Noddy Holder and his wife describe pioneering cancer treatment
Noddy Holder and his wife describe in an emotional interview the pioneering treatment for oesophageal cancer that means he WILL be able to sing ‘It’s Christmaaaaaas!’ this year
The legendary Noddy Holder — larger than life, with a voice to match — always did like a big hat. The most iconic was a flamboyant mirrored affair bought from a market.
Famously, a young seller called Freddie, on the next stall, told him he wanted to be a pop star, ‘just like you, Noddy’.
It was, of course, Freddie Mercury.
That hat is now in a bank vault, but Noddy has hundreds of others, collected over six decades in showbiz.
‘I’ve never really stopped wearing the hats and, as it turned out, they came in handy when I lost all my hair,’ Noddy, 77, tells me.
Five-year secret: Noddy, with his wife Suzan, is telling his cancer story now to help others
‘It wasn’t unusual to see me with a hat, so people didn’t ask questions. No one said, ‘Gosh, Noddy, you aren’t looking well, are you ill?’
Even those friends and acquaintances who might have felt the Slade frontman wasn’t quite himself didn’t jump to the right conclusions.
‘Once, we were out with Rod Stewart and his missus. We go back a long way. He didn’t know I was ill and said, ‘We’ll get a bottle of wine’ and I said, ‘No, I’m not drinking. I’m on the fizzy water’ and he just looked at me and said, in quite an understanding way, ‘Ah, are you on a programme?’, meaning a recovery programme.’
He falls about laughing at this one. ‘That was such a rock ‘n’ roll response.’
Actually Noddy Holder, possessor of the voice you’ll hear bellowing ‘It’s Christmaaaaaas!’ on a loop in every supermarket from October onwards — had cancer.
In the summer of 2018, he sat in a hospital consulting room to be told that he had a malignant tumour in his oesophagus.
In the summer of 2018, Noddy sat in a hospital consulting room to be told that he had a malignant tumour in his oesophagus. Pictured: Noddy performing in 1972
The indigestion he had put down to old age was a symptom of something much more deadly. He was told that he had six months to live.
There might be one more Christmas, but no more. Suddenly that line he wrote ‘look to the future now, it’s only just begun’ seemed a little redundant.
‘I asked, ‘How long have I got?’ and the consultant said, ‘Six months’. There was no hope of treatment, nothing at all. I said, ‘OK then’.
‘I’m very philosophical about my life. I thought — and I remember saying it to my wife Suzan — ‘I’ve had a great life. I’ve achieved a lot, everything I ever wanted to, really. I’m not worried. If this is it, so be it’.’
In all the discussions about how things might progress — he wouldn’t be able to eat, breathing would become increasingly difficult — Noddy didn’t ask whether he would ever sing again.
‘That wasn’t something I even thought about. When you are told you have six months, it isn’t even important. You think about your family.
‘You can think ‘why me?’ but I suppose I thought ‘why not me?’. One in two of us will get cancer in our lifetimes. In the past eight years I’ve lost three best friends — two to cancer, one to a heart attack.
‘Two of them used to joke — there’s a lot of black humour in rock ‘n’ roll — about who would be first to go. I remember thinking to myself,
‘Oh well, silver cloud, I’ll see them again in Heaven’.’
He bursts out laughing again, the sound reverberating around the spectacular glass roof in the London hotel he has chosen for this interview.
The Slade star, 77, appeared on Wednesday’s Jeremy Vine On 5 with his wife Suzan Price, who is a regular panelist on the show, to discuss his diagnosis and treatment
‘They were rock ‘n’ roll world, my mates, not famous, but from that world, so there’s no guarantee they would have reached Heaven.’
Suffice to say Suzan, who is 20 years his junior, was less calm at the point of diagnosis.
‘I just remember having to get out of the room because I knew I couldn’t hold it together, but I didn’t want to lose my mind in front of Noddy,’ she recalls.
‘But I don’t think I went far enough, because when I did lose it, he could still hear me.’
Noddy looks over his glasses at his wife: ‘The whole hospital heard you. You were screaming.’
Suzan, a novelist and former Loose Woman producer who met Noddy after he appeared on a show she was working on, points out that her reaction to them being handed a death sentence was the more normal one.
This is their first interview since going public last week about that awful diagnosis. The fact that we are talking about it five years on does take the edge off the horror.
A lifeline was offered, albeit a few weeks after they had been given no hope. Noddy was offered an experimental chemotherapy treatment.
They had to sit and discuss whether he should accept it.
‘It wasn’t a given,’ he points out. ‘It was a very aggressive treatment, and there were no guarantees.
‘I had to do that thing of weighing up whether I wanted to spend my last six months of life going through that, feeling ill all the time.
Cancer news: His comments come days after Noddy’s wife Suzan (both pictured in March) detailed his secret health battle in an emotional piece written for Great British Life last week
‘And I’d always said — right from when we met — that I never wanted Suzan to turn into my nurse, because that’s the worry when you marry someone who is older, as she did. I always said, ‘Shoot me first’.
She pats his leg, ‘Luckily for you, I don’t have a gun’.’ His eyes twinkle, as he reaches for another joke.
‘Of course, there was an alternative to treatment. I could have ditched Suzan and gone off round the world, spending my last six months finding myself an even younger model.’
‘At the time, it was bleak and with hindsight, I did start to grieve prematurely,’ says Suzan. ‘My head was going to all the places you never want to go.’
‘She was nearly down the charity shop with my hats,’ quips Noddy. ‘What did you write in my eulogy anyway, Suzan? I hope you said, ‘He made everybody smile.’
There is nothing quite as joyous as meeting someone who has been given another bite at life, but the extraordinary thing about Noddy’s ordeal is that he managed to keep it quiet for so long.
He and Suzan only told family (they have one son together, Django, 28, and Noddy has two daughters, Charisse and Jess, from his previous marriage, both in their 40s) and a few close friends.
‘I didn’t even tell the other members of Slade,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to worry people, but also I didn’t trust that it wouldn’t end up on social media, even if people were meaning well.’
They didn’t even tell the grandchildren (his daughter’s children), the pride of Noddy’s life. The only time he ‘had a wobble’ in all of this, says Suzan, was contemplating them growing up without him.
Noddy explains: ‘My granddaughter Issy is 12 now, but she was seven at the time and too young. She only found out this week, and she’s old enough to understand now.
‘My grandson Beau is six, which is still little. All the time I was going through the treatment we tried to keep it normal for them. They’d come round and I’d just play guitars with them. I was just Grandad.’
So why go public now? ‘Partly to raise awareness,’ says Noddy. ‘My consultant was saying that although this is quite a common disease, particularly in men of my age, most people aren’t really aware of it.’
He hadn’t heard of it himself until, ironically, another pal from the music industry was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus.
‘That was Chas (Hodges) from Chas and Dave. He told us all about it, and how ill he was, and that was the first time I’d heard of it. Chas died the very week I got my diagnosis.’
There is another reason they decided to go public. So successful is Noddy’s experimental treatment that he has been asked to visit hospitals so his case can be used for teaching purposes. He wanted fans to know first.
He titters again, at this idea of this alternative ‘tour’, with him rolled out as a medical marvel rather than a pop star.
The actual chemo only lasted a few months, from September to December 2018, but the slog to recovery has been a long one.
His defences lowered, Noddy developed pneumonia and ended up in hospital. At his weakest his weight dropped to eight stone.
His hair has grown back into a short silvery whisp, which Suzan thinks is ‘rather cool’, so perhaps gone forever are the wilder locks.
The cancer was picked up (‘and I have my GP to thank’) because of a routine blood test which showed very low iron levels.
‘All credit to him, my GP started asking questions ‘have you been feeling tired?’ Well, yes, but I thought it was just because I was getting on a bit. Then he said, ‘trouble swallowing?’ I had! Crusty bread had been a bit of a problem.’
There was a period of roughly three or four weeks between being told he would die and being offered the treatment lifeline.
But even in the darkest moments, Noddy was still telling jokes, says Suzan. She gets emotional when she recalls phoning the children (‘she had to do it, because I’d probably have made a joke of it,’ says Noddy, ‘telling them, ‘Don’t worry you are in the will’, and they mightn’t have appreciated that’).
‘It was a strange time,’ she recalls. ‘I was trying to hold it together, but there was a lot of going for ‘walks’ and screaming into a bush.’
And yet even in those no-hope weeks, Noddy was ‘normal’.
‘He was able to read a book,’ says Suzan, incredulous. ‘He watched TV, listened to albums, did all the things he’d normally do.
‘The differences in how we coped were stark. I’d always said that one of the things I loved and admired about him was his ability to just live in the moment. If they could bottle that mentality they should give it out along with the chemo, because it is important.’
Indeed, they have been told that it was Noddy’s positivity that made the doctors consider him for the treatment.
No one quite knows why he responded so well to it. ‘They are doing all sorts of tests, because if there is something in his genes, his make-up, then it could help others.’
She jokes that it ‘could be something in the rock ‘n’ roll constitution. I mean it sounds implausible, but if you do get past your late 20s in this industry, maybe you are invincible.’
Noddy loves this idea. ‘Rock ‘ n’ roll saved me?’ he asks, tickled. ‘One thing I will say is that the consultant told me that it wasn’t a lifestyle thing. Anyone can get this.’
Imagine being the medic charged with trying to save Noddy Holder’s life. Was Professor Mansoor, from The Christie hospital in Manchester, a fan? ‘I think he was more of a Bruce Springsteen guy.’
There is no way to sugarcoat the chemo itself. ‘It was grim, an exhaustion I can’t even describe.’
He would spend a day in the hospital, receiving drugs via a ‘port’ in his chest, then the infusion would be continued at home.
Suzan had to administer supporting injections in their kitchen, which involved ‘at least once where the needle flew across the room’.
It seems a bit daft to ask about his singing in all this. ‘They didn’t specifically say ‘don’t sing’ but I knew I couldn’t.
‘It might have caused some bleeding and then… no way.’ Could he eat? ‘Only very soft food and in small portions.’ Again, he finds the positives. ‘Luckily I like porridge!’
So where are we now, Noddy? ‘I will never be able to say ‘cancer-free’ and there is no bell to ring, but I have to go back every couple of months for monitoring and the best they can tell me is that there is no evidence of anything active at the moment.
‘But I know that even when this thing shrinks, it can come back. That’s fine. I’m prepared.’
This summer, he got back on stage for the first time in five years as a guest of the young singer Tom Seals.
‘I was only supposed to be telling a few stories and jokes about my life,’ he says. Yet he decided to sing.
‘My heart was in my mouth,’ admits Suzan. ‘But then he blasted out Johnny B Goode and it was just Noddy, the voice was the same. Django — who’s always had more of his dad’s attitude — hugged me and said, ‘I told you, Mum, I told you you’d smile again.’
So we will hear ‘It’s Christmaaaaaas’ again, sung live? ‘Oh yes,’ he says. ‘I don’t really know why my voice wasn’t affected, because my breathing was. I don’t quite breathe in the same way I used to, but somehow I’ve adapted the singing around it.’
Noddy Hodder performing Cum On Feel The Noize on Top of The Pops with Slade in 1973
There is a lovely twist to that summer stage performance. Before he sang, Noddy told the audience — in quite vague terms — that he had been a little poorly and had been treated in hospital by a lovely nurse who was in the audience, and he wanted to thank her.
‘I shouted out, ‘Sarah, where are you?’ and this voice came back, ‘Noddy, I’m here!’ It was his cancer nurse, who hadn’t even told her husband that she’d had a famous patient. ‘He must have wondered why she was dragging him to see Noddy Holder,’ he laughs.
‘Afterwards, they came backstage and I gave her a hug and he was crying, saying how proud he was of her and the work she did.
‘But out in that auditorium, the crowd gave her the biggest round of applause. Too right. People like me get that sort of reaction every time we go on stage, but these are the people who deserve it.’
Noddy says he has been floored by the public reaction to his cancer news. He says he can’t quite understand it. I can. The idea of Noddy Holder not being around, bellowing, is unthinkable.
Suzan gets her tissue out again. ‘People think Noddy is immortal and in a way he is, because his music and his voice will live on. Even if I live to 124, I’ll never escape hearing ,’It’s Christmaaaaaas’.
‘But that’s not the same thing as having my husband. Call me greedy, but I want to keep the real thing.’
To donate to The Christie or discover more about their cancer research projects, visit www.christie.nhs.uk
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