Belfast actor Bill Jeffrey: 'In my new film role I have to weep...all I have to do is think of that 10 minutes after my bowel cancer diagnosis, that utter devastation, and I'll cry convincingly'
Belfast actor Bill Jeffrey explains to Leona O'Neill how he'll channel the experience of his cancer battle 15 years ago in his latest film Bravery Under Fire and why he is doing Dry January
Fifteen years ago Belfast literary agent, social housing activist, actor and tireless promoter of the arts Bill Jeffrey's world crashed around him when doctors diagnosed him with aggressive bowel cancer.
The 83-year-old - who says he had been ignoring the symptoms of the disease for months - was told by his doctor that his cancer would need radical surgery which would result in him living with a colostomy bag.
"I had been suffering from the symptoms of bowel cancer and I didn't know," he says. "I just thought it was something else. I had no indication at all. I went to the doctor and he said, quite bluntly after an examination, that there was cancer there. And that was before he even took X-rays so it must have been pretty obvious from the examination.
"After my appointment I walked out to my car, almost on autopilot. I got in and I sat there and I cried and cried. And for 10 minutes I was completely and totally overwhelmed by it all. It was just so hard to see past.
"My treatment started straight away. Not long after my diagnosis I was prepped and ready for theatre. It was so swift. I was exceptionally lucky to get treatment in such a short time space.
"That indicated the seriousness of it. I hadn't had the wit to go and check up with my doctor about these odd symptoms I had been getting. I regret that now and I would say to anybody if you have the slightest inkling that something is not right, go to your doctor.
"With me, they got it literally in the nick of time. It was a very frightening experience. At the time I had been doing some voluntary work for MacMillan Cancer. And when I was diagnosed, I nearly had the proverbial canary. It was a real shock to me.
"I had six months of chemotherapy. And that was hard.
"It took two days to recover from the chemo and I was back at it the week after for more. My recovery was good. By the time six months of chemo came around I was totally fed up with it. But I got back on my feet much quicker than I thought I would.
"The operation meant that I ended up with a colostomy bag. That is a big thing and is very life changing when you first hear of it. I honestly didn't know how I was going to manage it.
"I was busy, I went everywhere, I did film work, I did acting, and I just couldn't imagine how I was going to handle this. I thought everybody is going to know that it was there and I thought that there's going to be a smell or something like that. But I would say that if you went into any busy cafe or shop and looked around, there might be half a dozen people in there with them and I defy you to pick them out. You couldn't.
"When I thought of the implications, it's much better to be this way that to be pushing up daisies. I manage it and I live with it.
"I get regularly checked out. At my last appointment, half way through 2017 my consultant told me he wouldn't need to see me for another five years, which was absolutely fantastic news. I walked away from that appointment delirious."
Bill, who is a divorcee with two grown-up children, daughter Karin and son Michael as well as one grand-daughter Rhiann, says that the entire experience changed his perspective on life. After being given the all-clear in 2017, Bill says he found out about Dry January through World Cancer Research Fund - a charity who help people reduce their cancer risk through diet, weight management and physical activity - and decided to give it a go.
According to Cancer Research, there's no 'safe' limit for alcohol when it comes to cancer, but the risk is smaller for people who drink within the government guidelines. Dry January encourages people to give up the booze altogether for a full month and reap the health benefits.
"After I was diagnosed, I looked at it as something that happened," he says. "There was no family history of this, I just looked at it like it was appendicitis or a slipped disc, it was just something you got.
"Over the last number of years I have come to the conclusion that if I am going to live well I am going to have to be more careful, eat better and look after myself.
"I was never aware that alcohol could have been one of the causes of cancer. And apparently it is directly linked to four cancers.
"When I heard that it really shocked me. I am a social drinker. Because I have interest in the literary world and the arts I go to a lot of the openings and book launches. And, of course, I had a glass of wine at these and was an expert on sausage rolls.
"When I heard that cancer was directly attributed to that I sobered up very quickly. Then I heard about the World Cancer Research Fund and that seemed like a great idea to me.
"So now I would be a strong advocate of drinking in moderation, I keep under the limit and am being very sensible.
"We all need a drink every now and again. We all have one. I am not against alcohol at all, but I am against it to excess and when it brings disruption or illness or anything else into your life.
"I am doing Dry January this year. I am now several days into it and feeling great. They have a marvellous app. Every morning it comes on at 8.45am or so and asks you how you managed the day before. And I always write 'darn tootin I managed it!' It is very encouraging.
"I will not have a single drop in January. The big test came on January 1 when Ulster won in the rugby. That would have been a good and worthy cause to celebrate with a glass of wine. But I had pure Co Antrim spring water instead. I am still going out with my friends. Last night I was out at a function. I mixed it up and bit and had sparkling water.
"I thought Dry January would offer me a great chance to stay the distance for a whole month, especially with the support and resources I can call on if I start to struggle. And I feel I'll be in very good company, with over five million people having taken on the challenge last year. If I can give it a try, you can too.
"It will not have an impact on or hamper my social life whatsoever. I will do it all on water. I will be better for that. All that beautiful spring water will put a spring in my step."
Bill, who has starred frequently in Game of Thrones and is about to start shooting a film in Belfast, also keeps extremely busy in his role as much sought after literary agent, as well as chairing the tenants' forum in a large housing association.
He says that although his cancer diagnosis was 15 years ago, the painful memories of that time still haunt him. But he says he has chosen to use the emotions stirred by those memories to aid his work.
"I will be shooting a film later this month with Campbell Millar called Bravery Under Fire," he says. "It's about a Jesuit priest in the front line of the First World War, a man who was brave and was there for his men.
"I play his dad. I have to cry when I receive a letter from the War Office about his tragic death in the trenches. I have to break down. It will not be hard. All I am going to have to do is think of that 10 minutes after my diagnosis, that utter devastation that I felt at that very moment and I will cry very convincingly."
Bill says that his cancer journey was certainly not easy, but urged other people who may be starting off on the same road to always keep hope alive.
"If someone is just beginning their cancer journey today, I would ask them to look at me," he says. "I would say to them, I am in the same or worse position that you. I will be with you, I will help you. I know it can be overcome. You can eat well while you are getting treatment and continue that afterwards.
"And you can lead a totally normal life, even with changes in your bodily shape. Things can be overcome. Have courage. The number of people who are there for you is astounding. You will meet new friends. Life will go on. And in your turn, tell someone what I have told you."
For more information on the World Cancer Research Fund and Dry January, log on to www.wcrf-uk.org