My greatest victory wasn't The X Factor. It was beating kidney cancer when I was two: Matt Cardle on why he fights for thousands of children struck by a rare and deadly disease
06:50 GMT, 1 October 2012
Disbelief, utter relief, a few tears and humble congratulations to all the worthy opponents who fell by the wayside: the reaction for winners of television talent show The X Factor has become almost standard.
And in December 2010, when he triumphed over his rivals – Liverpudlian Rebecca Ferguson and boy band One Direction – singer Matt Cardle did not fail to deliver.
More than 17 million British viewers watched as the 27-year-old sobbed through a final song before a display of fist-pumping joy, with mentor Dannii Minogue and pop tycoon Simon Cowell by his side.
Ready for stardom: A jubilant Matt Cardle with Dannii Minogue on The X Factor
But in Matt’s case, this rollercoaster of emotion was perhaps more understandable after he had to contend with acute throat problems throughout the final weeks of the show, leaving him bed-bound by the pain.
For his parents, Jenny, 61, and David, 62, who looked after their son at the family home in Colchester, Essex, during this time, it was particularly difficult.
‘We saw how much he wanted it [to win], and of course he was a grown man who could make his own decisions, but any parent’s instinct will be to try to protect their child, no matter if they’re six or 60,’ says Jenny.
‘And, of course, it is even harder not to worry considering what he’d been though as a child. To see him win meant so much – because we very nearly lost him.’
At the age of two, Matt was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of kidney cancer. And as his mother explains: ‘The doctors told us to stay positive as the outlook for these kinds of cancer is good when caught early. But they made it clear there were no guarantees.’
Matt, now 29, endured surgery and months of gruelling chemotherapy. Today, despite having only one kidney, he is in perfect health (bar a few continuing niggles with his throat) and is campaigning to improve awareness of and research into childhood kidney cancer as patron of the charity James Whale Fund for Kidney Cancer.
Family ties: The singer with his mother Jenny and father David. His parents nursed him back to health when he was struck down with throat problems during the final weeks of X Factor
Matt says: ‘I have vague memories of Mum taking me to the doctor and being in hospital. But I was so young. What I do know – from speaking to Mum since – is how worried everyone was. My brother, Dominic, was two years older and big enough to be aware he might lose his baby brother. He was very upset.’
For years, up until he was a teenager, Matt would go for regular checks to make sure the cancer had not returned.
All that remains to remind him of the disease that nearly killed him is a fading scar on his stomach.
It all happened so quickly – it was
almost too much of a shock to be scared at first. I felt detached, like
it wasn’t really happening
For Jenny, who endured the agonising experience of her tiny son ravaged by illness, then the treatment that would ultimately save his life, the memories are still fresh.
It all started rather innocently with a trip to the GP because Dominic was feeling ‘under the weather’. Matt wasn’t unwell, but he had a spotty rash on his ankle.
Jenny says: ‘I only asked the doctor to look at Matt as an afterthought. The GP was very painstaking and gave him a good check-over.
‘He asked him to take his jumper off. Straight away, he noticed Matt’s tummy was swollen. He felt him, said his kidney was enlarged, and then said he wanted Matt to see a paediatrician urgently. We had an appointment at Bristol Royal Hospital for Children within two days, so I knew he thought it was urgent.’
X-rays confirmed Matt had a tumour on his right kidney, and further tests revealed that he was suffering from a rare type of cancer called Wilms’ tumour.
‘They told us it was aggressive, but treatable,’ says Jenny. Matt was booked in for surgery the next day.
Rare and deadly disease: Two-year-old Matt in hospital during his treatment
His mother adds: ‘It all happened so quickly – it was almost too much of a shock to be scared at first. I felt detached, like it wasn’t really happening. You just put all of your faith into the doctors and try to push out any thought that it might not turn out OK.
'I wanted Matt to know what was going to happen to him before the operation. I said, “Matt you’ve got something nasty in your tummy. The doctor will make you go to sleep and when you wake up it will be gone.” ’
During the nights after her son’s operation, Jenny, who runs a logistics business, slept by his bedside, but worse was still to come – chemotherapy made Matt violently sick.
She recalls: ‘We had to go five or six times a month, for six months. We’d stay in hospital for the day to make sure there were no serious side effects, and then be sent home. After that, the drugs would make him vomit approximately every 15 minutes for about eight hours.
'It was frightening at first, although we’d been warned it would happen, and never stopped being distressing – he looked so exhausted. But then he’d start to feel better, and ask for a drink of milk.
‘His lovely blond hair started falling out after a couple of weeks. Of course, we couldn’t let Matt see how worried we were.’
Jackie Cornish, consultant oncologist at Bristol Royal Hospital for Children, remembers caring for Matt. She says: ‘There are only about 80 cases of Wilms’ tumour a year, so you tend not to forget patients, who will come back for check-ups for up to five years.
‘The survival rate is about 90 per cent, but you can take nothing for granted. If the cancer is detected late or is particularly aggressive, some patients can die.
‘Jenny has always kept in contact and I was delighted when I heard that the little boy I’d cared for all those years ago had got to the final of The X Factor.’
Matt, whose second album, The Fire, and a single from it, It’s Only Love, are released on October 29, says: ‘There is no downside to only having one kidney. ‘Your remaining kidney takes over the work of the missing kidney. But you are aware you only have one of them, and don’t want to do anything to harm it.’
Staying hydrated and steering clear of too much alcohol are paramount.
Matt continues: ‘For most of my life, I’ve never really thought about it because my memory of it is almost non-existent. But one of the cancer charities, the James Whale Fund for Kidney Cancer, approached me. Now I help them with fundraising, which is a way of saying thank you and helping raise awareness.
‘I owe my life to the doctors who cared for me – and I want to do everything I can to make sure that every child with this illness has the same chance.’
Matt will perform at the James Whale Fund Anniversary Ball on October 11 at Cafe de Paris, London.
For more information on Wilms’ tumour, to make a donation or to buy tickets for the ball, visit jameswhalefund.org. Kidney Cancer Careline: 0330 111 2 333.