We knew this moment would come for Steve Hewlett, but that does not lessen either the shock or sorrow

"Most of us have known and/or loved someone whose life was lost to cancer and it was a joy to hear Steve spit upon the cliché that the illness is a 'battle'"

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Yesterday morning I received an email telling me that Steve Hewlett had died. His family had yet to decide, understandably, when and where to make the announcement of his death. 

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Thankfully, for all of us who have been gripped by Steve’s weekly conversations with Radio Times columnist Eddie Mair, the Hewlett family decided to release the news of his death on Radio 4’s PM.

The programme did him proud, with the latter half of the show devoted to Steve charting the ominous progress of his cancer (oesophageal at diagnosis followed by an irreparable and, ultimately untreatable, metastasis to his liver).

Most of us have known and/or loved someone whose life was lost to cancer and it was a joy to hear Steve spit upon the cliché that the illness is a “battle”: “Anyone who has faced it knows differently. Cancer is not a battle. There is no choice whether to fight, let alone whether to win or lose.”

His honesty, wit and determination to keep on top of what was going on – both with his own condition and with the options available to all cancer patients in the UK – continued until his final interview with Eddie Mair last Monday. Steve kept on working until his voice (altered profoundly by the savage effects of chemotherapy) and his realisation that his time was up finally kicked in. 

As Eddie will reveal in his weekly Radio Times column next week, his last visit to Steve, in bed at London’s Royal Marsden Hospital, concluded with a handshake. There were no emotional goodbyes, no weeping: but Steve had never shaken his hand before. 

For those of us who have followed their weekly conversations on PM, we knew this moment would come, eventually. But that does not lessen either the shock or sorrow at the passing of a brilliant broadcaster and producer.

In his last few weeks, Steve Hewlett shared, with poignancy; wit and absolute dignity, the profundity of facing one’s mortality. His rigorous journalistic instincts opened much-needed debate on the options available to cancer patients depending upon their postcode and income. But it was his words upon telling his three sons of his likely lifespan that say the most: “I knew what they all meant to me but not what I meant to them. The looks in their eyes as they contemplated my mortality will stay with me forever.” 

Nick Robinson posted a tribute to his friend and colleague on Facebook.

“Sad news.

My friend, my colleague and a great broadcaster Steve Hewlett has died.

I visited him in hospital a few days ago and wrote this knowing that I would almost certainly never see him again.

His family said it brought him and them some comfort so I’m sharing it in the hope it may help others – old friends and the many new ones who never met him but felt they knew him

—–

One last conversation

So much to say.

So little actually said.

But the pills, the piles of sympathetic letters, the constant flow of visitors said it all

We chat, we gossip, we exchange insights about our shared world.

I’m too British, too male, too stiff upper-lipped to really talk about the fact that it’s a world you and I both know you’ll soon be leaving

To talk about the fact that your “battle” is almost at an end

You “fought” they said.

You’ve been so “brave” they said

Yet you know, I know, anyone who has faced it knows differently

Cancer is not a battle.

There is no choice whether to fight let alone whether to win or lose.

No amount of courage no measure of cowardice can decide the outcome.

There is no virtue in survival. Certainly no lack of it in death.

I lived.

You now know that you will not.

Luck. Chance. Fate. Nothing more. Nothing less.

You didn’t …couldn’t choose

You didn’t …couldn’t decide.

Save, that is, for one thing.

You chose to confront your sickness, your pain, your fear in public

Your decision made thousands realise they were not alone

That really was brave. That a choice that let others know that their sickness, their pain and their fear was not, in fact, just theirs

That one last conversation which was so very worthwhile having.

As I leave you gripped my arm. An unspoken goodbye.

Only now do I know what I should have said.

No one who heard you talk about what you’ve faced will ever forget

Oh yes and one more thing.

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Thank you.”