BBC Radio 4 broadcaster Steve Hewlett: 'Telling my boys about my cancer was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do'
The journalist and presenter of The Media Show explains why he has chosen to publically reveal his battle with cancer, as Channel 4 prepares to host charity night Stand Up to Cancer
I’ve got cancer. It’s a Stage 4, advanced adenocarcinoma located at the junction of my oesophagus and my stomach which has spread to nearby lymph nodes and to my liver.
I never imagined seriously that I’d get cancer. I don’t mean I didn’t recognise it as a possibility – after all I smoked until 20 years ago and enjoyed eating and drinking – occasionally to traditional journalistic excess – and I know that many of us will get cancer at some point in our lives.
But it was always going to be someone else. That is until it wasn’t.
I first went to my GP at the end of February this year after three or four months of what I now know were signs and symptoms of what was brewing but which at the time, honestly, I hardly noticed and certainly didn’t pay any serious attention to.
A vague sensation of fullness after eating very little and a very occasional sensation of food getting stuck – but always very temporary – not in my throat but in the back of my chest. The only thing I can liken it to was the feeling I used to get as a kid after taking too big a gulp of fizzy pop when I’d feel that too in my back just below the shoulder blades.
I went to the GP after an episode of the food-getting-stuck sensation one Saturday lunchtime after which my kids – actually all young men now – insisted I get checked out. I got an emergency appointment just an hour or so following my initial call – and by the way my experience of the NHS throughout the early “acute” stages of this whole saga was that they were absolutely amazing. The GP examined me and said she thought it most likely a case of gastric reflux. She prescribed a daily anti-acid tablet and told me to come back in a couple of weeks. Oh, and then she said, “Let’s just get some routine blood tests.”
To cut a long story short, I got a call that evening from the out-of-hours emergency medical service – part of the much-maligned NHS 111 service – saying that one of my blood tests was starkly abnormal. It turned out I was dangerously anaemic, something I was unaware of, probably because I was refereeing two rugby matches a week and was therefore pretty fit. So while the medics thought I should be having trouble breathing and moving around, I was carrying on regardless.
Hospital tests the next day indicated the need for an urgent referral for endoscopies – that’s where a narrow tube with a camera on the end is passed down though your oesophagus into the stomach (a gastroscopy) and then another passed up the other way to examine the lower bowel (colonoscopy).
Trouble was, the consultant said, I was so anaemic that before the procedures could go ahead I’d need at least one blood transfusion. Which I don’t mind telling you came as something of a shock. From working journalist, radio presenter and filmmaker (I’d just got back from filming at the Oscars in Los Angeles... name drop, name drop) to hospital patient.
A week and a bit later the endoscopies took place. I was pretty apprehensive – not about what they’d find so much as the procedures themselves. How would I react to the tube going down my throat? Would I make a fool of myself? But the consultant was highly skilled and it was fine.
So there I am, slightly sedated, eyes closed and concentrating on my breathing as instructed and I couldn’t feel a thing. It was what was being said that I recall. The consultant would say “biopsy” (that’s a small tissue sample for analysis) and the nurse would respond. And once I’d counted 12 I knew something was up. But here’s the really odd thing. When the consultant gave me the bad news – that he’d found a “large nodule” that he thought was almost certainly malignant – I was more elated at having got through the endoscopies than concerned over the news that I’d almost certainly got cancer – and a pretty nasty one at that.
And my honest reaction to the preliminary diagnosis? I just felt my luck had run out – in a charmed life: adopted as a baby in Birmingham into a fabulously caring and supportive family; a fascinating career as a journalist (not to mention being editor of Panorama when Diana gave us “that” interview); and three wonderful children, Fred, Bill and Bert, all now young men setting out on their own journeys through life.
And that brings me to perhaps the hardest moment of my cancer story so far. Once it became clear that because the cancer had already spread there was no “curative” surgical option, the prognosis was somewhere between not very good and totally uncertain. And it was when telling my children and other close loved ones that I realised something that has really stuck with me. 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...
So why am I telling you all this? Because I’m absolutely convinced that the more we talk about cancer – both to our families, friends and loved ones – the better it is for all concerned. Above all it’s empowering for them. Don’t get me wrong; telling my boys about my diagnosis was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But dealing with this disease is far easier for me than it is for them. In the end I’m sure telling them everything – good and bad – is right.
Of course there are always what I call “moments” in the shower, on the bus, even just looking in the mirror, when I just well up and shed a tear or two. In fact, writing this has just brought one on... But at least we’re all facing this together.