'For the last 18 years, I've regarded myself as being in extra time'
Downton Abbey's Nicky Henson tells Gabrielle Fagan how keeping hard at work and maintaining a sense of humour has helped him battle cancer
Nicky Henson was the golden boy of the Sixties. The actor found fame in his youth as much for his reputation as a ladies man as an actor, and famously appeared in Fawlty Towers, as well as EastEnders, Downton Abbey and a host of theatre roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre.
But the 73-year-old's toughest role over the last two decades has been dealing with cancer. "For the last 18 years, I've regarded myself as being in extra time which I never expected to have, so I'm very thankful for it," he explains.
When did you discover you were unwell?
I got my first cancer on Christmas day 18 years ago and didn't think I was going to survive after I was told I had a large tumour that would have to be operated on. To get rid of the first tumour, I had to have half my colon and a third of my stomach removed. I was fine, but a routine scan a few years later revealed I had another tumour.
I was prescribed a drug, Gleevac, for six months, to reduce it to an operable size. During that time, I got my dream part as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night at the RSC, but the physical strain of the part and the side-effects of the drug meant I had to give it up. I knew then I'd never act on stage again, which broke my heart.
A further operation found I had two tumours, not one. One had shrunk, but it was attached to my spleen and had to be removed. Altogether I've had three gastrointestinal stromal tumours, which are pretty rare. They grow on their own and attach themselves to organs.
What's happening with your health now?
Ten years ago, they found I also had prostate cancer. I've had radiation for it, but I developed really bad kidney stones, which are agony and have been the worst part of the whole thing. I had around 21 medical procedures over 12 months and I'm still having a lot now.
It's worn out my urethra so I have a stent [a small mesh tube that's used to treat narrow or weak arteries] which has to be replaced every six months. The doctors are also talking about chemotherapy, but we don't really know what's going to happen next.
How do you stay positive day-to-day?
It's just something that you have to cope with - but it's a job staying on top of it all. Having a sense of humour really helps. Also, it's incredible what treatment they can offer now.
For my generation the C-word used to mean that was the end. But my three sons looked it up on the internet and told me, 'Listen dad, it's not like the old days, you'll be okay.'
How has the experience changed you?
Ever since [the diagnosis], I've taken every day as it comes. I make the very most of it and take every job I can. Work has actually been my saviour. That and my wonderful family have got me through the tough times.
I always look on the bright side of life, eat well, swim every day and try to enjoy myself as much as possible.
Who could you not have coped without?
My amazing wife, Marguerite, who's probably saved my life at least five times over the last few years with her quick thinking and caring for me.
It was love at first sight when I met her, but I couldn't get up the nerve to ask her out. In the end a friend got us together. We've been married for 32 years and have one son. Altogether I have three wonderful sons, all composers, and four grandchildren."
Do you have any regrets?
Not about my career - I've done pretty well for someone with no ambition. The only regrets are the upsets I've given people in my life, particularly ladies. I've said sorry to Una [Henson was married to Sherlock actress Una Stubbs]. I was always very immature - in fact, I've only grown up recently.
The Holly Kane Experiment starring Nicky Henson is out now on digital platforms