Widower of lung cancer victim Deborah Hutton issues powerful warning to young Islington smokers
PUBLISHED: 08:03 26 February 2012 | UPDATED: 14:55 29 February 2012
The respected journalist hadn’t smoked for 25 years but her snap decision to light up as a teen cost her dearly.
If ever there was a cautionary tale against smoking, then the story of journalist Deborah Hutton is it.
At the age of 12, she tried her first cigarette, by 15 she was smoking regularly then finally at 24, she saw the error of her ways and quit.
She went on to live a healthy life, became the health editor for Vogue magazine and jogged regularly, rarely drank and followed a healthy diet.
In 2004, at the age of 49, her world came crashing down when she was diagnosed with irreversible stage IV lung cancer.
Seven months later, after a short yet characteristically dignified battle, she died in her sleep at the Islington home she shared with husband Charlie Stebbings and their four children.
“Those seven months were so vital and true, and unbelievably wonderful as well as being tragic,” says Charlie. “She was dealing with her own grief of losing her children.
“She never was a ‘why me?’ person but the fact is she did smoke for eight years when she was younger, and if you smoke quite a lot, you are more likely to get cancer.”
Deborah’s years as a smoker were the only apparent vice during a largely healthy life.
A snap decision as an irresponsible child was a costly one in later life, not only for her but her beloved family and friends.
As Charlie, a director and photographer, says: “Smoking delays its true cost by taking life years after smoking occurs, not just bringing tragic death but also taking a young mother or father away from those who need, and love them most. Smoking damages the lives around the smoker, and not just the one who makes an often ill-informed, selfish and foolhardy decision.”
The true cost of smoking is inevitably felt most acutely by Charlie, who first met Deborah while they were both undergraduates at York University.
“We knew of each other,” he explains. “But didn’t get to know each other until after university when we met through various friends of friends.
“She was the most riveting person to be with, so entertaining and humourous. She made things happen, she was a real energiser. I fell in love with her, and hopefully she with me.”
The couple married in 1984 and moved to their first family home in Belitha Villas where they lived for 11 years. They then moved to Highbury Terrace overlooking Highbury Fields for 16 years with their children Archie, 24, Romilly, 22, Clemmie, 18 and Freddie, 15.
Meanwhile, along with raising four children, Deborah’s career blossomed, graduating from the subs desk at Conde Naste to health editor on Vogue under the stewardship of two formidable editors, Beatrix Miller and Anna Wintour.
Her writing and commitment to her job was widely revered and even when the cancer diagnosis came, she continued to write, including a blog and a best-selling manual on how to survive cancer.
There could have been mild symptoms for up to five years previously but it wasn’t until Deborah woke up with a broken rib that the alarm bells began to ring, followed by headaches, a persisitent slight cough and finally small bumps on her skull.
By the time she was tested in November 2004, the cancer had spread throughout her body and to her organs.
“Debs was no fool,” says Charlie. “As soon as she was diagnosed she knew it could be a death sentence.
“She drew herself up and said ‘we will just have to face this with grace and dignity’. She felt this huge rush of strength to get through the next few months, making sure we stayed on top of things, to be in control.”
As she sorted out practical matters, Deborah also rediscovered her faith, attending regular services at St Peter’s Church in Highbury.
The help and support from the community was nothing short of amazing, says Charlie.
“I’m completely indebted to the friends and neighbours who helped.
“That sense of people wanting to help made a huge difference.” Charlie reflects on the final months of Deborah’s life, during which time he played a key role in her care, with mixed feelings.
“Looking after her, I knew I was playing to a strength so I felt a great sense of purpose and worth.
“When the time came and you think you are prepared for it, I woke up to her lying beside me: Debs, her very essence had indeed left, leaving behind her frail body, a real sense of her no longer being there.”
Six years on from her death, the legacy of Deborah Hutton goes on with the charity that bears her name.
Set up by Charlie with the support of family and friends, at the heart of it is one objective – to stop young people taking up smoking as Deborah did all those years ago.
The launch of the Cut Films competition was Charlie’s brainchild and draws on his own expertise in filmmaking.
“It is the new literacy for young people,” he says. “They find out about it for themselves, see smoking is bad and then translate this into film to pass on the message to their friends.
“One thing that has completely gobsmacked me is the different ways people come at it – it is amazing. There are some fantastically simple yet strong films being made.
“The important thing is that hopefully it will alert children and stop them from smoking.”