Eric Idle Survived a Private Battle with Pancreatic Cancer: 'I Had Been a Dead Man Walking'

·4 min read
Eric Idle attends JONI 75: A Birthday Celebration Live at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on November 7, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
Eric Idle attends JONI 75: A Birthday Celebration Live at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on November 7, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.

David Livingston/Getty

Eric Idle has revealed he survived a private battle with pancreatic cancer after a rare early diagnosis.

In a personal essay published with TIME, the actor and comedian, 79, opened up about his shocking diagnosis in 2019 in hopes of raising awareness about the deadly disease.

"About three years ago I was incredibly lucky: I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer," he wrote. "One of the most lethal forms of cancer, how on earth was that lucky? Well, because it was found incredibly early…before it had gone anywhere."

Idle's cancer was unintentionally found in 2019 while running a number of routine tests with his friend and doctor David Kipper, who specializes in preventative medicine. At the time, Kipper noticed a questionable report in Idle's blood work and made the decision to order another test, which ultimately revealed his pancreatic cancer.

More than 62,000 people a year are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and more than 49,800 are expected to die from it in 2022 alone, according to the American Cancer Society. Only 20 percent of patients survive a year after being diagnosed, and less than 10 percent of them live five years post-diagnosis. Symptoms — including intense back pain, loss of appetite, depression, fatigue, new-onset diabetes and jaundice — often don't reveal themselves until after the cancer has reached an advanced stage.

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After learning of his diagnosis, Idle said his doctor gave him surprisingly "good news,": They were optimistic after catching the pancreatic cancer at such an early stage.

"[Doctors] 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," the comedian was told.

Idle credits Kipper for saving his life, saying, "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. As I hug him, I say, 'There's no doubt you just saved my life.'"

Idle later underwent a successful operation to remove the cancer. He only shared the news of his diagnosis with his wife Tania and children Lily and Carey. Idle said he was quickly able to go home and begin his recovery.

"A few days later [my surgeon] confirmed 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," Idle wrote. "Only then do I cry."

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THE MASKED SINGER. L-R: Nick Cannon and Eric Idle in the season 8 premiere of THE MASKED SINGER airing Wednesday, Oct. 21
THE MASKED SINGER. L-R: Nick Cannon and Eric Idle in the season 8 premiere of THE MASKED SINGER airing Wednesday, Oct. 21

Michael Becker/FOX

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More than two years later, Idle admitted that he's been feeling good, which prompted him to accept an offer to participate on season 8 of The Masked Singer. Though he was eliminated as Hedgehog Wednesday night, the comedian said it was the first time he had performed since his surgery and he's "proud to have pulled it off."

"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," the Monty Python star said in his TIME essay.

Idle has been tested every six months and doctors said he's in "very good shape" and "should have about 10 years" since the cancer hasn't recurred. His progress is why the comedian decided to share his story publicly.

"Having survived both the disease and the show, I realize I must tell people what happened to me," he explained. "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."

Idle is now working with Stand Up To Cancer to fund pancreatic-cancer research and encourage people at high risk of pancreatic cancer to explore the new options available for detecting the disease early.

"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," he added. "Help me help others like me to survive."