Tony Parsons and Billy Bragg tell of the devastation of losing parents to lung cancer

Published: 09/12/2011   by:

SINGER Billy Bragg and top author Tony Parsons are among millions of Brits whose lives have been blighted by the UK’s biggest cancer killer.

Lung cancer claims 35,000 lives a year - a tragedy chiefly for its victims but also devastating to the networks of grieving families left behind.

Billy and Tony spoke exclusively to the Daily Mirror about how the illness robbed them of beloved parents.

Tony suffered a double tragedy as both his parents died of lung cancer - while Billy was just a teenager when dad Dennis succumbed to the disease.

They spoke out during Lung Cancer Awareness Month in an effort to raise awareness of the illness.

Billy said: “I lost my father Dennis to lung cancer 35 years ago.

“Dad was a heavy smoker, his fingers stained by nicotine.

“In the photos I have of him driving a tank in the Second World War, he’s almost always got a fag on.”

Billy told how his dad’s illness came as a complete shock.

He said: “He’d never spent a night in hospital, then one day he had a medical check up for a new job and they found a shadow on his lung.

“Fifteen months later he was dead aged just 52.

“Last year, I turned 53 and I can’t pretend that it doesn’t feel strange to be older than dad ever was, while at the same time realising how young he was when he died.

“Having a family of my own has also brought home to me the scale of our loss.

“The cancer robbed us of many things, my mum, my brother and I - but what I regret most is that my son never knew my father.

“The Tank Museum is only an hour away from where we live and when my son was growing up, we went there every summer.

“The visits helped me to feel closer to dad but also made me acutely aware that he should have been there, telling both my son and me about his exploits during the war.”

Tony told how the death of his parents - his dad Victor in 1987 and mum Emma 12 years and one day later - from lung cancer “ruined everything” for his family.
Tony Parsons

In particular, he laments the fact they never got to meet their granddaugther Jasmine as “the greatest regret in my life”.

He said: “I know how so many lives would have been enriched if they had lived to meet Jasmine – and to know her, and to guide her, and to love her.

“Lung cancer robbed my parents of knowing my daughter.

“And lung cancer robbed my daughter of knowing grandparents who would have thought that she was the greatest thing in the universe.”

Tony movingly described lung cancer’s impact on both the sufferers and their helpless loved ones.

He said: “Lung cancer is hard.

“Watching both my mum and dad go with the same disease made me some kind of expert in the epic cruelty of lung cancer.

“My mum and my dad died in different ways.

“My dad – sick and breathless for so long – never told us that he had been to see the doctor and that he was dying.

“We didn’t know he had cancer until one day, at the age of 62, he collapsed and was rushed into hospital.

“We buried him three weeks later.

“With my mum it was different.

“I was there with her and holding her hand when the doctor told her that she had only months to live and that there was nothing anyone could do.

“So my father’s illness was a secret that I only discovered when he was finally too sick to hide it.

“And my mother’s illness was right there in my face, and I was forced to see the shock and fear and sadness of someone you love being told they were going to die.

“Different deaths. But the same disease.

“Lung cancer – in all its brutal agony.

“Lung cancer – a slow, tormented death that robs you of breath at the start and robs of yourself in the end.”

Mirror columnist Tony revealed the pain of his parent’s final days.

He said: “‘This is not me,’ said my mum, confined to her bed at the very end, a woman who had always been so active and independent and full of fun.

“And my dad was no longer himself by the time lung cancer was killing him.

“I wanted to talk to him – to say all the things that sons leave unsaid to their fathers – but the pain was so great that he was lost in a fog of morphine.

“Lung cancer overwhelms you.

“It crushes the life out of those who have it and on those who stand weeping by the bed it inflicts wounds that will never heal.”

Tony told how his parents had both quit smoking by the time they were diagnosed with lung cancer - his dad three years before his death and his mum after watching her husband die.

He said: “We are all products of our time, and they grew up in the era of Bogart and Bacall when having a snout on the go was considered the height of glamorous sophistication.

“Would they have lived if they had never smoked?

“Of course.

“Smoking is a game of Russian roulette where every chamber in the gun has a bullet.

“Cigarettes are lung cancer’s great recruiting agents.”

Emphasising that “lung cancer is a hard way to die”, Tony told of his pride at taking part in The Roy Castle Lung Foundation-backed campaign to save lives.

He added: “Because every time I look at my daughter’s face, I am reminded how much my family has lost because of lung cancer.”

Lung cancer strikes 39,000 Brits a year and 75% die within a year due to late diagnosis.

Just one in 10 will be alive after five years.

Dr Jesme Fox, medical director of The Roy Castle Lung Foundation, said: “Every 15 minutes, somebody dies from lung cancer in this country.

“Your chance of surviving has barely changed since the 1970s.

“We want to change that by encouraging people to visit their GP if they have symptoms as early diagnosis saves lives.

“It’s probably nothing serious but if you’ve been coughing for more than three weeks it could be a sign of lung cancer, so please get checked out by your GP.”

Graham Phillips, community pharmacist and board member of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said: “Pharmacists play a key role in the fight against lung cancer by spotting people with relevant symptoms and encouraging them to see their GP.

“Early detection leads to faster diagnosis and both are essential to improving survival and saving lives.

“Pharmacists are experts in providing health advice so don’t hold back - let us know about any health worries you have.”

Main lung cancer danger signs

- A cough that doesn’t go away after two or three weeks

- Worsening or change to long standing cough

- Repeated chest infections

- Coughing up blood

- Unexplained persistent breathlessness

- Unexplained persistent tiredness

- Unexplained persistent weight loss

- Persistent chest and/or shoulder pain.

For information, visit or call 0800 358 7200.

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