APPLE founder Steve Jobs was a great man of invention, but after responding well to a liver transplant even he couldn’t beat pancreatic cancer.

When he died three years ago on October 5, 2011, he was aged just 56.

“It just goes to show that money and success don’t mean anything,” says musician Chris Rea, who his fighting his own grim battle that began when he was only 50.

“They used to call it cancer and I knew very little about it.

“Now they give your condition a name and mine has only just been identified.

“For the record, it’s IgG-4 and when you have it your immune system attacks your own organs.

“It becomes a mass and that’s why they call it cancer.”

Now 63, Chris has managed to survive for 13 years since his first big operation in 2001.

The cancer keeps returning and he keeps fighting back.

Like most men of a certain age from industrial Middlesbrough, he’s a tough nut. And he won’t give in.

But when I say he must have been delighted with the news that former Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson has been declared cancer free after a tumour was removed, his reaction is a surprising one.

“I just thought: ‘Poor bastard’,” says Chris.

As in, if he’d been told he was terminally ill he’d have wanted to die?

“No, I didn’t mean it that way,” he says. “I didn’t realised Wilko had pancreatic cancer... and he’s going to (still) have a tough time ahead.

“It can always come back.”

When Chris was operated on the first time, two other patients on his ward died from the disease.

“The operation was 16 hours,” he says.

“You just don’t know how difficult that it is trying to live without your pancreas and my cancer has come back three times, once in my liver and twice in my kidney.

“I’ve had four operations since and I’ve been very depressed with it, but I just keep going and I’m very lucky for that.

“There are so many stitches and the biggest thing is getting off the morphine.

“You just hope you can have a six month gap, and go out on tour and get back into a rhythm. It’s the best way.

“When you are ill with it they give you horrible drugs and it makes you feel horrible.

“You just want to get up and play and be able to have a beer. That’s the best therapy, really.”

To a layman, one of the more curious side-effects of Chris’s condition is that he has to do more exercise, not less, in order to cope with it.

“If you have to do three press-ups, I have to do 20,” he says.

“That’s because my body doesn’t have the energy to turn that work into muscle.”

Chris was born into a family of ice cream makers.

One of seven children, he first picked up a guitar at the age of 22 and his famous slide guitar work is self taught.

Forty years later a fan has written on a YouTube page that he’s “one of the few whose guitar can make the pain of the human heart audible to the human ear”.

Given that he was born with his voice but created his own musical style, does he think he is a better guitarist or singer?

“I only took up singing because the singer in the band I was in didn’t turn up,” he admits.

“I’d been the guy writing the songs, then everyone heard this voice and that became it.”

His rock family tree includes starring in a Middlesbrough band called Magdalene which once featured Deep Purple and Whitesnake star David Coverdale.

Did he wish he had worked with him given the bluesy-nature of early Whitesnake?

“No, because even then they were more heavy metal,” he says.

“As a creative person, it’s a condition that I have... not a talent.

“I am always working, always writing.

“If I had my time again, I would come back as a screenwriter.

“My path is someone who didn’t become a film writer.

“That is what I always wanted to do, and especially after I saw the film Once Upon A Time In America.”

In 1999, Chris turned actor in the film Parting Shots, ironically playing a man given weeks to live because of cancer who decides to try to shoot all of the people who had made his own life a misery.

Directed by Michael Winner, his co-stars included John Cleese, Joanna Lumley, Felicity Kendall, former Bond Girl Diana Rigg, Oscar-winning Ben Kingsley and the late Bob Hoskins.

“There was a place in Middlesborough called The Turner Theatre,” Chris recalls.

“It used to show foreign films and I fell in love with them.

“I used to go there a lot, although you had to be careful as it only had 38 seats and was often full of what people up there would call f****** oddballs.”

While fighting cancer Chris says he has had more time to listen to the radio.

“I’ve become Radio 4’s No 1 fan in the last 10 years,” he reveals.

“I’ve learned to much life that I didn’t know... I had no education. I was kicked out of school.

“When I’m listening to Radio 4 I’m in f******* heaven.”

His playing style is laid back, more finding a groove than kicking ass.

“It’s the only way I know,” he says.

“I’m not interested in digital. It’s interesting there are some bands now who want to record in the old 16 and 24-track way... which gave us the sound of our generation.

“Then you can use your ‘pro’ tools.”

“It’s like Rembrandt. He couldn’t have painted with acrylic paints, they just dry too fast.”

Chris laughs out loud at my suggestion that he could perhaps be filed somewhere in between Dire Straits and Bruce Springsteen.

“I think me and Dire Straits would both have once been seen with a J. J. Cale album under our arms,” he says.

“But you can’t beat Bruce... he’s very showbiz, and I do not mean that negatively.

“The Americans are really good at it, but I don’t know what that would be for me.

“Moneywise, if I’d gone to America, maybe I could have afforded the £10 million Ferrari I might sometimes look at... but that feeling only lasts for 30 seconds.

“I’ve had the benefit of my family instead.”

In recent years, Chris has redone a 1996 album called La Passione after he felt the original version “turned out shit” and published a 58-page Blues Guitar book with four hour-long films and two CDs of music.

He also released The Santo Spirito Project containing two feature-length films on DVD with accompanying CDs.

“I did those films just so that I could do the music,” he smiles.

“One looks like a film from Russia in the 1930s and is all about finding the truth in religion in Florence, but if the lead character finds it then he’s gone.

“The other is about bullfighting.

“I only saw a bullfight once.

“I had to leave after 20 minutes and was broken hearted when I came out.

“There are two sides to that story because even after the bull is half dead, the bullfighter still has to be really brave.”

For such a gruff-voiced artist it’s interesting that his songs also appeal to women singers, too.

X Factor star Stacey Solomon covered Driving Home For Christmas and Elkie Brooks made Fool If You Think It’s Over sound like her own.

“I’ve also been writing for two girls who will be supporting me on my tour,” he says. “I’ve written them from a woman’s perspective... I live with women!”

Where does he go next?

“After the tour I’m going back to the ‘Chris Rea thing’, he says. “And I’m looking ahead two years.”

In the meantime, his 1989 song The Road To Hell seems to become more relevant every year with lyrics like “On your journey across the wilderness, from the desert to the well, you have strayed upon the motorway to hell”.

What is his worst motorway in the Midlands – the stretch he fears will most live up to his prophetic words?

“I think it has to be the bit on the M6 going past the RAC centre near Walsall.” he grins.

*Chris Rea – The Last Open Road Tour will play the NIA on December 14. Tickets are £39.90 (includes admin fee and £0.70 renovation levy) + £2.50 fulfilment fee. Available or 0844 338 8000.