Legendary English actor Sir Ian McKellen has had one of those careers that’s just crying out for a lifetime achievement award—and in some ways, he’s already received it. Knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his outstanding contributions to the performing arts, he’s also been nominated for Academy Awards, Primetime Emmy Awards, Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards, and a Tony Award. (You get the idea—the list goes on.) Behind the scenes, however, McKellen has been dealing with a personal drama regarding his health for several years. In 2012, he announced that he had been living with prostate cancer for “six or seven” years—a diagnosis he admits was frightening at first, but with which he quickly came to terms. Read on to find out why the Lord of the Rings star has resisted treatment for his cancer, and to learn which symptom first tipped him off to the problem.
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In Dec. 2012, McKellen opened up to the U.K. tabloid The Mirror about his health. “You are going to write ‘Ian McKellen is decrepit. He can’t see, he can’t hear, he can’t pee, he’s having his teeth done’,” he told the publication with amusement.
It was during this interview that McKellen shared for the first time publicly that he has been living with prostate cancer for some time. He explained that he first suspected something was wrong when he started waking up repeatedly at night to use the bathroom. Thinking it odd, he decided to consult his doctor for a screening and learned that he had early-stage cancer.
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McKellen admits he was at first taken aback by his diagnosis, but quickly learned that his prognosis was good. “You do gulp when you hear the news,” he told The Mirror. “I have heard of people dying from prostate cancer, and they are the unlucky ones, the people who didn’t know they had got it and it went on the rampage. But at my age if it is diagnosed it’s not life threatening.”
Then 73, McKellen shared at the time that he had decided against treating his cancer, opting instead for a “watchful waiting” approach. “When you have got it you monitor it and you have to be careful it doesn’t spread. But if it is contained in the prostate it’s no big deal,” he said. For McKellen, this means regular examinations to ensure that his cancer hasn’t progressed beyond the prostate.
For men diagnosed at a younger age, however, prostate cancer can have serious consequences. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men besides non-melanoma skin cancer. “It is also one of the leading causes of cancer death among men of all races,” the health authority writes.
When he spoke with The Mirror, McKellen was gearing up to promote his newest film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Since then, he’s filmed two more Hobbit movies, an X-Men blockbuster, a comedy series, and more. “The wonderful thing about modern medicine is that so many of these complaints that used to signify old age and decline can be coped with,” the Lord of the Rings star told the tabloid.
McKellen says he’s thankful for the advancements that make it possible for him to maintain his life and career with minimal interruptions from his health. “It is really, really wonderful that in your old age you are protected by specialists who understand your problems and sort them out for you. Well, isn’t that what we all need?” he mused.
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Speaking with This Morning in Sept. 2021, the star opened up about his most recent work: a stage production of Hamlet for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The actor had just completed 68 consecutive performances in the titular role, which he had performed twice before throughout his career.
“I’m having a whale of a time,” McKellen said on the British morning show, adding, “I just go on and I feel I’m 20, and somehow the spirit comes through.” Far from slowing down as a result of his age, the actor is invigorated by it. “I’m a much better actor than I used to be,” he said.
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