Fighting cancer again
Twenty two years ago James Whitham’s racing career was ripped apart when, out of the blue, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – a blood-related cancer. Although the diagnosis, subsequent treatment and chemotherapy wrecked his 1995 season, the then 29year-old fought back in style going on to finish runner-up in BSB (in 1996), win a WSB race, compete in 500GPS and fight for the World Supersport championship – then retiring in 2002. Over the following decade-and-ahalf, Whitham has been in good health and made a point of getting involved in as many motorcycle-related shenanigans as possible. He also became the voice of BSB and WSB on Eurosport and at the Isle of Man TT. But for the second time in his life the 51-year-old is now facing his demons once again following the recent diagnosis that the Hodgkin’s Lymphoma has returned.
MCN spent a day with one of the UK’S most-loved bike racers where, despite his current situation, he remains as entertaining and philosophical as ever.
“While I’ve never obsessed about it, I’ve always thought that if someone gets cancer in their 20s when they are otherwise fit and healthy, don’t smoke or drink to excess, then I was more likely to get it back than someone who has never had it.
“When I had it before I had a lot of symptoms, I was tired, not sleeping, lost a load of weight, whereas this time I haven’t. Once you’ve had cancer once, you’re kind of careful, you check for lumps and you’re just aware of yourself a bit more. I’d had no symptoms at all but then I found one of my lymph glands was swollen. I went to the doctors straight away and if I’m honest I kind of knew. My doctor initially said it was nothing to worry about, but I left thinking ‘well it wouldn’t surprise me’.
“To put my mind at rest he sent me for a blood test and said he’d let me know the results the next week. The next morning my phone went and it was the doctors and I knew straight away and it’s proved to be exactly what I thought. It’s exactly what I had before – Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.”
It’s not like breaking a leg
“I have to say that the doctors are very non-committal! As cancer specialists I think they have to be because what might work for me might not work for you and vice versa. It’s not like breaking a leg when they say we’re going to put a pin in it, do this, do that and you’ll be alright – they don’t know if you’re going to be alright or not.
‘I am bothered because I want to be here, but it doeesn’t frighten me’
‘ There’s no point planning a holiday in two years time, cos I might not be here’
“So far I’ve had two lots of chemo, I’ve got one more lot this week and I’m expecting to have five in total so I’m about half way.
“The ideal scenario is that it goes and you crack on... or it doesn’t and you die. It’s quite a simple concept really!”
Not looking for sympathy
“The first people I rang after my family was Eurosport and North One who do the TT coverage. What I didn’t want to happen was that I didn’t tell anyone and then I suddenly couldn’t do the job or I’d turn up looking like a bald man on steroids. I told North One I couldn’t do the TT and Eurosport just said no worries, just come when you can.
“It doesn’t bother me everyone knowing. My biggest fear was that it was just going to be loads of people feeling sorry for me. I was between treatments when the TT was on – I had a two-day window and felt as fit as a fiddle and wanted to go, but I knew it would be sad, people asking me if I was alright.”
“I’ve had really good support from everyone around me.
“I got a great letter from a fan the other day, they obviously didn’t know my address, it just said: James Whitham, Motorbike racer, House in the country with big garage Nr Huddersfield and it got here!”
“It makes things that you take for granted seem more important – like seeing my kid. The simple things in life.
“The other good thing is that I’ve always liked my workshop time, but I’ve had to balance that with family, girlfriend work and whatever else. But because I’ve only been able to work when I can I’ve had a load more workshop time – and that’s all good.
“It’s hard to say if I’ll change anything in the future because it could still go either way. I don’t know what’s going happen. There is no point plan- ning for my holidays in two years time – because I might not be here.
“I’m not really materialistic anyway – that’s probably down to having cancer before. As long as I have some bikes to play on, my aeroplane, I’m alright. I’ve never been a ruthless industrialist!”
What happens next?
“I really want the TV stuff to continue, I like the work and it’s great to be getting paid for something I enjoy.
“It was the same with the racing – when you got knocked about in a crash, it doesn’t necessarily feel like the best job in the world – but when I look back at it now I was getting paid to f**k around on motorbikes.
“I think the cancer job means that I’ve taken it all a bit less for granted.
“It’s made me put my affairs in order. I don’t have a lot to leave, but I don’t want people fighting over it. I don’t want anyone having to figure it out.”
“I had some relatives come over and they were obviously asking me all sorts of questions about the treatment. And then they said ‘and what happens if it doesn’t work’ and I said ‘well – you die’. But they started telling me not to talk like that. For me speaking like that doesn’t make me any less positive. Even if it goes the wrong way – I’ve known plenty of blokes (my best mate Paul Shoesmith was one) who set off on a motorbike or an aeroplane or a car or just had a heart attack and never had the luxury of doing the things they wanted to do, never had the chance to make their peace.
“I’ve got my head around it. It doesn’t scare me – I thought I’d have loads of sleepless nights thinking what if? Don’t get me wrong, I am bothered because I want to be here, but if I’m not it doesn’t frighten me. The hardest thing is what you leave behind – my daughter.”
“The day I got diagnosed I was talking to my mate who I run track days with, Paul Drinkwater. He asked me how I was and I said: ‘Look I’ve done a load of stuff in my life and being totally honest it’s all going a bit s**t! It’s never going to be as good as was 25 years ago is it? I can’t race any good anymore, sex has gone to s**t. And he said that if I do die, he’s going to stand up at my funeral and tell everyone exactly that!” (laughs).
Mending and riding bikes keeps Whitham happy Whitham is halfway through chemo
Like Aladdin’s cave... only loads better
Straight-talking Whitham is getting his affairs in order Whitham runs a small airfield near Huddersfield