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Last Updated: Friday, 23 June 2006, 10:22 GMT 11:22 UK
Losing a leg to cancer
Nick Clarke with Joel, left, and Benedict (Photo: Robyn Becker)
Nick Clarke - with his sons - after chemo (Pic: Robyn Becker)

Last November a fast-growing lump on his left buttock sent BBC Radio 4's Nick Clarke, 58, reluctantly to his GP. Six weeks later, he was an amputee. Here, in extracts from an audio diary, he tells his story.

It's Sunday 11 December, which means that there are eight days to go before I lie down and have this limb removed.

In order to remove 'the thing', as I call it, the top of my hip, the top of the leg, has got to go too. Which seems a bit tough, like, but there we are.

I call it the thing, or the beast, or it. When [the cancer] became known as a sarcoma, I didn't really call it that, I preferred the beast. It's a bit like that - it's inside you, gnawing away, trying to devour you, which its making a good job of doing. I quite like the beast.

In the studio
Presenter of The World at One since 1994
Married 15 years to producer Barbara Want
Father to Benedict and Joel, who are four in July
Diagnosed with a sarcoma, cancer of the soft tissue
The boys [three-year-old twins Benedict and Joel] are going to have a very strange Christmas. They don't really know - maybe they can't remember - what a real Christmas is like. Given that I'm going to be stuck in the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital at Stanmore with a bit missing, it won't be quite the same.

We're beginning to talk to them now about if you've got a really poorly leg, why not get another one? If you break a toy, if the wheel comes off the tractor again, their instinct immediately is to get another tractor. So maybe they won't find that quite so strange until they see what's involved.

It was the beginning of November when Barbara persuaded me finally that I should go to the doctor and report to him this large and growing lump on my left buttock. It was so large by then that I was beginning to have trouble walking. I agreed, not nearly as readily as I should have done. When it started growing it scared the living daylights out of me. I knew the game was up; it definitely had to be cancer.

All gone

It's Sunday morning, the children have gone off to do the church nativity play and I'm here now almost 24 hours away from the removal of the thing.

I'm looking at the poor old leg, which has never done anyone any real harm, not thinking wistfully about because I'm in such discomfort. It's one of the those occasions when you think if only it was Wednesday already. But it isn't.

    Barbara, in hospital: It's Monday evening. It's been such a difficult day. I raced here this morning like a mad woman because he rang to say things were moving rather fast. I found him almost out for the count having taken diazepam. At one point he said to me "you really ought to go to Goa", then he shook his head and said 'I think I'm talking rubbish'. He went to sleep, woke up, looked around and said "oh God, I've just remembered what's happening."

Ta-dah! It's gone. [My] left hindquarter is no more. Everything really seems to have gone as well as could have expected. They got rid of the thing - and my leg - and I really can't believe it.

I feel better. This does not mean that it's a crisis and trouble-free experience because there's been one or two really nasty moments, the nastiest being associated with this phantom pain. It happened while they were doing a bed wash, and suddenly I felt as though someone had gripped the missing leg with a huge hand and was starting to yank it off.

Home again, home again

I don't want the children to worry about this but there'll come a time, because I can't do football practice with them. I can play with crutch football, a new game I've devised, but it's not the same. I don't want them to regard me as that different to other dads.

    Barbara: It's 4 January. It's been such a difficult Christmas. The boys are so clingy, waking up in the night. And I'm really scared at the thought of Nick coming back next week. The only way I've got through this is the incredible support of friends, neighbours and people at our local church. I so feel that the strength and power of their prayers have had a big impact on the way things have gone - well, at least at the way we've coped so far.

At last the outside world! Grim and grey it seems today on this grim January day but it is fabulous to feel the wind on my face again.

    Barbara: You're not liberating Kabul, you know. It's a bit melodramatic.

We're about to turn the corner into our road - oh my God, the door is completely decorated, there are cards and drawings and balloons. " Welcome home peg leg" - thanks a lot!

I don't know whether I expected to come back again. I never gave up hope but I did feel so damn lousy. I could see the look in people's eyes when they came to see me; they'd admire my spirit and how cheerful I looked and how I could engage in interesting conversations. But I could see it in their eyes, thinking "he looks awful". And I did. So it's weird and wonderful to be back.

The way I feel at the moment, I could go back to work. But I'm going to have to put it off for four months to have this wretched treatment [chemotherapy] that technically speaking I don't need because technically speaking I don't have cancer anymore.

I feel so gloomy. Before there was only one thing to fear... and it would all be over in a day. It was a leg problem before; now it's a cancer problem.

    Barbara: Hello, it's three days after you got back from chemotherapy, and you look absolutely amazing. Although you haven't felt great, you're coming out the other side.

I've done five sessions of two days each, and it grinds you down. This terrible lethargy comes over you. But when I stagger out of bed having not moved for 42 hours, I feel much better, as soon as my feet hit the ground. And within a few hours I feel OK - tired but OK.

Family holiday

I worry about Barbara all the time. I don't think I take her for granted, but when you go on holiday it generates a terrific amount of work. This trip to Slovakia is an example of how it changes everything. And when we get back, there's no food in the house and she'll have to go and buy it. I've said it before, I think this is harder for her than me.

    Barbara: But actually, it was so much better than I thought. That sense of a family going away together was wonderful - I thought we'd never have a holiday again. But we have! It was almost like normal, we just had to go slowly.

Going back to The World at One will be a climax of sorts, but I don't want it to be that much of a climax because it's embarrassing to emerge like some knight in shining armour and there's the princess who's been asleep for 100 years, and you plant a kiss on her pale lips and the programme will come to life. 'cos it ain't like that. Things have gone on quite well since I was away.

Fighting to be Normal is broadcast in the UK on BBC Radio 4 on 23 June at 0900 BST and 24 June at 2215 BST. Or you can use the Listen Again service on the Radio 4 website, linked on right of this page.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I had rhabdomyosarcoma 17 years ago and had my right leg amputated mid-thigh. I subsequently had a recurrence and was amputated through the hip 13 years ago. This brought all the emotions of the time back to me. I never felt more alive than when I was staring death in the face. At the second amputation it felt like death by instalments. But here I am, happy, healthy, working part time, a bit of scuba diving and every day a blessing. I remember my wife just wishing to get back to normal home life again. Our 2 children have grown up now and if they were affected then it was positive as they're both caring and non-materialistic people.
Rob Mitchell, Sidmouth, UK

I was glued to his typical cool, calm and controlled manner in which he so amazingly described his fears and emotions so openly - especially as he's the strong unemotional English gent, hearing the human side of him. As I am a religious Jew, I feel that anyone with a strong religious belief will grow from this traumatic experience, and I will certainly have Nick and his precious family in mind in my three times a day prayers.
David Kraus, London

I listened to this whilst I was cleaning this morning. I had to stop to wipe away the tears at one point but I was spellbound. As a couple they are a refreshingly honest couple and those children will be strengthened by their courage and tenacity. A very uplifting story, can we hear more?
Christine, Bolton

My partner is currently going through the same experience, having lost a leg to this wretched disease (sarcoma) late November last year. He had an operation to remove a secondary tumour in his spine in March and is currently going through chemotherapy. He too acts with incredible bravery and I must praise the care and attention he has received from Stanmore and UCH.
Mark Harrington, London

Very touched by Nick's honesty - but then I have always been a huge fan of his style of calm & reasoned intelligence. Frankly he's always been something of a "mental" role model for me. Many best wishes to Nick & his family.
Patrick, Ipswich

Reading this - and Ivan Noble's tumour diary - it seems to me that having very young children must help maintain some level of normality in traumatic times, bringing attention back to the basics of food, sleep, fun and cuddles. Which we all need.
Howard, Bakewell

Welcome Nick to the Disability Club. The outside world won't see you as normal anymore, even though your brilliant mental faculties remain. But the latter is hidden so you will be now judged on your physical being. Fighting to be normal is very normal, but out there such a fight is considered abnormal. If it was normal we would not need the Disability Discrimination Act. Just one thing I would ask - please tell the world having a disability is not a choice and that disabled people should not be penalised. Disability should remind them that good health is priceless, therefore we should cherish it.
Baz, Gloucester

I have a friend in a similar predicament, the broadcast certainly opened my eyes to another side of cancer. Very best wishes to Nick and his family.
James Teague, North Wales

How brave of the Clarke family to record such an honest and touching programme. I am fortunate to be well but I should imagine that this will inspire and bring hope to thousands who are less fortunate than myself.
Anne Broom, Colchester UK

I've always loved Nick's gentle voice and found him an excellent presenter - one of my favourites since I started listening to R4 some years ago. May I join the rest of those wishing him a speedy return to full health.
Marc, Middlesbrough

To praise Nick for his bravery and determination is, of course, the right thing to do but it implies that he has a choice in the matter. He doesn't. He has to get well and stay strong for his lovely young family and for all his many admirers who eagerly await his return to R4.
Louise Reichmann, London

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