John Diamond was a journalist and broadcaster known for his wit as much as for his marriage to Nigella Lawson and he was by his own admission, a hypochondriac. After decades of seeing every little twinge as a portent of medical doom and waiting almost expectantly for the heart attack for which decades of over-indulgence must surely qualify him, it was as much a self-fulfilling prophesy as a big surprise when a lump in his neck turned out to be more sinister than he’d expected.
In March 1997 he was given a diagnosis of a cancerous lymph node in his neck and the doctors told him with confidence he had a 92% chance of being fine and dandy in no time at all. Sometimes doctors get things wrong – and ‘C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too’ is Diamond’s best selling account of his experience with cancer, based in part on columns that he published in the Times newspaper’s Saturday magazine.
Diamond starts out in an upbeat way, cracking jokes about his condition, reassuring his readers that he’s feeling fine and recounting the tales of strange things that people say and do. He was unsure whether he was just being self-indulgent, whether the editor would pull his column and tell him to go back to wry observations on middle-class life in London, or whether the readers would just be bored. The Times was flooded with letters for Diamond from readers encouraging him, readers thanking him for speaking out, and from readers telling him that he should eschew traditional medicine in favour of whatever particular religious or pseudo-medical clap trap was their flavour of the month. His treatment of the alternative medicine pedlars is particularly scathing and led him to complete a second book ‘Snake Oil an Other Preoccupations’ in which he rips into the world of miracle cures and the con men and women that promote them. Debunking the myths that nobody ever got cured by medical science is one of his favourite topics.
As the book progresses things get worse and worse. Diamond reflects on the nasty habit of the medical profession of only telling you as little as they think they can get away with at any time. Things that were outside possibilities soon become quite probably and then almost certain as the doctors shave numbers off that original 92% with each operation to shave another slice out of his throat, tonsils or tongue. Easy operations turn out to be more frightening and painful than he could have expected. Radiotherapy pins him to a table for 30 treatments that make him wonder whether 27 or 28 might not be just as effective and can he PLEASE stop.
The lymphatic cancer turns out to be a secondary but the doctors aren’t sure where the primary lies. We accompany Diamond and Nigella on their horrifying journey to greater medical clarity and greater personal fear. An operation on his tongue leaves him unable to breathe or swallow properly, has food popping back up his gullet at unfortunate moments and of course leaves his broadcasting career shattered. His young daughter tells him “Daddy you are going to die” and he can’t really deny it.
It’s painfully honest but the thing that endears the book to so many readers is the warmth and wit. He proposes that cancerous lumps come in two classifications – those whose size is likened to fruit, and those whose size is likened to sporting equipment. Thus the lymph lump might be the size of a grape, or a clementine but the tongue cancer must be more serious because it’s like a golf-ball. I’ve never been a fan of Nigella Lawson but reading about what she went through with Diamond makes me see her in a different light, a woman whose family had already been cursed by cancer who drew the short straw of a husband who would die horribly in front of her. ‘C’ finishes a couple of years before Diamond’s death but it’s clear to the reader that he has little prospect of a successful outcome.
“Diamond was one of the first people to write openly, honestly and with wit and warmth about his illness.”
More than eleven years after John Diamond’s death, his book remains a best seller and should be compulsive reading for oncologists and medical staff who treat cancer patients. I don’t think I’m giving anything away that Diamond didn’t make it – I doubt anyone who buys the book is unaware of that. I have no recollection of him as a journalist or broadcaster, only as – sad to say – a celebrity cancer sufferer. I’m absolutely sure that it wasn’t a book that only sold to cancer sufferers and I would have to say that if a reader did have the same type of cancer as Diamond, this would be a really scary book. As someone diagnosed and treated for a much less impactful cancer just over a year ago, I’m really glad that I waited a year before I read this as I would have not slept after reading his story. I too had a lump in my neck – thank God mine was ‘just’ a thyroid cancer. The bulk of the readers who bought ‘C’ were probably people who got to know Diamond through his columns and his work on Radio 4 – he was clearly a much loved man and I regret that I don’t remember him despite being an avid Radio 4 listener.
At the time that Diamond wrote ‘C’ the ‘trend’ for celebrity cancer accounts was not even in its infancy – it was still foetal. At the same time he was recording his thoughts, Ruth Picardie was writing about her breast cancer and together the two of them changed the perception of the British public to the issue of washing your cancer linen in public. Today it’s hard to remember that this used to be an unusual thing to do. In recent years if we look to the book shelves we’ve got accounts of Steve Jobs and Patrick Swayze fighting the unwinnable battle with pancreatic cancer, Jade Goodie’s very public death from cervical cancer and Lance Armstrong giving the upside to beating testicular cancer. Cancer is no longer a disease that people don’t talk about though we’re still pretty rubbish at talking about it for sure.
Every year it seems there are new books which give readers new accounts of celebrity cancer and which sell well, appealing to both those whose lives are touched by cancer and those who merely admire the person whose life is the subject of the book. Diamond was one of the first people to write openly, honestly and with wit and warmth about his illness. People told him he was brave but he pointed out that there’s nothing very brave in doing what he always did – writing about his life and his observations. He rejects the suggestion of bravery or heroism at every turn saying there’s nothing brave in just trying to stay alive. Bravery, he says, would be having a child with cancer and taking that cancer from them so that they could live. It’s more a case of good old fashioned bad luck.
If you want a deeply moving but still (in places) funny account of a person’s experience with cancer, this is one of the best books on the market. It’s un-self-indulgent, writes openly about the fear associated with cancer and looks at some topics that are poorly covered in the media. It also introduced me to a man that I wish I’d ‘known’ in his heyday and not only after his death. Compared with similar books I found it very readable and very moving. My only recommendation would be that anyone with a head and neck cancer such as John Diamond’s or any friends and family of such a person, might want to take advice from others in the same position about whether to read this or not. It might just be too frightening.
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