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Eric Idle: I Survived Pancreatic Cancer. It’s a Funny Story

15 minute read
Idle, a founding member of the comedy troupe Monty Python, is a legendary comedian, actor, author, and singer-songwriter. He wrote the New York Times bestselling memoir Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography and the Tony-winning musical Spamalot. He is currently working on a novel.

About three years ago I was incredibly lucky: I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Lucky? One of the most lethal forms of cancer, how on earth was that lucky? Well, because it was found incredibly early. No, not before lunchtime, but before it had gone anywhere.

A decade before I had asked my doctor for a quick death. It wasn’t for me, it was for a play I was writing called Death The Musical. With all the boomers heading for the final curtain, I thought it was an interesting subject for comedy to examine. Mike Nichols hated it. We would have read-throughs around our dining table, with fine people like Tim Curry, David Hyde Pierce, Tracey Ullman, Rita Wilson, Julian Sands, Jim Piddock, and a young Jordan Peele, where we’d read the play and John Du Prez would play the songs we’d demoed and people would laugh and be very happy and Mike would invariably say, “No. It’s crap.”

Once, on Mike’s birthday, we had a reading, and when I got to David Geffen’s mansion in Bel Air for his party, Mike’s wife, his daughter, and various other friends all congratulated me on the success of the reading.

“They’re all talking about how funny it was.”

“No,” said Mike, “it’s still crap.”

My play was about a writer who is writing a musical about death when he discovers he is about to die. Dramatic irony, right? The joke for me was that as he was only a writer and there was a playoff game that weekend in L.A., they were having trouble getting people to attend his memorial.


When a world-famous star falls under a bus

It makes us feel better that it isn’t us.


It makes us feel better that no matter who

The rich and the famous must also die too.

But though I loved Freddie and I’m his PR

The name of a writer won’t go very far.


Yet though he was kind and no one politer,

Still, in the end, Fred was only a writer.


For Stars and their sex lives

The internet hums

But for only a writer

Nobody comes.

For my plot to work I needed to kill my character off quickly, and as part of my research, I asked David Kipper, my doctor friend, the quickest way to die.

He gave me the skinny during a ball game at Dodger Stadium.

“What is the quickest, surest, and most sudden cause of death?” I asked.

“Pancreatic cancer,” said Kipper without hesitation. “You may only have three weeks.”

“Perfect,” I said.

Flash forward 10 years to 2019 and my same friend Kipper is taking me to a variety of tests at imaging facilities. He specializes in preventative medicine, and I rather reluctantly go through these checks because, while I quite like being alive, as the son of a nurse, I have an inbred fear of hospitals. So this day we are doing an MRI. He has already done blood work and notices a slightly high marker, a dubious blood score on a panel, and on a hunch asks Westside Medical Imaging, while they are examining a couple of other areas, to shoot an isotope into me to highlight and take a look at the pancreas.

“Just add a little contrast,” he instructs the technician.

It goes into my IV. A slightly warming feeling as the iodine spreads. He disappears into the control booth and I am slid under the banging scanner. It’s not long. The banging stops and I meet Kipper in the control area.

“Hey buddy,” he says, “let’s just go in here.”

I can tell immediately he is serious.

It can’t be more serious.

It’s pancreatic cancer.

Of course I find it funny. How could I not? Here’s Kipper giving me the diagnosis I asked him for 10 years ago. What’s my life motto? Entropy and Irony. Both pigeons limping home to roost. He and the MRI technician gaze at the ghost of a tumor sitting in the middle of my pancreas. It is intact. It is unattached. But it is undeniably, most probably, the C thing. However, this little puppy is still fairly new. It hasn’t burst or spread.

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“Here’s the good news, Eric,” he says, “neither the technician nor anyone here has ever seen this at this stage. It’s unattached, no nodes, and we have a very good chance of whipping it out.”

I break the news to my wife Tania, and even though she will reveal later that she would go into the garden with the dogs and cry, I tell her early on that she is in no way British and that tears, and even other expressions of emotion, are quite acceptable. She can weep. She can come for a hug. Anytime, night or day. She is steadfast, strong, and determined to see me up on my feet again.

We immediately decide that pancreatic cancer is such a scary term and freaks people out so much that we will call my diagnosis Kenny. Kenny is far less threatening. Kenny is manageable. Kenny is something we can talk about publicly. The next day I have an appointment at The Kenny Center. In the Kennyology parking lot, as the valet takes away my car, I say to Tania: “This is the Valet of the Chateau of Death.”

There is still no cure for the common comedian.

Idle (far right) with members of the Monty Python team on location in Tunisia to film Monty Python's Life of Brian, which features the song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," 1978.Evening Standard/Getty Images

Kipper has cleared his schedule to join us. The Kenny doctor is late. Caroline, his medical assistant, goes through the results. They are as predicted. A cancerous tumor in the middle of the pancreas. Tania asks her how long I have. Caroline says, “I honestly can’t tell you, we’ve never had someone at such an early stage as this. It’s so early that there are no statistics on it.”

“Not only is this good news, Eric,” says Kipper, “but the doctors are going to love this. They rarely get a chance to cure these things, and your diagnosis is so early we have a very good chance of getting it all out.”

This optimism is confirmed by the surgeon who now comes down to see me. An air of comedy enters with him as Dr. Nissen is wearing what can only be described as a Monty Python jacket, something Michael Palin or I would have worn as a TV game-show host: a purple floral paisley dinner jacket. He laughs as we all do and excuses himself. He had just come from a reunion lunch at Manhattan Beach. Later he promises to wear the jacket for my surgery.

Kipper discusses the benefits of robotic surgery with him, which is apparently far more accurate than a surgeon.

“And a lot cheaper,” I point out. To laughter.

They are all keen. The whole team, doctors, nurses, and surgeon. Usually they are fighting a hopeless battle against Kenny. With me they might have a good result. And I’m fit and healthy, adds Kipper. It’s odd to think that had he not called for that extra test I might have been walking around without knowing this time bomb was ticking away inside me. Just carried on with my year, making plans, looking good and healthy with this growing inside. As I hug him, I say, “There’s no doubt you just saved my life.”

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I’m hardly home before we’re booked for my next appointments. Shots Monday. Full-body scan Tuesday. Operation Thursday.

The question now is who to tell. Of course the kids. I’d sent my son Carey an email the night before asking him to call over the weekend. He’d called immediately. Taking me by surprise. Tania and I had just toasted Kenny with a glass of Cristal Louis. I’m not drinking. But I’m not not drinking at moments like this. My son is brave and very encouraging. He immediately offers to fly in from Australia. Now the hardest thing I have left to do, apart from having no tea for 24 hours, is to break the news of Kenny to our daughter Lily. She has been avoiding me as if some instinct is warning her. I suspect she thinks we are going to have a financial talk. She gets married in a year, and I want to reassure her I will be there for her. Long ago I promised I was going to dance at her wedding, but, I warned her, it was going to be an interpretative dance.

“Now,” I say to my wife, “it may have to be a lap dance…”

Our friends we mostly decide to spare. Better to break the news when it is over. One way or another. But I make my lawyer friend Tom Hoberman laugh when I say that at least it’s better than boarding school. He is a Kenny survivor of both lung and prostate, so I’m lucky to even have him still in my life. And at dinner on the eve of the surgery, I am tempted to tell my old friend Jim Beach that I am heading into hospital for a major op, but his film Bohemian Rhapsody has just picked up four Oscars at the Academy Awards.

“Oh, four Oscars, eh? I got awarded Pancreatic Cancer, but they’re still cutting it…”

No, it seems utterly tasteless to rain on his parade. And we are thrilled for him.

Tania is being very brave, and I remember to tell her the gag I made when Kipper first broke the news to me: “Well, Trump and Brexit have certainly made death a far more appealing alternative.”

But at least now we know where we are: the soap opera ain’t over and the proverbial fat lady hasn’t only not sung yet, she hasn’t even ordered her Uber. There’s a chance. We must attempt to bid Kenny goodbye.

Idle shakes hands with Queen Elizabeth II.Courtesy Photo

I drive myself to Cedars-Sinai before dawn to check in. It has been decided I will use a pseudonym. To keep away the tabloids. I wonder if the tabloids are at all interested in me, but still, it will be safer, they insist. However, what name to choose? I can’t think. I finally settle on Mr. Cheeky. Of course the name of the character in The Life of Brian who sings, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

It’s fine until I hear someone calling this name at check-in.

Everyone looks up.

“Mr. Cheeky,” they repeat loudly.

“Oh sh-t, that’s me.”

Good thing I didn’t choose Biggus Dickus.

Time to face the music.

Cedars at dawn. Warm blankets, and Dr. Nissen is as good as his word and makes me smile as he comes in wearing his paisley dinner jacket. I count backward from 10 and long before 4, I have disappeared into the Propofol-filled world. When I wake up, I am in recovery. A vague gray world of being washed and fed. And painkillers. The surgery went well, I am assured. Five hours, part of it robotic. The ministering angels in the hospital minister through the long nights while I come off the opiates, and my inner Yorick comes up with riffs on Famous Last Words:



Sh-t this hurts.

No, I haven’t had a bowel movement yet…

Finally my surgeon tells me to go home.

“You’ll get better a lot quicker there.”

He is right. A few days later he confirms the results. It was pancreatic cancer. He has cut it all out. It was not attached to anything and my lymph nodes were clear. The cancer is gone. They could find no further trace in my body. I had been a dead man walking. I am going to live.

Only then do I cry.

This summer, after two years of lockdown, I have finally succeeded in making it back to Europe and I am sitting happily in the sunshine eating croissants with a big grin on my face when I get an unexpected offer. The producers of The Masked Singer want me to turn around and go all the way back to California. Really?

Should I?

On the phone they say it is a very silly show and I’ve not exactly been a stranger to very silly shows. I have been a singing water rat and a crooning moon. I sang “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” as a Japanese maid from Madame Butterfly to the late Queen, as a dying swan in a tutu with an entire corps de ballet to Prince Charles, and once, dressed as Emma Thompson from Angels in America, to Mike Nichols. Even at my proudest moment, singing my own song at the London Olympics, I was lifted up and tossed around by Bhangra dancers. So I have some experience with silly singing in public, but would I still be able to do that?

Idle performs during the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games on August 12, 2012.Adrian Dennis—AFP/Getty Images

Only one way to find out. I turn right round and come back.

On our first Zoom call, I need to pick an avatar. They show me three costume sketches, and I instantly choose the hedgehog. It’s easy to become a prickly old bastard at my age and I do curl up into a ball when attacked, so yes, a hedgehog seems an appropriate identity.

Next I have to choose a song. Recently I have been admiring “Love Me Do,” but I know it’s hard to get permission to do a Beatles song so I call my old pal at Apple who tells me that it’s not actually in the Beatles catalog but in Paul McCartney’s.

“You might have a chance if you asked him,” says Jonathan. “I think he’s forgiven you by now,” he adds, referring to my playing Dirk in The Rutles.

So I pluck up courage and write to Paul. He is kind and helpful. He ends with, “Anyway, have fun, good luck and let me know what show it is so I can make sure to give it a miss!”

Yes, he is that funny.

On stage, I am in constant danger of tipping forward and face planting, but strong hands always reach out to grab me. The show is the first time I have performed since my operation, and the crowd is happy, the jury funny, the producers pleased. I am proud to have pulled it off.

As I take my place beside him during the filming, moments after being unmasked, William Shatner, dressed as a knight, whispers in my ear, “Wasn’t that the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do in your entire life?”

Hedgehog in the Season 8 premiere of The Masked Singer.Michael Becker—FOX

It is then that I begin to reflect on how fortunate I have been, not only to survive but to be able to squash my feet into oversize paws and sing and dance on the telly. I decide to finally ask Kipper how long he thinks I have. I have been testing every six months and doing well, but still, his answer shocks me.

“Well, you’re in very good shape. The cancer hasn’t recurred. You should have about 10 years.”

Ten years! Wow.

So, having survived both the disease and the show, I realize I must tell people what happened to me. And apart from thanking Dr. Kipper, Dr. Nissen, and all the amazing people at Cedars, it’s time to do something to help. Because it’s good news. And I wish to help spread it. It’s early days, but we’re starting the Bright Side Fund at Stand Up To Cancer to fund pancreatic-cancer research. I want to encourage people in families at high risk of pancreatic cancer to explore the newer tests available for detecting the disease early. Kipper said that if we had delayed by only two weeks, I would not even have seen the surgeon. So please talk to your doctor to understand which screening tests may be right for you and tell your loved ones to do the same. Help me help others like me to survive. And, all together now: “Always look on the bright side of life…”

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