A year ago pancreatic cancer made Deacon's Blue's Graeme Kelling too weak to pick up his guitar. Now, 7st lighter, he is going back on tour. He tells Joan McAlpine of his fight for life
There is an irony here. Graeme Kelling looks more like a guitar hero than he did in the glory days of his band, Deacon Blue. He is lean, very lean, with angular features and cheekbones that require no assistance from an airbrush. Long, sensitive fingers curl round the coffee cup. Generations of wannabe rockers have lived on cigarettes and coffee to achieve this hungry look. But for Graeme, this is no aesthetic choice.
When he played stadiums back in the 1980s, he looked more rugby club than rock'n'roll. He had the burly physique of a west of Scotland lad who loves his food - at 6ft plus, he weighed 14st. "I was a fat lump," he laughs.
He was also energetic, happy and healthy. He could pick up his guitar, something he no longer takes for granted. Until recently, he was too weak to press the frets of his instrument. At 43, he developed cancer of the pancreas, a disease that usually affects men in their sixties and seventies and for which there is usually little hope of a cure.
It is not the sort of thing that is supposed to happen when you are a new father. Graeme's cancer struck not long after the birth of his son. Alexander is now a delightful, big-eyed two-year-old who throws himself against his father, pulling, grabbing, demanding attention. His naughtiness is encouraging.
"For most of his life, I have been in bed, or just not very well," explains Graeme as the little boy demands a trip to the park. " I had no energy and seemed like a distant figure. He was wary of me, so he didn't misbehave. As I become stronger, he becomes more boisterous, he tests the boundaries . . . it's a good sign."
Graeme can rejoice in Alexander's tantrums because last year he did not know whether he would live to see them. He had undergone a rare surgical procedure. His weight dropped to less than 8st. He lacked the energy to stay awake for longer than three hours. Walking to the local corner shop to buy a pint of milk was a milestone that took months to pass.
Yet next week he sets himself an extraordinary challenge. He will join the band for a British tour that includes London's Royal Albert Hall and King Tut's Wah Wah Hut, the Glasgow sweatbox where Oasis was discovered.
Touring with a band requires stamina: for late nights, long journeys, on stage exertions and after-show parties. Not that he worries about the latter. Graeme cannot drink alcohol these days. "I'm a very cheap night out," he says. He is gearing up for a different battle of endurance: standing on stage for three hours.
"It will be a good physical test," he says cheerily, "I'm looking forward to it."
Graeme's nightmare began in 1999, when Deacon Blue re-formed after a five-year split. The lead guitarist remained friends with singer/songwriter Ricky Ross, his wife Lorraine McIntosh, bass player Ewan Vernal, pianist James Prime and drummer Dougie Vipond. The band, formed in Glasgow in 1986, had enjoyed a phenomenally successful eight years together. Fans and critics were surprised when Ross decided to call it a day. The music married cinematic lyrics with anthemic stadium stompers. It was a winning - and lucrative - combination. The band sold 3m albums and had 14 singles in the UK charts.
But by 1999 the individual musicians had carved out new careers. Graeme ran his own studio, where he composed and sold theme music, mainly for television. "I enjoyed being my own boss - don't let anybody kid you that being in a band is democracy, you have to have a leader."
Still, enough time had passed for the reunion to be an attractive adventure. Graeme had others reasons to be satisfied. Two years before, resplendent in his kilt, he married Julie, a beautiful, dark-haired television producer from Manchester. Alexander arrived in 1999. They bought a Victorian flat overlooking a park in Glasgow's West End. It was "a money pit" requiring extensive renovation. But so what? Life was good.
He felt the first pangs of pain in September of that year. Years before, he had had a threatening ulcer. It was put down to the rock'n'roll fast life. At the time he was living in a hotel next to the band's recording studio. There was an Indian restaurant nearby that stayed open late, so curry was the staple diet for most of the day and night. The threatening ulcer had cleared up in two weeks with Gaviscon. "But it reminded me I was not indestructible."
The pain he felt in 1999 was worse. Gaviscon did not work. It got progressively worse during the Deacon Blue tour in October 1999. "I started taking painkillers. My GP at the time was no consolation at all. He even became critical of the amount of paracetamol and codeine I was taking. This was quite ironic as his practice was in an area of Glasgow where drug addicts only needed to fill in a form to get repeat prescriptions of heroin substitute."
ABOUT 3% of all British cancer cases are pancreatic, affecting about 7,000 people every year. Most sufferers are between 60 and 80. Cancer of the pancreas is more common in males and extremely rare in anyone under 45.
The pancreas is a spongy, tube-like gland about 6in long. It has a dual function - the exocrine pancreas produces digestive juices and the endocrine pancreas produces insulin and other hormones that control blood sugar.
The pancreas is known as a "silent" organ as it is slow to signal the presence of cancer. Symptoms can include jaundice, diabetes and bowel problems. Pancreatic cancer stops normal pancreatic cells dividing and reproducing.
He believes his life was saved by his young wife. In desperation, Julie insisted he see her GP. "If it had been up to me I'd have just put up with it, until it was too late . . ."
Julie's GP referred him in January to Dr Peter Mills, a gastric and liver specialist based at Gartnavel general hospital in Glasgow. Mills suspected gallstones. Pancreatic cancer is almost unheard of in people below the age of 45. It is also notoriously difficult to detect.
The pancreas, 6in long and shaped like a thin pear, produces digestive juices that help the body break down food. It is hidden behind organs such as the stomach, so tumours often remain hidden.
Mills arranged for tests, including a CT scan, and a complex procedure in which dye is injected into the pancreas. But there was a long waiting list. By mid February, the pain meant Graeme could not eat at all. He was melting away.
During one six day period in February, he ate a total of two fish fingers. His wife was frantic. She went back to Mills, and got Graeme admitted to hospital so the tests went ahead early. At first the couple thought the news would be good. He was discharged. An appointment was made to see a surgeon, Grant Fullerton. Sitting in Fullerton's waiting room, Julie reasoned that if her husband had cancer, he would have been told earlier.
"Mr Fullerton was very honest, which I appreciated," says Graeme. "At a time like that you don't want anyone pussyfooting around. You want the worst-case scenario."
Fullerton explained that Graeme had a small tumour on his pancreas. The upside was that it was operable. The downside was that the procedure, known as a "Whipple", involved removing most of the infected organ, half of his stomach and a third of his bile duct, which connects the liver and the intestine. "Then they sew the whole thing up again and hopefully it works. When you think about it, it's a miraculous hope . . ."
At that moment, the Graemes were not hoping for a miracle. They were too numb. The couple walked into the car park in a daze.
"I was trying to be strong. I thought, 'I must keep it together because I don't want to upset Julie even more'. But we got into the car and both burst into tears. We sat weeping. It was good, though, it meant we'd had our grief and had to get on with it."
The baby forced them to be pragmatic and optimistic. Alexander had celebrated his first birthday two days before Fullerton's bombshell.
"Alexander is such a leveller, I don't know how I would have got through it without him and Julie. He has no concept of what is going on. His response to you is untainted by any other agenda. He loves you unreservedly. He is our future as a family, and I could hold on to that when things got really rough."
The operation took place a week after the diagnosis. Remarkably, the tumour had not spread. This is unusual in pancreatic cancer. Few tumours are caught, like Graeme's, in the early stages, meaning the five-year survival rate is just 4%. This prognosis means the disease is poorly researched.
"It's not a fashionable, sexy cancer like, say, Hodgkin's disease. Lots of doctors want to specialise in that because they can have successes and feel brilliant. But imagine the drudgery when nearly every day brings a disappointment."
Graeme told himself that he would not be one of the disappointments. But his first emotion on coming round from the anaesthetic was surprise. "I thought, 'I'm still here. Half my digestive system has gone, but I'm here'. " He attributes the success of the surgery to Fullerton's skill.
But there was a serious setback. He was struck by MRSA, the notorious hospital superbug, just 24 hours after being discharged. The infection could only be fought using "industrial doses of antibiotics".
The combination of drugs, surgery and infection meant he continued to lose weight. His body simply shut down. "It's called a catabolic state. I thought about food all the time, but my body was refusing to eat. A piece of toast tastes like a carpet tile. "
By this time, his weight was down to less than 8st. He was, quite literally, half the man he was before. First the fatty tissue disappeared, then the muscle.
"It was like the body of a 100-year-old man, or something out of a horror film. And because I have no meat on my bones, I'm cold all the time. I have to wear layers of clothing, hats gloves. I look like a yeti when I step out of the house."
He is now almost 9st - and proud of it - thanks to protein supplements and patience. Eventually, he could eat the food he constantly cooked for the family.
"I was obsessed, making pancakes from Nigella Lawson at 1am, but being unable to eat them." He can only consume tiny amounts and takes enzymes in pill form to digest food.
The scarring to his internal organs still causes him pain, which could be eased by further surgery "But I'm not quite ready for that," he says. He was a clean-cut rock star - he didn't do drugs. He jokes that his painkiller, Vicodin, is the trendy drug for American celebrities.
He received no chemotherapy. Research shows it has no effect on pancreatic cancer, though in America it is offered as a matter of course. Anyway, his body was too weak to cope with its drastic side effects.
As far as Graeme and his oncologist are concerned, he has beaten it. He's looking forward to the rest of his life. When Marie Curie nurses call, he feels guilty for taking up their time. "Their role is dealing with people who are terminal. They do a brilliant job, But I thought, 'I'm not going to die now, I'm cured'. It was a privilege that was extended to me which I felt I didn't deserve."
He has been back to Gartnavel, to see the staff. "You wonder how they can do the job, for such pitiful rewards, and yet always show unfailing kindness and patience when people are raving in pain and delusion." He felt it was important for them to see he had walked away, that he was "a success".
He thought little of cancer until it hit him. "I suppose those adverts saying it affects one in three people must have been around, but I just never noticed them before. Then it was like a curtain being pulled back. All these people appeared, with experiences of their friends and relatives. Cancer touches so many lives."
Graeme was raised in the strict Brethren sect, but turned away from it as a young man. His cancer has made him consider returning to some sort of worship.
"I believe in the power of prayer because I've seen it work. When I was in hospital, I was aware that a lot of people were thinking of me, praying for me and that knowledge helped me. I would also get answers to my own prayers. Sometimes I'd be unable to cope, and someone would walk through the door knowing just what I wanted."
If he every doubts that his prayers have been answered, he need only look at Alexander. He has been able to lift up his son for the first time in a year. His stomach muscles were too weak before. A trip to the park still presents a challenge.
"I can push him on the swing, just about manage the chute, but I can't run after him if he shoots off somewhere."
Graeme's mother Ruth, a retired nursery teacher, looks after Alexander when Julie goes to work part time. Both women, says Graeme, have been "pillars of strength".
One of the most profound effects of the disease was finding that he saw the world through Alexander's eyes. Nothing is mundane for babies, because they see everything for the first time.
"When I walked out of Gartnavel it was spring. They had been planting flowers in the middle of Great Western Road. I just stopped and stared at this bank of daffodils. There were tears running down my face, I was so overwhelmed by it.
"When I got home I found that my son and I had that in common, we had the same emotional responses to things. He sees the wind blowing through the branches, he points and says 'Trees!' And I'd be exactly the same. I'd say 'Wow, trees, how fantastic!' "
Who could disagree with him?