When Jeremy Nicholl was diagnosed with incurable prostate cancer last year, the 60-year-old photographer decided to film himself undergoing treatment with early docetaxel and hormone therapy, releasing them online as a series called My Beautiful Cancer. We talk to him about why the filming helped him cope with his symptoms and what the public reaction has been to his starkly honest videos.
Why did you decide to film your chemotherapy treatment?
I’m a professional photographer and film-maker, so once I was diagnosed it was probably inevitable that I’d film something. I’m also a very poor patient, so I knew I would need something to occupy me. Just sitting around being ill would drive me crazy. I was going to be treated in London, where I used to live but hadn’t spent any substantial amount of time in years. So I thought I'd find an interesting project to work on there if I felt well enough.
At the same time, I was doing lots of research on prostate cancer just to find out what was happening to me. I did lots of reading and expected to find lots of films too, but I found very little. So then I thought maybe I could be 'the project'. I had no real plan; the whole process was very organic. I just wanted to make a film that I’d like to see and nobody else seems to have made.
Did you find that it helped you cope with it?
Yes, definitely. I read an interview with Bill Turnbull recently in which he said his bee-keeping hobby really helped him deal with his prostate cancer. I guess anything that takes your mind off an illness you're going through will help. But I was especially lucky in that simply doing my job didn’t just take my mind of the illness, it really helped me confront it, which I think is even more positive. Like the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
The fatigue and insomnia you experienced looked palpably awful, but you always seemed upbeat! What things did you find helped with these symptoms?
The single thing that most made the side effects tolerable was knowing that they would be good for the film! Six chemo cycles in which everything went smoothly would be very dull and wouldn’t tell the viewer much about the experience. So whenever something bad happened I would have two contradictory reactions. One half of me would think: “Oh God, I’m in A&E in an oxygen mask, this must be bad.” The other half would think: “Oh God, I’m in A&E in an oxygen mask, this will make great footage.”
You don't see anyone with you in the videos. Who was there behind the scenes?
I got a lot of support from friends in London I’d lost touch with, but my biggest support was my brother and sister-in-law and their family. I stayed with them while I did the chemo and I really couldn’t have got through it without them. Apart from the emotional support, on a practical level you really don’t want to do chemo on your own. Just the fatigue can make even the most basic everyday tasks a major undertaking. Even if you manage to go shopping, you won’t feel up to cooking the food when you get home.
What difficulties did you face filming in hospital?
Filming is supposed to be arranged through the hospital press office. I didn’t do that at first – not because I was trying to avoid them but because the filming was a very impromptu decision. I asked my doctor while I was in the clinic, just before my first chemo session, and he thought it was OK so long as I didn’t film any other patients. So I just started shooting. But once I realised the project was going to develop, I contacted the press office, asked staff permission to be filmed and was careful to cut out any identifying footage of others in the final edit.
If only one man gets tested as a result of seeing the films then they’ve served a purpose
How have people responded to the videos so far?
The feedback has been 100% positive and very enthusiastic from the medical community and cancer survivors, as well as men who’ve just been diagnosed or those just nervous about prostate cancer. Some have told me they got tested as a result of seeing the films, which is great. If only one man gets tested as a result of seeing the films then they’ve served a purpose.
What’s next for you health-wise?
I still have peripheral neuropathy in my hands and feet as a result of the chemo. I’m very much looking forward to that disappearing, but sometimes it’s permanent. Otherwise it’s a case of keeping going and living my life. I’m fairly active and my main regular exercise is swimming, I plough up and down the lanes for an hour most days. That was banned by the doctors during chemo because of the risk of infection, so I’m very glad to be doing that again.
Has the whole experience changed how you think about yourself and what you do with your life?
We all know we’re going to die, but most people don’t actively consider their own mortality until it confronts them. Believe me, a stage-four cancer diagnosis really helps you focus! And I’m very aware that, although my chemo appears to have been successful, I’m not cancer-free: it’s still lurking inside me and could reappear. All that makes me realise that what time I have is valuable and shouldn’t be wasted, so it’s making me think hard about what I want to do – and especially what work I want to do.
And aside from work, I want to make some contribution regarding cancer. So I’m taking part in this year’s Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride, a motorcycle charity that raises funds for research into prostate cancer and men’s health. After what people have done for me, that seems the least I can do.