate cancer and the impact it’s had on his life and work.

Tell us about your dad

If I have a picture of Dad in my mind from my childhood it’s seeing him going off in his Land Rover, with his gun, wearing his flak jacket. He was a big man to me, in every way. He was still warm, but he was very much a man’s man. He was a Colonel in the British army and he served for two years in Northern Ireland, during the Troubles. He took that command very seriously.

He was enormously proud of his men and never lost a single man under his command. That really mattered to him. He’d made his way up through the ranks and he was a proud man and admired by people he served with and who served I think that’s why the diagnosis of prostate cancer hit him so hard. He found it hugely difficult to speak about. This big man was suddenly frightened by it.

When was he diagnosed?

He was 67 years old when he learned he had prostate cancer. By the time he was diagnosed it had spread all over his body and he was told he might last two years, but probably not that long. He only told Mum at first. He decided to wait two and a half months to tell me and my sister – until a planned trip down to see us.

Dad wanted to protect us – wanted to tell us together face to face, to make it easier for us. But that meant that for two and a half months my mother was living with this awful secret and couldn’t speak to anyone about it. It was very hard for her. For Dad it had been a massive shock and he didn’t want to talk about it or couldn’t talk about it. I know he felt he was doing the right thing, trying to help and protect the family, waiting for the right time. But for my Mum, it was dreadful. She needed to share it and talk about it, find out more.

I remember the day he told us so well. We were all spending a day together at our beach hut in Norfolk. Dad said ‘I’m making a cup of tea’ and asked my sister and I to join him in the beach hut. He sat us down together and he told us he had cancer. It was a total shock. There were words and terms that I didn’t really understand, neither did he. I remember him saying, “two years are possible, but not likely”.

How did you cope as a family?

It was such a shock. As the days and weeks passed we didn’t know what should be happening, we didn’t even know what questions to ask. It seemed very difficult to get the right information. I can’t remember exactly when we found the Prostate Cancer UK Specialist Nurses, but that’s when things began to fall into place. I could ring and speak to a nurse for as long as I needed to, she made it clear she had time to listen and to explain.She would take a whole load of ‘stuff’ and translate it into meaningful English.

Dad lived five years longer than we had expected. In that time we changed how we were as a family. We became open with each other, we could talk about things that we’d have avoided in the past. I am so grateful we got that time. In the seven years from the day of his diagnosis to the day he died there was an incredible transformation in Dad, to someone who was so much more open and able to talk about emotions. It was a long journey for him and for all of us as a family.

Has your dad’s illness made you think more about your own health?

After my experience with Dad, you would think I’d be very health aware. I suppose I am, and I’m a bit of a hypochondriac really, but I still find it very hard to go to the doctor with those sort of problems… like so many other men. Shortly after Dad died, I did have a scare and I did go to the doctor. Luckily it was a ‘no consequences’ scare.

And it’s worth saying for the record and so other men know – that the digital rectal exam wasn’t painful. Within 10 days I got the results of my blood test and it was all fine. I think 10 years ago, if I had some signs, I might have let it go on for a time perhaps even months. That wouldn’t happen now. I’d be straight there. We all pay our taxes, we all pay for the NHS, you’re allowed to go to the doctor.

Any man with a close relative who has had prostate cancer is at greater risk themselves That’s me. I’ve also turned 50 this year and that, too, gives me an increased risk. I do feel angry about how inconclusive the tests are and how little they’ve changed over many years. I want to say ‘come on world, let’s get this sorted, let’s spend the money, let’s get a test that works’.

Why did you write about a character with prostate cancer in Silk?

I wanted men to learn about the risks, the prevalence of prostate cancer – especially men who don’t really think about their health. That’s why I chose the character of Billy Lamb (played in the show by actor Neil Stuke). He’s a real ‘man’s man’ – scotch-drinking, goes to the races, ducking and diving, a good bloke and he’s in his late forties. Through him we might be able to reach some men who wouldn’t normally want to visit a doctor. I thought watching this ‘geezer’, someone they identify with, go through the experience might just have an impact.

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