Widow of late cricketer Bob Willis reveals her haunting regret his cancer was not spotted sooner – but says the Ashes hero battled illness as fiercely as he fought the Aussies
- Bob Willis, 71, died last December after a four-year battle with prostate cancer
- His wife Lauren Clark, 52, has given her first interview since his death today
- Willis was one of the stars of England’s 1981 Ashes series with Sir Ian Botham
It was the summer of 1981 and Lauren Clark, then a 13-year-old schoolgirl, was ‘obsessed’ with the Ashes series gripping the nation.
Or, more precisely, as she now says: ‘I was obsessed with Ian Botham.’
Little could she have suspected that she would one day end up marrying not the swashbuckling maverick ‘Beefy’ Botham, but the other hero of that miraculous victory over Australia.
The lanky, curmudgeonly one with the crown of untamed curls. The ungainly fast bowler who took eight wickets for 43 runs on that extraordinary day at Headingley.
Bob Willis, the 6ft 6in giant of English cricket, died last December, aged 71, after a secret four-year battle with prostate cancer, leaving behind widow Lauren Clark
The man who loved Bob Dylan’s music so much that he formally adopted his name. The late, great Bob Willis.
Neither could she have known that she would help guide this 6ft 6in giant of English cricket, who died last December, aged 71, through a secret four-year battle with prostate cancer.
Today, in her first interview since his death, Lauren, 52, describes how he fought the illness with the same grit and determination that he displayed on the cricket field. ‘He never gave up. He kept going right to the end. A bit like his bowling,’ she says.
‘He wanted to keep going as normally as possible, for as long as possible. So he tried pretty much every treatment he could.
But some of them were fairly revolting. And I regret him having one procedure in particular, which I think made the end of his life unnecessarily painful.’
Like millions, Lauren was glued to the TV on July 21, 1981, when first Botham’s batting gave England hope of beating their arch-rivals before Bob’s bowling made it a reality.
‘I did watch the match,’ she says. ‘I was absolutely obsessed with it. I was obsessed with Ian Botham. I was obsessed with the whole series.
‘But I most remember sitting there all day waiting for Beefy to come in and bat at number seven. You never knew what he was going to do. He might hit a six or he might get out. Headingley was probably the moment that really got me into cricket.’
Willis (pictured in 1982) took eight wickets for 43 runs on that extraordinary day at Headingley in the the Ashes series in 1981
Lauren first met Bob in her 20s, through her career in sports publishing and TV. A chance encounter years later in 2005 led to them becoming a couple.
They married on October 20, 2014, but exactly 18 months later he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer which had spread to his bones.
Determined to raise awareness of the disease, which kills 12,000 men in Britain every year, Lauren believes there were earlier warning signs – albeit vague and indistinct.
Like many men in their 60s, Bob had occasional urinary tract infections. ‘Were those UTIs suggesting there was something else going on?’ she asks.
Each time, Bob underwent a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test to check for high levels of a molecule made by prostate cells that can indicate cancer.
They came back normal, but the test can be unreliable and a low PSA count does not guarantee that there is no cancer.
In January 2016, another test showed a moderately high PSA level and Bob was sent to see a specialist who, according to Lauren, told him: ‘I can assure you, Mr Willis, that there is nothing to worry about.’
He was, however, asked to return six weeks later and referred ‘just to be sure’ for a biopsy and MRI scan to check for prostate cancer.
Anxious, but determined not to let any concerns rule their lives, the couple took a pre-booked holiday to California’s Napa Valley to indulge one of Bob’s great passions – wine.
Bob Willis of England serves champagne to teammate Ian Botham after he received his man of the match award in the presentation ceremony after the 4th Cornhill Test match between England and Australia at Edgbaston, Birmingham, 2nd August 1981
‘It was beautiful and we tried to put aside the daunting prospect of cancer,’ Lauren recalls.
The trip led to a slight delay in getting the test results, and it was April 20 by the time they arrived – three months after the alert was first raised. The results were devastating. The cancer was aggressive and had already spread to Bob’s bones.
Speaking at the Olympic Studios cafe and cinema in Barnes, South-West London, where the couple often went to watch a film, Lauren says: ‘It was appalling.
‘Appalling that there had obviously been signs that he might have had cancer and appalling that it took three months from the PSA test to knowing he had it.’
She cannot help but ask if Bob would have had ‘a better chance if he’d started treatment earlier. Who knows?’
Willis married Lauren on October 20, 2014, but exactly 18 months later he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer which had spread to his bones
According to a newly published book about his life, Bob Willis: A Cricketer And A Gentleman, he was ‘reasonably stoic’.
He too wondered if the disease could have been spotted sooner, but concluded: ‘There is no point trying to turn the clock back, and being over-emotional is not my style.’
Such clear-headed analysis endeared Bob to millions of viewers of Sky’s cricket coverage over the years – even if it did not always appeal to the England players he would lacerate for lacklustre performances.
He and Lauren resolved to keep the matter largely to themselves, telling only a small number of very close family, friends and colleagues.
It meant that, until just three months before his death, Bob was able to live a relatively normal life, appearing regularly on Sky, socialising, playing the odd round of golf and travelling.
Lauren first met Bob in her 20s, through her career in sports publishing and TV. A chance encounter years later in 2005 led to them becoming a couple
One friend he did tell was 1981 Ashes team-mate and fellow broadcaster Paul Allott. ‘We made an agreement that I wouldn’t be forever asking how he was,’ recalled Allott.
‘That suited Bob, and it suited me. He wanted to be optimistic rather than pessimistic.’
He said that Bob, who had had surgery on both knees years before Headingley, knew much about overcoming adversity.
From his mid-20s onwards, Bob, who took 325 wickets for his country and is England’s fourth most prolific bowler, was in constant pain when he bowled.
‘That resolute, ingrained attitude on the pitch obviously transposed itself into Bob’s outlook in his battle against cancer,’ said Allott.
Today, in her first interview since his death, Lauren, 52, describes how he fought the illness with the same grit and determination that he displayed on the cricket field
Lauren agrees. ‘He was very brave. It was like, “Bring it on, bring on the treatments.” ’
In May 2016, Bob started a course of hormone therapy to slow the cancer’s advance, as well as a series of chemotherapy injections. He marked each chemo the same way. ‘Every time, he just wanted to go to the pub,’ says Lauren.
She insisted that he wear a ‘cold cap’ – designed to stop the toxic chemicals reaching his hair follicles – so that his grey, but still thick locks did not fall out. ‘He was on television and I really didn’t want him looking like a cancer victim,’ she says.
Many assumed that Bob’s famous wild tresses in the 1970s and 1980s (‘It wasn’t a perm,’ Lauren insists) demonstrated his indifference to conformity, but his widow has another explanation.
‘His big hair did look pretty cool, didn’t it? I think he was trying to look a bit like Bob Dylan. I look back at those pictures of the England team at the time, and they had some pretty dodgy hairdos – including Beefy.
‘And in the middle of them was Bob, this rock star.’
Indeed, so keen was the future England star on Dylan’s music that as a teenager he even added the name to his by deed poll to become Robert George Dylan Willis, and over the decades he would drag team-mates to countless concerts.
The aggressiveness of his cancer meant Bob ‘whizzed through all the options’ available to him. Treatments that might stall prostate cancer for years in some men bought Bob only a few months.
‘Why did he have to get this really awful version of prostate cancer?’ asks Lauren. ‘It was hideous.’
She is determined to raise awareness about the problems in diagnosing prostate cancer and to remind men that, while the disease can lie dormant for years, that is not always the case.
‘It’s amazing the number of people who’ve told me they didn’t know prostate cancer can kill – but it does.’
Until last autumn, doctors pursued the cancer, switching Bob to new therapies as others began to fail.
When he started having serious problems passing water – a common side effect of prostate cancer – an operation was recommended, but an endoscopic investigation before surgery left him ‘in agony’.
Lauren Clark, then a 13-year-old schoolgirl, was ‘obsessed’ with Sir Ian Botham (pictured) during the Ashes series gripping the nation in 1981
He spent 11 days in hospital and the operation, called a Trans Urethreal Resection of the Prostate (TURP), was not only unsuccessful but left him needing a catheter.
‘Bob went dramatically downhill after that,’ says Lauren. ‘I feel he wasn’t given enough information about the risks.’
He then had a course of a targeted radioactive medicine called lutetium-177. It was meant to ‘stun’ the tumours and potentially give Bob two more years of life. ‘When he had it, we could barely touch for a week because he was radioactive,’ Lauren recalls.
Bob’s consultant oncologist, Dr Lisa Pickering, who was not involved in the TURP or the lutetium treatments, stressed that a TURP can help men with advanced prostate cancer and that most of Bob’s treatments allowed him to live longer and better.
‘I saw him on television knowing he was on chemo,’ she said. ‘He definitely lived longer because of it and it enabled him to keep working.’
Bob’s final Sky appearance was in early October but, despite his deteriorating health, he was determined to keep working.
‘Two days before he died, he wanted to go to work,’ says Lauren. He died on December 4 at the private Parkside Hospital in Wimbledon as Positively Fourth Street, his favourite Dylan track, played.
‘It was very sudden, I wasn’t expecting it at all,’ says Lauren, recalling how barely a week earlier he had entertained friends from Australia at the couple’s home in Barnes.
They were among many, including Botham, who appeared by his bedside in his final weeks, and Allott, who, because of train delays, made it there just seven minutes before his old friend died.
After his death, tributes poured in, including messages from Australian stars who had played in the famous 1981 Test.
Lauren was – and is – incredibly touched by the reaction which, she feels, demonstrates that while the series may always be known as Botham’s Ashes, Bob’s crucial role will never been forgotten.
‘He would not have believed the outpouring of grief,’ she says. ‘And to me he seems more famous now than when he was alive.’
lBob Willis: A Cricketer And A Gentleman is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £20. Proceeds go to Prostate Cancer UK.
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