Telly Savalas: Actor’s cancer was ‘too late to fix’ after he ‘ignored’ warning signs

The important symptoms of bladder cancer to remember

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In addition to Kojak, which ran from 1973 to 1978, Savalas played James Bond’s arch-enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the 1969 film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Having enjoyed a hugely successful career, it wasn’t until 1994 that the star’s health problems began, and after a five year battle with what some thought was prostate cancer, the actor passed away.

“I loved him dearly. He was a wonderful man,” Mike Mamakos, a spokesperson for the star said at the announcement of his death.

Having built a career playing “unsympathetic roles”, Savalas remained a family-man and often kept out of the Hollywood limelight in order to spend time with his six children.

But soon his hectic work schedule was to become a danger to him, as when he first started noticing signs of prostate cancer, he chose to ignore them.

According to the star’s eldest daughter, Christina Kousakis, her father “wasn’t the sort of guy to have regular health checkups”, even with the knowledge that both his father and older brother had both been plagued by cancer, his father losing his life to the disease.

“Gus [Savalas’ older brother] kept telling him how important it was to catch it early,” says Kousakis, “and I think it may have caused him [Savalas] to think it was already too late to fix”.

“I made an appointment with a doctor he knew and then told him that I needed him to give me a ride home to get him to show up,” she added.

Kousaki’s reporting on the issue a few years ago maintains that the actor had bladder cancer, despite media outlets reporting that he suffered from prostate cancer. However, due to the nature of the disease, no matter where it begins, cancer can easily spread to either area. Making it possible for Savalas to have had both.

It is reported that by the time Savalas received his diagnosis, his cancer had spread to the underlying muscle layers of the bladder wall, which severely affects most patients, even with treatment.

Offered surgery to remove part of his bladder and nearby organs that harboured cancer cells, Savalas at first remained adamant that he did not want to go through what he father went through.

Kousakis remembered him saying: “His own father had had the surgery and it had been really awful. That was in 1947 or 1948… and his father had been very incapacitated, he had a bag, it was gross and uncomfortable and like having no life.”

But as his disease developed, Savalas had no choice but to undergo the procedure, known as radical cystectomy, in order to keep his cancer at bay. For a few years, the actor had cystoscopies every three or four months in order to check for new growths, and seemed to be stable, but by December 1993, things took a turn for the worst.

“The cancer had metastasized to his bones and other organs, but he was really only very sick for about six weeks,” said Kousakis.

As the 11th most common cancer in the UK, accounting for three percent of all new cancer cases, bladder cancer is more common in adults aged 60 and above. But the seriousness of the condition should not be underestimated.

The NHS explains that the condition is typically caused by changes to the cells of the bladder. It is often linked with exposure to certain chemicals. Due to this, several “risk factors” have been identified that can “significantly increase” an individual’s chance of developing bladder cancer.

These include:

  • Smoking – chemicals from smoking pass into the bloodstream and are filtered by the kidneys into the urine. This means that the bladder is repeatedly exposed to harmful chemicals as it stores this toxic urine. It’s estimated that more than a third of all cases of bladder cancer are caused by smoking.
  • Exposure to chemicals – the second biggest risk factor. Dangerous chemicals include aniline dyes, 2-Naphthylamine, 4-Aminobiphenyl and xenylamine.
  • Previous treatment for cancers – this mainly includes radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
  • Long-term or repeated urinary tract infections (UTIs)
  • Certain type 2 diabetes treatments.

Usually beginning in the bladder lining, some cancers spread to the surrounding bladder muscle. The NHS notes that if the cancer penetrates this muscle, it can spread to other parts of the body, usually through the lymphatic system. This is known as metastatic bladder cancer.

If the disease has spread, it is likely to infect structures “local” (close) to the bladder including the prostate, which may explain why Savalas was reported and treated for prostate cancer.

  • In order to limit the spread of bladder cancer it is critical to catch the disease early on. Blood in the urine is the most common symptom of bladder cancer, but other less common symptoms include:
  • A need to urinate on a more frequent basis
  • Sudden urges to urinate
  • A burning sensation when passing urine.

Once it has reached an advanced stage, bladder cancer can also cause pelvic pain, bone pain, unintentional weight loss and swelling in the legs. If experienced, these are warning signs to seek medical advice. In fact, the NHS advises that if you have blood in your urine – even if it comes and goes – you should visit your GP, so the cause can be investigated.

If diagnosed, treatment depends on the stage and type of bladder cancer an individual has. For non-muscle-invasive bladder cancer is treated with a procedure known as transurethral resection of a bladder tumour (TURBT). For muscle-invasive bladder cancer, medical professionals will recommend either an operation to remove the bladder and / or radiotherapy.

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