The Head Blog

Jon Courtenay Uncategorized 5 Comments

I started loosing my hair in my twenties, around the same time I started bleaching it. I’m sure they weren’t related. Thankfully I never really gained a bald ‘spot’ it simply started thinning in general so I never drifted even close to a comb-over. Unlike my Dad who was pinned down in his seventies while I shaved it off accompanied by my Mum shouting “Sean Connery never had a comb over and he’s the sexiest man alive.”
My Wife saw a photo of me in the 90’s when I had quite an impressive quiff flopping over my forehead and announced that she would never have dated me if I’d looked like that when we met. So I also managed to avoid any temptation for a wig, weave, implant or semi-permanent head-wear.
Once I’d embraced my new shiny palette, it became easy to just increase the shaving landscape every day or so when I smoothed my face and to ‘Gillette’ my head at the same time. It honestly has never bothered me, despite the occasional repeating dreams where I am brushing a full head of hair or running my hands through my shiny locks, I never seem to wake up in a state of distress when I remember that while many of my friends may be hairy, in the words of Alan Bennet, I am a smooth man.
It does mean that I have to pay more attention to my crown however when it comes to sun exposure. The thin skin of the scalp is so prone to sunburn and as a sunburned scalp dries, you end up with the worst case of ‘dandruff’ (flakey white skin falling off your head and onto the shoulders of your suit) which is never going to be attractive.
I’ve always had a small red birthmark on my scalp just above my left ear and had to be careful every time I shaved my head so I immediately noticed the new small mole that appeared just behind it in February 2020. It was already discoloured when I first noticed it but I was out of the UK at the time so made a mental note to call my GP as soon as I was home.
Then I procrastinated.

Like a lot of GP surgeries today, the appointment booking system is complex and inconvenient. You have to call before 9am to make an appointment the same day and it never seemed to coincide with my school run/flights/lie-ins so I never made the call.
I’d already filmed my audition for Britain’s Got Talent at the end of January and it was due to be broadcast in April with the semi finals and finals just weeks after so I was busy writing and planning my new career strategy… then just as I was starting to get a handle on the whole situation and plan my entire year… covid hit.
It wasn’t until the country and the world were well into the new pandemic routine that I remembered about new Mr. Mole. A couple of times I’d caught it with my razor as I was shaving my head and it had bled for an hour or two and I was reminded that this was a new blemish on my body that needed to be evaluated but then I always had something else to do the next morning instead of calling my GP. It wasn’t until July that I got round to making the appointment.
My GP didn’t like the look of it and referred me to the hospital and my appointment came through for August 11th when they recommended that I have it removed immediately. That happened on August 28th and Mr. Mole was replaced by a 2-inch scar and 5 stitches.
The BGT semi finals had been delayed until the beginning of September so on 5th I filmed my performance and luckily my new scar was on the side of my head that wasn’t facing the cameras. I was the judges choice to go straight through to the finals in October so I could immediately begin work on my song for that show then a few weeks later on 24th September I was called back to the hospital for them to tell me that they had found melanoma in the skin that they had removed.

I returned home from this last appointment with so many thoughts in my head. My Wife Emmah’s father had died the year before I met her after an undiagnosed melanoma in his finger. His death had affected her badly resulting in anxiety and depression issues which continue to affect her to this day. Part of me wanted to put on a brave face and not disclose the full diagnosis so she wouldn’t have to worry but the moment I saw her standing in the kitchen my resolve fell selfishly away and I told her everything, even managing to have my own little breakdown in the process. We hugged and of course she told me that everything would be ok and I told her how disappointed I was that I wasn’t being braver about it all.
My case was transferred from Tameside hospital in Ashton Under Lyne to Christies in Manchester, the largest single site cancer centre in Europe so I was going to be in good hands. My melanoma was intermediate depth at 2.8mm which meant they would need to cut away more of my scalp to ensure that they had got all of the infected area and also perform a sentinel node biopsy which involves confirming the nearest active lymph node then removing it and examining it in case the cancer had spread from the scalp.
Two days later on 26th September, my BGT semi-finals performance was broadcast on ITV and I had my first anxiety attack. Emmah recognised it immediately for what it was, not the heart attack that I suspected, and she just held me until my breathing returned to normal and my heart stopped trying to explode out of my chest. That same day I appeared live on Lorraine, albeit virtually from my home studio, and also had a chat with Amanda Holden on her Heart FM breakfast show. My career was in full swing but my head was telling me that my health was nose-diving. It was the weirdest feeling.

By 30th September the hospital suggested that I call my GP after I wrote to them and explained how badly I was handling the situation. My GP prescribed Diazepam and that evening I experienced my first calm night as whiskey and diazepam met in a hot bath and I slept a peaceful and uninterrupted sleep. My first in weeks. It would prove to be an addictive sensation. (Side note: It’s not recommended to mix muscle relaxants with alcohol.)
On 5th October I had another appointment at Christie’s to discuss the operation that they were recommending. By this point I was convinced that the only available date for the operation would clash with the BGT finals and I would have to choose between a potentially life-saving operation or a potentially life-changing opportunity. I knew that I couldn’t delay the operation as I was already envisaging the cancer spreading through my lymph nodes despite resolutely refusing to Google anything about the subject, the phrase ‘lymphatic cancer’ was already in my vocabulary having had a family friend suffer and eventually succumb to it. I’ve since been told by the fantastic Macmillan Nurses that secondary cancer in the lymph nodes is not the same as lymphatic cancer. I wish I’d realised during this time that Macmillan would have been there for me had I picked up the phone. I always thought they were more for people going through harder experiences than mine. Either chemotherapy treatment or even end of life care but that’s just not the case. It would have been so beneficial to be able to speak to people who were not as emotionally involved as Emmah or my two closest friends who I’d also explained everything to.

It was an emotional appointment with the hospital nurse (who it transpired was a big BGT fan and in particular a supporter of the patient in front of her) having already spoken to the cancer surgeon and the plastic surgeon when she made me acknowledge what I was going through.
“I’ve done this job for over fifteen years but I’ve never met anyone who was on the cusp of potentially the biggest opportunity in their life but at the same time having to deal with potentially the worst news they’ve ever been given.”
I wish we’d been allowed to hug as her words hit deep but with tears in my eyes all I could mumble was a thank you as I stood up to leave. She touched my arm and said “Good luck in the finals. I think you’re fantastic.” So I let the tears roll down my cheeks.

As it turned out, the operation was scheduled for 15th October and the finals were due to be recorded on 9th. I definitely felt a weight lift off me when I didn’t have to make a choice between the two and that night I managed to sleep without the drugs that had aided me almost every night so far, often washed down with a glass or two of single malt.
The two days at LH2 Studios in London to rehearse and record the BGT finals were the first two days in months that I hadn’t even thought about dying from cancer. All the contestants were staying at the same hotel near the studio and we had a great time becoming friends and enjoying the whole experience. On the 10th October I became the winner of the 14th season of the show and my whole world exploded but I very much felt like an observer watching it all happen around me. I had never really allowed myself to think about winning, managing to not even think of the whole experience even as a competition which took some of the pressure off and meant I could try and compose songs with the intention of just writing a good song rather than trying to beat someone else to a prize. But then standing there on the finals stage waiting for Ant and Dec to say either my name or Sign Along With us, my main thought was ‘If I win, that’s a lot of money that I know will help my family if the worst was to happen.’ By this point I was convinced that every ache in my body, every slight spasm or shudder, was all related to the cancer that I was convinced was inside me. It was hard to take in the optimism and celebration that I should have been feeling as I heard my name called out on that stage.

The next few days were a blur of publicity, press and interviews. I was back on This Morning with Phil and Holly, there were newspaper interviews and radio broadcasts and then the jubilation of my family when I got home on the Sunday after the Saturday night broadcast. Only a few people knew the whole story so sometimes I found myself putting on a bit of a show when friends and neighbours were much more ecstatic than I actually felt. Emmah has tried to explain to me before the inhibiting effects of anti-depression medication when the highs and the lows are all levelled out to maintain a manageable life and I truly felt that’s what was happening to me, just without the medication. I’d gone a whole three days without Diazepam thanks to the craziness of Britain’s Got Talent.

On Monday 12th October I was back at Christie’s for a Covid test before my proposed operation on the Wednesday but on the Tuesday I was due back in London to record the BGT Christmas show so I got on the train all masked up only to be told one hour into the journey that the show had been cancelled as some of the crew had tested positive for Covid. By the time I arrived in London I’d missed the last train back to Manchester so stayed in the hotel as was originally planned and travelled back to Manchester on the Wednesday. The hospital phoned the same day to ask if I had self-isolated since my test on the Monday but I hadn’t been told that I needed to so they arranged another test for the same day and told me my operation would have to wait until the results of the new test were in. They called me the next day to tell me that I had tested positive which meant the 10 day NHS recommended isolation plus an extra week in line with hospital policy. I was devastated. Within 24 hours I was bed-ridden with aching limbs, lethargy and a complete loss of taste and smell but no temperature or cough. It was a tough couple of days as I still had on line interviews and meetings including one with the producers of the Royal Variety Show. I didn’t want it to be public that I had Covid or any of my other health details so it was a case of throwing on a jumper over my pyjamas to do the Zoom call then back to bed. It was slightly disconcerting when I was interviewed on the BBC Breakfast show and they started asking about my health issues… it seemed I had another mole!

The next three weeks were not easy. My anxiety was keeping me awake and there were a few nights in the dark laying next to my sleeping Wife when my mind went to some horrible, dark places. Thinking about how I would tell my kids the worst news, and my Mum. Then I would get cross with myself for being so pessimistic, never a trait I had suffered with before.
The Covid symptoms lasted for about a week and then Emmah came down with it and it hit her worse than me but still no temperature. It did make me wonder why every venue that I had been in over the last few months, from television studios to hospitals had put so much emphasis on checking people’s temperatures.

By the end of October I was told that the BGT Christmas show was back on and I’d be needed in London at the beginning of December. The Royal Variety Show was due to be recorded at the end of November and by now I was convinced that my operation would interfere with one of those big events but no question, my health would have to take priority. The earliest the hospital could get me tested again was 9th November and my appointment for the radioactive isotope injection was arranged for 11th November which had to be 1 or 2 days before the operation so we were all back on and it looked good that I could still perform in the shows… then the latest test came back as still positive! 4 weeks after my last positive test. It was another 17 days of isolation, Diazapam, whiskey and sleepless nights. I even booked a self-test for the next day in case it was a false negative but that came back as positive too.
During those days I contacted the hospital and pleaded my case… I had no symptoms and my opportunity to be a part of the Royal Variety Show would be within the extra week of isolation that the hospital was insisting on, could I still do it and more importantly, could we please get my operation done! My surgeon agreed that the risk of the cancer was greater than the risk of the Covid and he went to the board of directors of the hospital to argue my case. Amazingly they agreed but I’d still need a 4th Covid test at the end of November.

The Royal Variety was an amazing experience and again it gave me a couple of days where I didn’t have the time to worry about my health but then as soon as it was done, the same dark thoughts overtook my usual optimism. My Covid test on 30th was negative, my second isotope injection was arranged for 3rd December and my operation was confirmed for 4th.
I have to say at this point that the staff at Christie’s hospital are exemplary. Everyone is just so lovely and attentive. There were a couple of very funny moments when despite my mask I was recognised as the winner of BGT, especially by the young nurse who was doing my MRSA tests. She was just chatting away asking me if I’d been busy during lockdown and what I did for a living. I said I was an entertainer, she asked what kind, I said comedy and piano, she asked what sort of comedy, I asked if she watched BGT and she paused, stared at me for what felt like an eternity and then calmly walked to the corner of the small room where she tried to stifle a small squeal into her gloved hands. Walked back to me, changed her gloves and then spent the next 20 minutes telling me what a huge fan she was and how many times she’d voted for me, just before she had to swab my groin!

Obviously I remember nothing about the operation. It was my first ever general anaesthetic and I woke up in the recovery ward with a large blue sponge stapled to my head and 2 rows of stitches in my neck where the lymph nodes had been removed. I felt groggy but within a few hours and a couple of cups of tea, I was dressed and Emmah was driving me home, just in time for our train the next day to London to record the BGT Christmas show! I was going to need a big hat. It was also going to be a long 2-3 weeks while I waited for the results on the biopsy of my lymph nodes.
I hadn’t told anyone at BGT about my health issues except for Emily who was the publicist. I just told her that I didn’t want it to come out in the press, certainly not while I was part of the competition. I’d seen too many performers on the show over the years with sob stories and I was determined that I wouldn’t have one. I fully appreciate that a good story makes for good TV and that’s what the show is all about but I wanted my contribution to be about my performance so I figured we may as well keep it quiet until after the Christmas show too, but it was going to be tough to hide the dressing. It wasn’t just a typical white piece of gauze. This was a bright blue sponge with Frankenstein staples on all 4 sides! To quote Queen, almost… thank god it was Christmas and I could wear a big Santa hat. We’d also managed to get my youngest son Alfie involved in the performance so that meant that Emmah and my eldest son Nathan could come with me too which was a huge relief to have them all there for support.
The recording was tougher than I expected. Because of the social distancing regulations we were all camped in a hotel near to the Hammersmith Apollo where the show was being recorded and performers were taxi’d to the venue as we were needed. I was closing the show so after a long day of filming, I didn’t get on stage until 11pm. I suppose in hindsight I shouldn’t really have done it. The sleepless nights were longer now that I had to sleep propped up at a 45 degree angle and only on one side and mentally I wasn’t in a good place, convinced as I was that every ache and pain I felt in my body was due to lymphatic cancer but I got through it and I just hoped that the editors would make my performance sound better than it did to me! The rest of December passed in a blur of virtual shows performed in my home studio wearing a big Santa hat with another performance in London for the ITV Panto which I had written the opening song for.

The 21st December was exactly 2 weeks and 3 days since the op and in my mind, that represented 2-3 weeks so I contacted the hospital and asked if there was any news. They checked their computer and sure enough, computer said ‘no’. Well actually, the computer said that yes, there were some results but no one had looked at them yet! I was told someone would get back to me.
24 hours later and I called again. Yes the results were still there but no, the surgeon hadn’t had time to look at them yet! I asked with some emphasis if there was any chance that someone could have a glance before Christmas please and an hour later they called me back.
Emmah walked in the front door from some very last minute Christmas shopping just as I hung up the phone.
“Who was that?” She asked.
“The hospital” I said.
“And…?”
“I’m all clear.”
It was a weird moment. We both went very quiet and held each other. There was no jumping up and down, no shouting for joy, just a moment as we both felt the relief and the weight lifting. Then I had to make some phone calls and there was enough jumping for joy from the rest of our family and the few friends who knew what had been going on.

I contacted Macmillan asking if there was any way that I could help raise some awareness of potential melanoma’s if I was to go public with my story and we agreed that even if just one person contacted their GP as a result of my experience then it would be worth it. There is a danger of cancer becoming the forgotten C during these strange Covid times so we got my story into the papers and ITV were happy to have me back on This Morning with Phil and Holly. Some of the messages I received after this bit of telly assured me that we’d done the right thing. People telling me that they had a mole or a lump that they were finally doing something about, and then there were the people telling me their own stories, some happy, some unbearably sad but maybe just by telling me it helped some of the emotional healing.

So now I’m a cancer survivor. I didn’t have to ‘do battle’ as so many people do and I realise how lucky I am. It’s certainly made me feel grateful and of course there’s a new song that’s come out of it… The Mole Song. (See below!)

Please contact Macmillan if you need some support. They are truly amazing and help millions of people. 0808 808 0000. www.macmillan.org.uk

Comments 5

  1. Oh wow Jon, your so brave, little did we all know what was really going on behind closed doors, you played an absolute blinder you my sir are an absolute legend, I hope your recovering well, keep doing what your doing and making out days that little bit brighter with ur singing and amazing songs lots of love 💙

  2. Jon you are a true professional, the show must go on & BGT has only seen a little of your talent lots of love & good health to you xxx

  3. So glad you and Emmah are ok after this, it was a crazy year anyway and with this in the background it just shows how strong you are. Thank you for cheering the nation while all this was going on unseen. You’re a star in many ways. Take care, Matt @ Blue Duck

  4. Thank you for “coming out” Jon. It’s so important to raise awareness. I have had personal experience of the wonderful work the Macmillan nurses do and held a coffee morning to raise funs last September. Unfortunately, it coincided with lockdown, so the numbers were down, but we still managed to raise money through Facebook. (Virtual cakes just don’t taste the same.) Keep doing what you do, Jon, making us laugh our troubles away. Look forward to seeing you again in London in October. x

  5. Thank you for sharing your story. My 23 year old nephew has recently been diagnosed with a malignant melanoma. Unfortunately he was diagnosed with Chrohns disease last year which in itself is a massive diagnosis for someone so young. The treatment for Chrohns reduces his immunity and increased his risk of cancer a double whammy. The survival rate beyond 5 years is around 20% for a malignant melanoma in someone so young – his melanoma is over 6mm. He is receiving the best care but had not had it removed yet as they are investigating his lymph nodes. This has all been so heartbreaking for us all – he is being strong and positive- he is an amazing young man one of the loveliest people I know. I will share your blog with him and I am sure he will be interested in your journey. I wondered if you had any other advice that you can share to keep him positive and I know we have a bumpy road ahead. As a young man he is going to have to cope with an extensive operation on his scalp – I am looking for some jazzy head gear for him / beanies to help him to cover up the dressings etc A message from you would be amazing. Thank you again

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