‘The Budget nearly killed me’: Guy Opperman MP on his recovery from a brain tumour
Nearly eight years ago, Guy Opperman collapsed suddenly in Central Lobby. Rushed to hospital after being assisted by two colleagues, doctors told him he had a brain tumour. Having survived and raised tens of thousands of pounds for charity, the minister wants to prove that you can always get back on the horse. He talks to Sebastian Whale
Guy Opperman went for a run on the morning of 26 April 2011. He usually had more energy after waking up and wanted to bank three miles before a long day voting on the budget.
Opperman had been feeling unwell for some time. Since being elected in 2010, he had become tremendously tired, his eyesight had worsened, and his headaches had become more acute. He would also often lose his train of thought while speaking. He had put that down to the 60-hour week, the unique pressures of being an MP, and his 600-mile commute to his Hexham constituency.
As a former jockey, who had a close brush with death years earlier following a racing accident, Opperman felt he could work through the pain barrier. He had not been to a doctor for more than five years. But he had started to think that something was really wrong. He had been waking up during the night to be sick.
In Parliament that Tuesday, Opperman was deteriorating. At around 7pm in the evening, he left the Commons to be violently sick. “I managed to make it to one of the toilets on the corridor outside the library. I haven’t been back to that toilet – it’s got bad connotations for me,” he recalls.
Opperman later collapsed in Central Lobby. Nadhim Zahawi, the Conservative MP for Stratford-upon-Avon and a good friend, was first to see him. A doorkeeper put a call out for a medic. Dr Dan Poulter, an obstetrics and gynaecology specialist, examined Opperman. “Oh, please don’t tell me I’m pregnant,” Opperman joked. His Tory colleague shook his head. “I think you should go to a hospital,” he said. “Can I not just go home and get some sleep,” asked Opperman. “No,” replied the GP.
An ambulance took the then backbencher to St Thomas’ Hospital on the other side of Westminster Bridge. Opperman, on his own and still in his suit, was seen to by a young doctor on the overnight shift. The medic called for a head scan.
It had just gone midnight when the doctor returned. There was a significant mass on the back-left side of Opperman’s brain. He needed an urgent operation.
“I often joke that the budget nearly killed me,” Opperman quips.
Friends and relatives of Guy Opperman had known that every six to eight weeks, he would get chronically tired and require a weekend off to recover. His body would cope until a point and then shut down.
No one – not even Opperman – read anything into this. During the noughties, he was in charge of two charities, helped to run the family business and was a successful barrister. He also rode as a jockey, ran the New York marathon in 2005 and had myriad of other interests. The exhaustion was just something that Opperman felt he had to endure; a price he would have to pay.
Speaking to me in a grand, vacant committee room in the Houses of Parliament, Opperman believes he had been living with a brain tumour for about 10 years. “The doctors said that in all probability I had a slow growing tumour for some considerable period of time that then accelerated and became rapidly worse,” he explains.
Colleagues came to visit Opperman in hospital as the news began to spread. He was prescribed drugs to bring down the swelling in his brain. He was then moved to the National Neurological and Neurosurgical Hospital in Queen’s Square in Tottenham Court Road for two operations.
Opperman had a meningioma, a type of tumour that grows from the layer of tissue that lies above the brain just inside the skill. “The problem with a brain tumour and operating inside the brain, putting it bluntly, is it’s really tricky,” Opperman says. “You’ve got no space, you can’t really stop the bleeding.”
The first operation was a cerebral angiogram and an embolisation, which requires the femoral artery in a person’s thigh to be opened and a wire passed up through the body to the head, where they burn off the base of the tumour with the medical equivalent of a soldiering iron.
The surgery, conducted by Neil Kitchen, was a success. Two days later, Opperman had a craniotomy, where they open the head to remove the tumour. Opperman asked for Kitchen to make the incision above his hairline so the scars would not be visible.
The stakes were high. Opperman was told the risk of death was one per cent, paralysis one per cent, physical trauma two-three per cent, and so forth. “I’m adding up the per cents and thinking one per cent is okay, but now we’re up to five per cent on these pretty major things,” he says. “But the moment they say to you either you operate, or you die, it’s a no brainer. You just crack on.”
The tumour, which was not malignant, was removed successfully. Opperman only has limited movement in his little finger on his right hand as a result of the surgeries. After the summer recess of 2011, four months after the operations, Opperman returned to work as a Member of Parliament.
Opperman, who is now a minister in the DWP, initially required an annual MRI scan and a brain scan to ensure that nothing was growing back. The scans now take place every five years.
He returns to Queen’s Square on a regular basis, often armed with treats for the staff. “If you ever go to hospital always take chocolates, they never knowingly under appreciate it. Trust me,” he says.
The ordeal has liberated Opperman, who says he is “physically and mentally way better” than he ever was before the discovery of the illness. “I had a living organism in my body that was starving it of blood, oxygen and capability and pressing down and compromising your brain capacity,” he explains. “The moment that comes out, you are much, much better.”
He has put this new lease of life to good use. To date, he has raised “tens of thousands” of pounds for charity, including for the hospitals he credits with saving his life. Along with Labour MP Paul Blomfield, who also had a brain tumour in 2011, he walked the first section of the Pennine Way to raise money for Headway UK. “He’s a friend of mine as well, I know he’ll get a lot of Momentum attacks for that, but we are good friends,” he says.
As the UK marks Brain Tumour Awareness month, Opperman continues to work with colleagues to raise awareness of brain tumours and acquired brain injury. It is an illness with great poignancy in parliament. Nick Boles is another MP to have had the condition, and last year a brain tumour claimed the life of Dame Tessa Jowell.
With his own experience in mind, Opperman regularly meets with health ministers to make the case for improving awareness of the symptoms of brain tumours. He also lobbies for enhanced and targeted funding as well as greater emphasis on research.
As with Boles, the experience has changed Opperman’s views on assisted dying. “I was on an NHS ward where a number of my fellow patients died. I saw the consequences of the negative outcomes from the surgery,” he explains. “I was utterly persuaded that if it came to it, I wanted the death of my choice, rather than those decisions not being available to me.”
Opperman’s main motivation has been to prove that survivors can recover and lead full lives. A few years ago, he approached Kitchen, his surgeon, to tell him that he had applied to be a jockey again. He needed Kitchen’s sign off to convince the horse racing authorities he was fit to ride.
For many reasons, it was a startling request. Fifteen years ago, Opperman’s falling horse crushed him during an event at Stratford races. His entire left side was staved in. He had 14 broken ribs, a kidney cut in half, and a perforated spleen. He also had a pneumothorax, where a rib pops through the lungs. Doctors at Warwick hospital saved his life.
Fortunately for Opperman, Kitchen advised: “There is absolutely nothing physically wrong with Mr Opperman, in that he is immeasurably better by reason of the tumour being taken out – although, I have to doubt his sanity choosing to ride as a jockey at his age. But that’s a matter for you and him to decide.”
To date, Opperman has won two point-to-point events in Cumbria and Tranwell since his return. He married his partner in 2017. He is now 53.
“I genuinely believe that some of the setbacks in life are a very good thing because you don’t sweat the small stuff. Make a difference, be of use, try to live your life to the full, focus on the things that matter, don’t focus on the things that don’t,” Opperman explains.
“Just because you’ve had this does not matter. You can get back and do stuff. I’m riding against people 25 years younger than me, probably a little fitter than me, and I’m beating them. It’s really cool.”