On the banks of the River Test, just north of the New Forest, Mick May, 62, rifles through a stash of flies. It’s a warm, late-summer afternoon, and May is scanning the riverbank, staking out the trout. The river is as crystal clear as the Caribbean, so spotting the fish is easy; catching them, not so much – they won’t bite.
Not that it matters to May, an experienced angler who has endured fruitless days before. More importantly, he is doing what he loves, seven years after being diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare cancer, and the only one caused almost solely by exposure to asbestos, affecting the lining of the lung. There is no known cure, and life expectancy once diagnosed is around a year. “Mick shouldn’t be here,” says Prof Sanjay Popat, his oncologist.
And yet here is. Fishing and May’s time living with cancer go hand in hand. After experiencing chest pains, he couldn’t make the first specialist appointment – it coincided with the first fishing trip of the season. When diagnosed (the UK has one of the highest incidences of mesothelioma per population, and 2,500 deaths per year), he writes: “In the midst of all this and as if in a form of recompense, came June 2, a day of almost indescribable peace and beauty on the River Dun, just about where it flows into the larger River Test.”
The two intertwine in his new book, Cancer and Pisces, each milestone, struggle and success portrayed against a backdrop of fishing in far-flung spots like Patagonia, Iceland, and closer to home. May writes honestly and humorously of days by the river transporting him to “another world, mentally further from the Cromwell Hospital than I was geographically.”
He expands: “If you’re going to fish well, you have to spend time spotting the fish, think what the fish might be eating – that absorbs you. At critical times, that absorption was fantastic. I would never think for six or eight hours about my disease. By the time I got into the car I was too tired to be worried.”
Inspiration to write the book came from his friend Jonathan Aitken, the former Conservative minister. “I said, ‘Jonathan, that’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard’,” May recalls. “They’re such completely different things. Cancer is about chemotherapy, losing your hair and being miserable; fishing is lovely places and sunny days.”
Yet he became aware the two were linked in his life, and that discourse around cancer can be overwhelmingly negative. May speaks of enjoying his fortnightly trips to France while participating in a groundbreaking trial, for example; and of the pleasures of converting others, including his surgeon, to fishing.
May didn’t grow up a fisherman. Despite a few childhood excursions, it was only when working in America, at the onset of his first career in banking in the 1980s, that he was hooked. Why was it so appealing? “It’s a bit of solitude,” May explains, though he has a considerable amount of friends with whom he fishes. “I’m a gregarious soul, but I like being on my own. And I love nature.”
May’s heart was never in banking: “In 20 years working in the City I bought the Financial Times twice, which is a sure sign you’re not as interested as you should be.” In the early 2000s he heeded advice from his father, “who told me he expected me to make the world a slightly better place”, and briefly worked for an environmental charity, before founding Blue Sky. A cause close to May’s heart, the premise was simple – a criminal record was required to work there. “I thought society had got it wrong not wanting to see ex-offenders employed,” says May.
Paradoxically, being diagnosed has allowed time to follow his passion, though retirement helped, too. In the 1990s, with six children, a week a year was the best he could hope for. Now, he is out once a week during the summer.
Was there ever a moment he thought he’d never fish again? No. “I’ve got a stubborn soul. I was diagnosed in May, right at the beginning of the fishing season.” There was no question he would pack it in. “The second time I went fishing that year was just before I had my operation. It was one of those beautiful days where everything came together.”
The story of the past seven years can be told as one of surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, innovative drugs trials, stomach convulsions, hair loss – themes familiar to anyone who has had cancer and their loved ones. But there are other threads many will recognise, too. Laughter, parties, family holidays. While the book is full of activity, including a lengthy legal case against the company in whose building he was exposed to asbestos, May admits life has, understandably, slowed down. “My crossword skills have got much better.”
There has been tragedy aside from personal health, too. May is the chair of governors at a school just yards from the Grenfell fire, in which 60 students lived and five current or former pupils died. “It was very, very sad, it was horrible. But I’m incredibly proud of the school.”
Fishing, however, has provided constant comfort. May has spent four times more days on the river than before the cancer, and his annual haul of fish has jumped by a factor of eight. “The more I practise, the better I get,” he says, paraphrasing golf legend Gary Player.
Back on the riverbank, May feels a tug. He reels in a strong grayling, for its size, but worries it’s dying. After releasing it the fish is static, prompting May to fumble through reeds and nettles into the river, despite not wearing waders, to save it. “Fishing has one great thing that marks it out from other blood sports. You can triumph over the animal, but you don’t have to kill it. That’s important to me, because the older I get, the more I don’t like killing.” The grayling scurries off.
May did worry lockdown might end his fishing days. He spent the period away from his Notting Hill home, at the family beach house in Devon. “My family didn’t want me in London. I started taking proper exercise for the first time in 40 years, I lost a stone.” It was challenging, lonely at times. “I absolutely didn’t want Covid to take me away. I know what’s on my death certificate, I don’t want anything else, thank you.” Now that restrictions are less strict he is spending more time with family and fishing again.
The hope is that others will be inspired by his story, though May admits: “I would not ever claim to have discovered anything profound for mankind as a whole.” Yet the message, that living with a terminal illness (he describes his current remission as the cancer having “gone to sleep”) can have positives, too, is one May is keen to share. “I’ve had cancer for seven years and, surprisingly, it’s been a pretty happy time.”