Why Elton John Was "24 Hours From Death" Following His Cancer Surgery


After decades on stage and in headlines, Sir Elton John is a legendary figure of glam-pop royalty who needs no introduction. But in 2017, the superstar was shaken to his core after a shocking health scare that would forever change the course of his career. Once known for working at a furious 120-show-per-year pace, John says he found himself "24 hours from death," and reconsidering his priorities in life. Read on to find out how the Bennie And the Jets singer found himself on death's door, and how he's completely reshaped his life in the years since.

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In 2017, John had surgery for prostate cancer.
Arne Dedert/picture alliance via Getty Images

John learned he had prostate cancer in 2017, and opted for surgery to remove his prostate rather than undergoing chemotherapy or radiation. "Effectively my kids made the decision for me. I didn't like the idea of cancer hanging over me—us—for years to come: I just wanted rid of it," he wrote in his 2019 memoir, simply titled Me.

However, 10 days after his seemingly successful surgery, John began to develop agonizing pain resulting from a complication with his lymph nodes which caused them to leak fluids.

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His doctors seemed to cure him by accident, he says.
Arne Dedert/picture alliance via Getty Images

Over the following two-and-a-half months, John would regularly return to the hospital to have the fluid drained. These visits offered only temporary relief before the fluid would build up again, and the pain would return.

Then, during an unrelated procedure, the star says his doctors accidentally cured his complications. "A routine colonoscopy shifted the fluid permanently, days before my 70th birthday," John wrote in his book, which was serialized in The Daily Mail.

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He later developed a life-threatening infection.
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Unfortunately, that relief would be short-lived. John went back on tour in South America, during which he developed an all-new set of disturbing symptoms. He felt ill and "couldn't stop shaking," the Rocket Man singer recalls in his memoir. He was rushed back to a hospital in London for evaluation. "I was told that my condition was so serious, the hospital didn't have the equipment to cope with it," the star wrote, explaining that he had to switch to a hospital better equipped to accommodate him.

"My last memory is of hyperventilating while they were trying to find a vein to give me an injection… By 2:30pm, I was on the operating table, having more lymphatic fluid drained—this time from my diaphragm," John said. "For two days afterwards, I was in intensive care. When I came round, they told me I'd contracted a major infection in South America, and that they were treating it with massive intravenous doses of antibiotics. But the fever came back. They took a sample of the infection… it was much more serious than they'd first realized."

John later learned just how close he came to an untimely end. "There were MRI scans and God knows how many other procedures. The doctors told David I was 24 hours away from death," he said, referring to his husband, David Furnish. The performer added that he believes he would have died if he had stayed on tour just one day longer.

He focused on his family through it all.
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Throughout the harrowing health scare, John's family kept him focused. "I lay awake all night, wondering if I was going to die. In the hospital, alone at the dead of night, I'd prayed: Please don't let me die, please let me see my kids again, please give me a little longer." He added: "I was incredibly lucky—although, I have to say, I didn't feel terribly lucky at the time."

"In a strange way, it felt like the time I spent recuperating was the answer to my prayers: if you want more time, you need to learn to live like this, you have to slow down," he continued. "It was like being shown a different life, a life I realized I loved more than being on the road," John said. It was during that time that he realized it was time to retire from touring and focus on his children. "I want to be there for all of it," he said of spending time with his sons.

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