Edward Stourton on incurable cancer: ‘I likely won’t see my 80th birthday’ (2023)

When the Radio 4 presenter Edward Stourton was diagnosed with prostate cancer aged 58, it was alarming but not devastating. He had let initial symptoms like needing to pee in the night ‘drag on like most blokes do’, but his prognosis was good. ‘Your doctor will never say, “I can tell you that you are cured,” but what he did say was, “Eighty-something per cent of people in your situation will be clear [after treatment],”’ Stourton recalls. ‘So after radiotherapy and hormone treatment, I put it out of my mind.’

But a routine scan two years later showed that the cancer was back, and it was metastatic. ‘I was on the wrong side of the 80:20 percentage,’ Stourton says. The cancer had spread to his bones and around his body, to his spine, his neck and his pelvic lymph nodes.

Today, seven years on from the initial diagnosis, Stourton, 65, is, in his words, ‘living with cancer’. ‘It isn’t great. [But] it is really important that you don’t spend your time thinking about it, otherwise cancer just defines you.’

Chemotherapy was unavoidable, but he continued to broadcast as much as he could, on his high-profile Radio 4 slots, World at One, The World This Weekend, Sunday and Analysis. He retained his hair by wearing a cold cap, an unpleasant experience, which he got through by eating bacon sandwiches as a distraction, made in advance by his wife, Fiona: ‘I’ve been thinking about it lately, wondering whether I will choose to wear the cap again if I have to have chemo [this] year.’

Since that first round of chemotherapy, five or so treatments have been available to him, Stourton tells me, counting them out on his hands. The positive effects of the chemotherapy lasted two years, before they started to wane. New treatments followed, each a progression from the failure or waning of the one before.

Earlier this year, he underwent ‘a whizzy treatment where they inject you with nuclear fluid’. Afterwards, he slept in the spare room until he was no longer radioactive. That treatment did not work and he is currently on hormone therapy. ‘The impact on my life has all been from the treatments,’ he explains.

This has been tiredness from chemo, weight gain from hormone therapy, less physical fitness so there was no chance he could have reported from Ukraine: ‘I would really have liked to, but if you can’t run fast, don’t go to a war zone.’

He adds: ‘I try not to pre-empt [things]. I don’t particularly want to know [my life expectancy], and I don’t think my doctor knows really. But what he has said is that each treatment will last two or three years so I’ve done a quick sum.

‘I shall probably not celebrate my 80th birthday. I doubt the treatments will be good to keep me to [a lifespan] I would otherwise have had but they are keeping me alive at the moment, and probably will for quite a long time to come.’

Stourton (known as Ed) and I are sitting in his light-filled kitchen in south London, where he lives with Fiona Murch, his second wife, to whom he has been married for 20 years. She is a former BBC colleague; he left his first wife for her and divorce followed for both. For Stourton, the pain was exacerbated by his Catholic faith, which does not recognise remarriage. That pain is in the past, though. Between them they have four grown-up children (three for Stourton, one for Murch) and two grandchildren (Stourton’s).

He is a big man, heavier than in archive photographs of him in war zones wearing his hard hat or presenting the Today programme in the early 2000s – the role for which he is best known. (His stellar journalism career has embraced ITN, Channel 4 and the BBC, as a foreign correspondent, diplomatic editor and news presenter.) ‘My treatment has made me put on weight in strange places,’ he observes.

Stourton still possesses old-fashioned manners, and his deep, authoritative Radio 4 voice is unchanged. There is something unambiguously charming about his interpersonal style: kind, courteous, gentle but assured. It’s why Radio 4 listeners adore him, and why there was nothing short of a national campaign – which included MPs and media, as well as his own children (all unsuccessful) – to reinstate him at Today when he was ousted in favour of Justin Webb. The assumption by some was that he was punished for being too ‘posh’ – Ampleforth, Trinity College Cambridge, a descendant of barons – in an institution trying to democratise itself.

Of his background being used as a stick with which to beat him, he says, half jokingly: ‘I should have had an audit on [it]! I should have been more alert to it and been smart about trying to mitigate it. It never really occurred to me that I might have to apologise for who I am or make myself different in some way.’

His contract ending was never fully explained, the reasons apparently never shared by the BBC. He stood up for himself to management: ‘I wouldn’t usually have done that,’ he admits in his self-effacing way. ‘Papers like The Telegraph being kind to me really helped.’ But Christmas cards from those in political power quickly fell away, and he deduced he was no longer considered ‘useful’: ‘Presenting Today fools you into thinking you matter.’

Stourton’s home, a double-fronted villa, has an old-school refinement without being stuffy, much like the man himself. ‘One of the things I have learnt in life is the value of taking account of other people’s estimations of themselves.’

The yellow drawing room is full of antiques and paintings; the kitchen is lived-in, with the family’s silky black spaniel, Fig, sniffing around. Beyond the kitchen window there is a garden stretching down to his writing shed, where, as well as at their modest house in France, Stourton wrote his upcoming memoir, Confessions: Life Re-examined. It is the reason we are meeting.

The book was largely written in response to his cancer diagnosis: ‘I think it is a life review. It was a feeling that I wanted to make some sort of sense of [my life], sort of curate it.’

He says, ‘It’s not like being told that you are going to be dead in six months, and in a way it’s just an acceleration of what we all know anyway [about mortality].’ In the book, he acknowledges ‘the finishing line is that bit clearer, and it will probably become more predictable as the disease progresses’. Still, he adds, ‘It is perfectly possible the science… will always stay a jump or two ahead of whatever stage of the disease I have reached, so it does not do to be too maudlin.’

Two things contributed to Stourton’s decision to write the book. The first was finding out that an obituary of him had been prepared. This is not unusual, but it was disarming for a man with incurable cancer. Even more so because he had just discovered the first round of chemotherapy was no longer working.

The second was that, around the same time, he attended the funeral of the former BBC newsreader Peter Sissons, who died of cancer in 2019, at 77. Stourton had had no idea Sissons was even ill: ‘It came as a total shock.’ Sissons had been an early mentor at ITN, where he began his journalism career as a trainee. The congregation was packed with faces from Stourton’s professional past. There was the realisation that, as he puts it, ‘my generation is slipping into history’.

There was also a growing feeling that the world is changing, and while Stourton continues to try to change with it, there is what he sees in his generation as ‘a bewilderment with the world and the world’s bewilderment about us’.

In his quest to capture his part in a fading generation, it might, at first glance, seem as if Stourton is predominantly interested in looking back: to his roots as (and subsequent discomfort in being) a colonial child, born in Nigeria; to his education by Catholic monks at Ampleforth College, which then fostered homophobia and encouraged elitism; to his early unquestioning relationship with the Catholic Church, later rocked by paedophile scandals and accusations of it being unable to accept blame adequately.

But the past is only part of the story. Stourton sees his life from the vantage point of what he calls his ‘awokening’, the need to revisit and revise certain ideas (including elitism and the power of Oxbridge). ‘I think I have become a liberated person,’ he says. ‘Change [in general] is a good thing. If you don’t ally yourself to change – with the environment around you – you are dead as a broadcaster, and probably as a person too.’

Several old friends have, he says, also become more radical with age. ‘Quite a number are now exes – ex-ministers and MPs, ex-editors, ex-judges, ambassadors and generals… It’s that feeling that you’ve done the biggest job you are going to do in your life.’ They are all ‘edging away from the centre of things’, which has perhaps contributed to the process of re-education.

‘The part of my life I look back on with real pleasure is the foreign reporting. Learning from encounters with other people to revise your prejudices and preconceptions in the broadest way. I am not ashamed of what I was. I am ashamed of some of the things I said and thought in my diaries [such as homophobia as a schoolboy], an old-fashioned thinking, a belief in elite institutions, but I am not ashamed of who I am.’

There have been many changes in Stourton’s life, professionally, socially and personally, that fuelled this ‘awokening’. Thirty years ago, Stourton and his first wife, Margaret McEwen, the daughter of a baronet, made choices that reflected their class and faith: Catholic prep boarding school for their two sons, Ivo and Tom, followed by Eton (where Ivo was friends with Prince William), and a Catholic girls’ boarding school for their daughter, Eleanor.

Today life is very different. His second wife, Murch, is not a Catholic, and his stepdaughter, Rosy, is fiercely anti-Catholic. When Eleanor got married she eschewed a Catholic church because the best man was gay, while actor and writer Tom, an atheist, sometimes feels self-conscious of his Old Etonian label.

Would Stourton make the same choices again? ‘I honestly don’t know the answer to that. It’s rather feeble.’

The BBC has of course changed immeasurably too; its broadcasters have a wider range of accents, for example, many of them very unlike his: ‘The issue of class is slightly off the mark. It’s more clarity and authority.’

He will not be drawn on his favourite Today presenter – ‘not very collegiate’ – but says Mishal Husain has ‘a beautiful voice’. John Humphrys, the former kingpin of Today, remains a great, loyal friend and was deeply supportive of Stourton when he left. Other past favourites include Sue MacGregor and Sarah Montague, who was part of a BBC gender pay gap scandal.

Stourton was never among the top-paid BBC talent – in fact, in his memoir he recalls an afternoon in 2000, not long after joining the Today line-up, when he spotted a piece of paper on one of the desks. ‘It was a memo from a senior editorial figure to the person in charge of the presenter rotas,’ he writes. It read, ‘If you need to fill a gap, try Stourton or Montague – they are cheaper than Humphrys and [James] Naughtie.’

‘I did not at all mind being viewed as a cheap date because it meant I got more shifts, which I greatly enjoyed.’

Today he thinks inequality has been ironed out. ‘The whole [gender] pay row has shaken them up like mad,’ he says of BBC salaries.

He does admit that he and Murch often shout in frustration when listening to Today – and not at the politicians. ‘Every morning there is at least one interview that I know – not think, know – I would have done better,’ he writes in his book. It’s a very un-Stourton statement – not what you’d expect from this collegiate teddy bear. But as he says, such an icy comment comes from a decade of working in the febrile atmosphere of Today, with the egos and the jostling for position. ‘You don’t spend 10 years there without acquiring a measure of monsterishness.’

Despite his ‘awokening’, he has not turned away from the old institutions entirely; it is more that he looks at them through a modern lens.

He will not criticise the BBC. (His friend from Trinity, former Telegraph editor Charles Moore, a Catholic convert, has criticised the institution, ‘but it hasn’t affected our friendship’.) The staff he admires most there are ‘in a cussed way, the oldies’, and include the stellar war reporters of his generation, Jeremy Bowen and Lyse Doucet.

Nor has his ‘awokening’ turned him away from Catholicism. He speaks positively about Pope Francis because of his openness to change, inviting opinions about issues such as gay marriage (Stourton approves). His religious affairs show, Sunday, attracts more than a million listeners, astounding given we live in what he calls ‘an incredibly secular society’. Yet he admits, ‘I feel slightly more detached from the Church while retaining a faith… not quite as embracing of it, not quite as in touch with it.’

His cancer diagnosis has, inevitably, thrown his faith into focus, but not in the way one might expect, though he does go to church more regularly these days. ‘Having an incurable cancer should, logically, make me reflect on the Church’s promise of resurrection and eternal life – and, of course, the threat of damnation – but it has not done that at all,’ he writes. ‘I find I think no more about such things than I did when I was healthy, and I have never been much given to agonised contemplation of eternity… My attachment to Catholicism owes much more to a sense that it is a good guide to this life than to any conviction that it is a passport to the next.’

When he was first diagnosed, Stourton made a decision to be open with friends and relevant bosses and colleagues about his cancer. ‘I feel some of my friends of my generation hate the idea of…’ Stourton parodies embarrassment: ‘“How are you? Jolly good, let’s move on!”

‘[But] I have no problem talking about my cancer publicly. I don’t think one should be embarrassed about having it. It’s not like getting the clap! In the early stages, I found myself being quite militant about mentioning it when I was asked how I was.’

His ex-Today colleagues are still good friends, and there is his university ‘lot’ too, which includes Nicholas Coleridge, the media executive turned chair of the V&A, as well as Charles Moore and the politicians Sir Oliver Letwin and Andrew Mitchell. ‘I am very struck by the power of friendship and the way people who you usually relate with in that rather uptight British way have been incredibly affectionate about it, not particularly wanting to talk about the detail, but wanting to show that they minded me having it.’

As for his family, they too are close-knit and have rallied around. The seriousness of the cancer was made easier for the children to bear, he says, ‘because [with that first diagnosis] they got used to the idea that you had a serious problem. When it comes back it’s not a complete shock.

‘The children were very affectionate and nice about it, worried and regularly asking, “How are you?”’

Stourton has just got back from their house in France, where they put the garden to bed for the winter. More chemotherapy might soon beckon, but then it might not. He has learnt to live with uncertainty, he writes, where once all he wanted was to drive the facts towards a hard conclusion.

‘The diagnosis puts you into a place which I suppose focuses you a little more without it being terrifying. I do a bit of googling, and if I see news of some wonderful new treatment, I think, “I’ll ask my consultant next time I see him,” but I do not want to make cancer the main thing in my life. I’m not at the stage where I want to stop work. I want to get on with my life, and mostly we try to live as if [it’s normal].’

He still enjoys walking the dog, and seeing friends and stopping to chat: ‘It seems worth reflecting a little on who we are, and why,’ he adds, ‘before we wave goodbye.’

Confessions: Life Re-examined by Edward Stourton is out on January 26 (Doubleday, £20); pre-order a copy at books.telegraph.co.uk

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