For most of his career the “c” word in the life of Graham Walker from The Grumbleweeds has stood for “comedy.”
More recently and ominously it has come to stand for “cancer.” Throat cancer to be more exact.
Earlier this year and quite out of the blue he admits his “heart sank” when the shocking news was broken to him that he had the disease.
“We’d been on a cruise from Singapore to Dubai and both Robin ((Colville his comedy partner)) and I had a tickly cough when we got back which developed into a dreadful chest infection,” says Leeds-based Graham.
He went to his doctors, saw a trainee who immediately despatched him to the Leeds General Infirmary where he was given a biopsy the same day.
“They asked if I was a glass half full or half empty person,” he said. “I told them I was in showbusiness so the glass is always half full – and the specialist said, right, we are going to beat this.”
Despite having caught it at an early state – “I think that’s what saved my life” – he was still in the operating theatre for more 12 hours.
“They had to take some teeth out, break my jaw, cut my lip down the middle and take a graft from my arm to go in my throat,” he said. “I’ve been through hell and back – but the upside is that I am back.”
Doctors told him he would be out of action for nine months, he told them to make that six weeks.
“They said I must be kidding and my wife said, no, he might be a comedian but he’s not joking.”
Apart from family and close friends he kept his illness as private as possible.
“I didn’t want to make a fuss – I just wanted to concentrate on getting better.”
So he and Robin set about rewriting their act.
“I didn’t want to let anyone down but we had to cut some of my dialogue and swap things around,” says Graham whose voice is still far from being 100 per cent.
“The opening night audience were wonderful but they thought I was putting on a comedy voice,” he says. “Even when I said I’d had an operation they thought I was kidding and it was just a new catch phrase!”
What made the diagnosis worse for Graham is cancer runs in his family.
“All my relatives have died of it,” says the father of four. “I’m 66 and an only child, I’m the last in that line – it made me even more determined to beat the thing.”
So after performing together with Robin or almost 50 years how did his lifelong friend react to the news?
“He was devastated, absolutely devastated,” said Graham. “It brought out a side in him I’ve not really seen before. Normally he can be quite hard on the outside so it was touching to see him like that.”
Although he was determined to overcome the cancer Graham says he wouldn’t have changed anything about his life.
“The Grumbleweeds have always worked hard and played ever since our days in Germany in the early 1960s right through,” he said. I didn’t feel like I’d been cheated. I just thought bite the bullet, take it on the chin.”
So is retirement looming?
“Roy Walker once asked “how do you get out of showbusiness” and the answer is you don’t leave it, it leaves you. I think the action to our opening night last week proved there’s still some steam left.”
Having come through so much quicker than the medics expected he admits he wishes he’d tried to be a better patient but is keen help counsel anyone going through a similar experience.
If there is anyone who wants help or advice I’m here to reassure them,” he says. “The technology and the medical talent has improved so much. Almost anything is possible.”
n The Grumbleweeds Show is at Blackpool North Pier Theatre every Monday for the summer.