Former BBC Masterchef judge reveals kidney cancer shock and is encouraging people to sign up to Race for Life in Preston

Being a top class chef, John Benson-Smith thought he was invincible. But his cancer diagnosis made him reconsider. He shares his story to encourage people to sign up to Race for Life.

Tuesday, 7th May 2019, 11:19 am
Updated Tuesday, 7th May 2019, 12:26 pm
John Benson-Smith and his wife

Former BBC Masterchef John Benson-Smith is keen to warn men of the symptoms of cancer after he was diagnosed with kidney cancer last year.

John, of Bamber Bridge, said he cannot praise staff at Preston and Chorley hospitals enough after he received treatment.

He now wants to use his experiences to warn others of signs to look out for and is throwing his support behind Cancer Research’s Race for Life in Preston in June, which for the first time is open to men.

John Benson-Smith and his wife

John recalled his diagnosis last March after noticing blood in his urine, which was ‘the colour of Ribena.’

He was examined and referred to his GP at Preston’s Riverside Medical Centre the following morning.

He then attended Chorley Hospital a week later for a CT scan and flexible cystography examination – a bendy tube that lets the doctors look at the lining of the bladder.

Four weeks later, John and his wife Ally were called to an appointment with consultant Mr Bachar Zelhof at Royal Preston Hospital for the scan results on his kidney and pelvic area.

John Benson-Smith with his team in the kitchen

He said: “It was then I heard the words that change everything: ‘You’ve got cancer. It’s aggressive and we need to act quickly’.

“Before that moment, I thought I was invincible and indestructible.

“But when you find out you’ve got cancer, everything you’re supposed to be – work, career, the meetings you had booked in for tomorrow, next week – it all becomes immaterial. After it happened I went to bits. It even got embarrassing sometimes. I’d go and see a client and burst into tears.”

John’s wife Ally has been by his side throughout – from the diagnosis to the ups and downs of treatment:

John Benson-Smith in the kitchen

She added: “It was terrifying to hear the words ‘you’ve got cancer’. Maybe it’s fear of the unknown and finding yourself in a situation that you don’t have control of. Chefs are very strong characters and John is no exception. You have to be bullish to thrive in a busy kitchen – but I really saw John’s softer and more vulnerable side come out with the cancer”.

The day of diagnosis was also John and Ally’s 25th wedding anniversary. More tough news was to come just three days after John’s diagnosis when Ally’s 84-year-old mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Ally added: “It was all such a shock. There were no words but we needed to be there for one another. I felt galvanised to support my mum and John. I knew I needed to be strong for them both and was determined that neither would see me cry in front of them. I wore bright colours to the hospital whenever I visited them because I knew I needed to be hopeful and positive. John and I are a team and this is something we went through together from start to finish. It was never just John, it was always the two of us.”

After diagnosis, John was immediately waitlisted to go back into Preston hospital for a robotic assisted laparoscopic left nephroureterectomy – a surgery to remove the renal pelvis, kidney, ureter and part of the bladder.

John Benson-Smith with Loyd Grossman

The operation took place at Royal Preston Hospital last May and was carried out using state-of-the-art robotic technology.

During the operation, surgeons found a high-grade tumour in John’s left renal pelvis – the ‘funnel’ that moves urine from the kidney. John was one of the first patients to have the robot surgery and Preston is one of the only hospitals outside of London to offer the cutting-edge treatment.

John and Ally are both keen to credit the treatment they received from NHS.

John said: “The staff are absolutely amazing, they make the magic happen, they’re so full of beans and they have such a brilliant sense of humour. From the local doctor at the Riverside to the hospital staff at Preston and Chorley - they saved my life.”

Hospitals are a familiar sight for John who spent lots of time in them during his career in food: “I was one of the five chefs who worked with Loyd Grossman and Tony Blair in a campaign to attempt to improve hospital food. We visited 48 hospitals all over the country – so it was funny to be back where it all began, eating the hospital food myself.”

In February this year, John went for another flexible cystography appointment which was clear and had a CT scan booked at Chorley Hospital yesterday.

John is now keen to raise awareness of cancer symptoms among men and urges people to support the fight by taking part in Race for Life

He said. “In the beginning I felt ashamed, and almost a bit embarrassed when I told people what I was going through. But after a few weeks I realised that the more people I tell the more we can raise awareness. I often speak to men who are too proud to do anything about their symptoms – some of them are people I work with in kitchens and restaurants. Nowadays I think more men are starting to wise up to this sort of thing. In gents’ urinals you see more signs and messages now teaching people to recognise the symptoms. I think that’s helped a lot. It’s so important to get checked out if you notice changes. If I hadn’t acted when I did, the situation could be very different.

“My experience means I understand all too clearly why Cancer Research UK’s work is so important. Thanks to research I’m standing here today and can enjoy more special moments with my family and friends.

“By supporting events like this, people can make a real difference in the fight against cancer.”

Pretty Muddy Kids and adults takes place at Moor Park on Saturday June 15.

Race for Life 5k and 10k takes place at Moor Park on Sunday June 16.

To enter Race for Life visit or call 0300 123 0770.