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Friday, 2 March, 2001, 13:06 GMT
John Diamond in his own words
John Diamond having radiotherapy
Journalist John Diamond undergoes radiotherapy
When John Diamond, the broadcaster and journalist who has just died, first developed cancer of the tongue, he decided he had no other option but to write about it.

At first, John Diamond wondered whether it would be appropriate to write about his cancer in what he called his "jaunty weekend column" in The Times.

"But," he concluded, "it was the only thing I could write about."

And so began a remarkable series of articles on his experiences with cancer. And, since he was also a broadcaster, he could not leave out television. As he said, his job was to "parade himself".

In 1997, the BBC's Inside Story followed him through the months of operations, radiotherapy and waiting. The programme was a poignant insight into the way he dealt with his illness.

At first, he had been told his tumour was bound to be non-malignant. But then at 7.45pm one night, in the middle of EastEnders, his partner Nigella Lawson received a phone call. The lump in his neck was in fact cancerous.

The plot

His first thought was not about dying. He thought of the effect on Nigella, whose mother and sister had died of cancer.

John Diamond
John Diamond
And he thought of his two children. "Fancy not seeing how that plot turns out," he said.

And, looking at his daughter, he said: "There was poignancy sitting there on a plate in a nightdress."

It was only two months later that a secondary cancer was discovered in his tongue and he had to undergo radiotherapy. He called this "worse than cancer" and said it was the first time he had felt "properly frightened" since his original diagnosis.


John began to worry about losing his tongue and focused on the damage to his broadcasting career, although, as he said: "If I have to choose between living and broadcasting, I would take living every time."

John and Nigella
John and Nigella
After he began writing about his experiences, about how he felt invisible and alone because other people could not deal with his illness, he started receiving hundreds of letters. He said he wept for the first time when he read them.

He compared his operation to remove the tumour to a "surgical mugging". It was only then that he began to think about the reality of life after the operation.

He dismissed the notion that people were stronger after a disease like cancer, feeling that he did not need cancer to remind him what he thought of Nigella and his children.

Days after the operation with no voice and still in hospital, the tension started to come out and he went "stir crazy". He had to go home early. Then came depression.

Charles Laughton

He wrote out his despair at not being able to eat, talk or sleep and "dribbling like a 90-year-old". He compared his truncated voice to "Charles Laughton in an underwater version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame".

He started answering back to well-wishers who kept assuring him he would get better. "How do you know?" he asked, saying they were just trying to avoid talking about it.

Without his voice he did not feel like the same person. "I am not myself. I am a little old man called Albert, Norman or George."

There was however a brief respite when he felt more optimistic before he had to succumb to the misery of radiotherapy.


One night he woke with his windpipe full of phlegm and scar tissue. He thought he was dying and had to be rushed to hospital. A plastic pipe was inserted in his neck.

He described the routine indignity of radiotherapy, of being pinned down under a mask for 15 minutes while the back of his tongue is blasted. He took out his fury on those around him, he said.

He decided he had to confront the enemy and asked to see his tumour. It is a dark hard lump with a white, oily centre - the result of years of smoking.

Changed voice

He found it difficult coming to terms with his changed voice and did not initially recognise his old one when he heard it on the radio. Nigella said: "He minds not being able to talk like him, quickly and funnily."

Cancer tumour
John's cancer tumour
After the radiotherapy came the long wait to see if the cancer would return. He was pleased to reach Christmas without becoming religious or turning to alternative therapy.

After Christmas came a lump scare, but it is just food trapped in his throat. He dreams of food, but cannot taste it. He goes back into the radio studio and is named columnist of the year.

Writing about his experiences helped him, he said. And, although he could see no benefits in having cancer, he said it taught him something he would not have known otherwise.

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02 Mar 01 | Entertainment
Columnist Diamond dies
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