Nile Rodgers' battle with prostate cancer

Nile Rodgers

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Music writer and producer Nile Rodgers was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer just over two years ago.

He now frequently walks the streets of New York to help his recuperation, and still blogs musings of his musical journey. BBC producer Paul McClean spent time with Nile following his footsteps.

When he was first diagnosed with cancer, in shock, Nile refused to cancel a gig that weekend in Rome.

"I still didn't internalise that information," he says calmly.

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Nile Rodgers
  • Nile Rodgers has penned many memorable hit songs with his own band Chic, and spent the 1970s and 1980s writing and producing records for Madonna, David Bowie, Diana Ross, Sister Sledge and Duran Duran
  • In 2010, Rodgers was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer that nearly claimed his life
  • As part of his recovery regime, he began to take a daily walk and blog on the memories they produced
  • Walking on Planet C is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 11:00 GMT on Monday 26 November
  • In the programme, Nile Rodgers recreates some of his well-trodden paths with microphone in hand

Having been a session player at the Apollo Theatre and played every US venue, from tiny Hicksville toilet tours to sell-out arena mega-domes, his attitude was very much "the show must go on".

He played the gig in Italy as if nothing had happened, came back, steeled his resolve and took up his fight on his own terms.

"A good doctor friend of mine was stricken with cancer when he was in medical school and he came to my house to prepare me for what would happen," remembers Nile.

"He said: 'Welcome to life on Planet C' - because it's not just when you're in the throes of cancer, it's what happens after, because it's always outside the door looming."

Nile remembers feeling very lonely.

"I just decided I needed someone to talk to. Because I don't sleep, I couldn't bug all my friends, so I went to the internet because when it's night-time here, it's daytime somewhere else.

"I was out walking and it was one of those mega snowstorms.

"I walked into my local deli and Sister Sledge's We Are Family was playing and I was going like, 'Hey I wrote that!' and they looked at me like I was from another planet, and in that one fell swoop I felt very insignificant.

"I didn't want to die without people knowing I had done something that's bigger than myself, and We are Family is bigger than me. So I sent out that first blog.

"I don't even remember what I said but it was pretty heavy. I had literally just got out of the hospital and that was the day that I went for my first walk."

Nile opted for a radical prostatectomy - which removes the whole prostate gland. He was hospitalised for two days after his surgery but continued to receive "painful bio-feedback therapy" for several months after his operation.

"As I approach my second cancer-free year, I'm starting to feel like myself again," he says.

'Life in the shadow'

And so began his journey, with a series of daily walks, to complement his cancer journey.

The walks prompted vivid memories which he included in his blog Walking on Planet C which is a frank and often uncomfortable account of life in the shadow of a potentially fatal illness.

He would reminisce about the "good times, wild times" and reconnect with the city that shaped his life.

Prostate cancer

  • Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in males in the UK
  • Symptoms can include: urinating frequently, difficult or painful urination or ejaculation, a feeling that the bladder has not completely emptied, blood in urine or semen
  • Prostate cancer typically spreads to the bones, so in advanced stages, the following symptoms may occur: weight loss, bone pain, pain in the loins, pelvis or lower back
  • There are a number of non-cancerous medical conditions that can also cause these symptoms. Diagnostic tests will help clarify the problem

Source: BBC Health

Almost every single street in Manhattan has a resonance with the hit-maker's life.

On one street is the club where he met Duran Duran; a few blocks away is where he partied with Grace Jones, or co-wrote a song with Hall and Oates.

As a hippy in 1960s Greenwich Village and also as a linchpin of the hedonistic disco era of the 1970s, it was perhaps inevitable that Nile Rodgers would have come into contact with drugs.

He admits that his former motto was: "If something is worth doing, it's worth overdoing."

Inevitably, addiction took hold.

Ironically, Rodgers maintains that some of the techniques taught to him during a period of rehab in the 1990s equipped him surprisingly well for coping with the initial news of his health scare.

"The way they taught me how to deal with my [drug] cravings was to teach me that if there's something that's a bit beyond my control, the only thing I can control is my way of thinking," he recalls.

"They called it 'acting as if', where you act as everything is together and everything will be together for a while.

"You act as if you're not sick, or you don't want to do coke, you act as if you don't want to get drunk.

"You're smart enough to know you shouldn't, so you just reason through it. So [when I got the news] I acted as if I hadn't heard it and then [later] I said 'OK let's hear it.'"

'Dig deep'

Despite the occasional health wobble that has landed the musician back in hospital, in general, Nile's health has been improving and, according to recent scans, he remains cancer-free.

That said, his attitude remains "at all times and at all costs - keep busy".

"I've had countless trips to the ER and surgery, but I've never cancelled a show,

"I've never cancelled any public appearance simply because that's what my life is, it's doing my work and I never want to stop doing my work unless it becomes impossible for me to do it.

"When people tell you you're on the brink of death, you've got to dig pretty deep to get it together."

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