BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 3 January 2008, 12:49 GMT
How to live, by the dying

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

If you were diagnosed with a terminal illness how would it affect the way you live those remaining days? Dying people often find their life gains a renewed focus that teaches them something special about how to live.

Cheese. It's what Ian John Phelps thought about after being told he had lung cancer and it would kill him. Something as "strange and stupid" as that.

"Living in Dorset we have a whole number of different types of cheese, I just thought I want to try as many different varieties of them as I can," he says.

What would you do if you were told you didn't have long to live? There's a fascinating morbidity about such a question, that many of us will have pondered, safe in the knowledge that it remains hypothetical.

Life after such news can be 'richer'
The cliche is to go out and buy a fast car, rack up debts and think little about the consequences. Sampling a rich variety of local dairy produce certainly wasn't uppermost in Mr Phelps' mind before he received his grave prognosis.

In the words of John Ransom, who also has a fatal disease, it gives you a new sense of focus however "awful, hideous and catastrophic" being terminally ill is.

"There are some things about my cancer that are a gift and that may seem really odd to some people," says Mr Ransom, who was 32 when he was first diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer that affects the whole lymphatic system. He's now 46.

"It's aroused something in me that's made me more aware. You can do the same things for 20 years, running back and forth to work, or have five years where you process more about your life. I don't know which one is the best, but maybe the latter is a much richer way to live.

Slowing down

"I was walking on the North Yorkshire moors recently, I was high up and the heather was out. I just felt I was on the ceiling of the sky almost. It was an incredibly intense feeling of happiness."

Often the assumption is that people will want to squeeze the maximum out of the limited time they have left. Travel the world, climb a mountain, swim with dolphins.

Take fundraiser Jane Tomlinson, who died of cancer last year aged 43. Despite her illness she showed an indomitable spirit and raised 1.5m for charity. She ran, swam and cycled into the record books, doing marathons and cycling across America.

None of these material things really matter, illness demolishes them all
John Ransom
But happiness is not only about living life to the full, even though the pressure to do so when you don't have much time left can be immense, say those who are in the situation.

Slowing down and enjoying the day-to-day is what gives you true freedom, says Frances Byrnes, a writer from Sheffield, diagnosed at the aged of 32 with advanced ovarian cancer.

"You hear people say that if your days are numbered then everyday has to be superb. It becomes a terrible pressure. I let myself be, I let go of that voice that says all time must be valuably used.

"You let yourself be what you can be that day. Letting go of that... daily check list of achievements is freeing and the world still works without you. I actually felt really alive, I was examining the texture of everything around me."

Smell the roses

A self-confessed "busy bee" before his diagnosis, Mr Phelps, 45, agrees. He says because of his illness he has had to learn to slow down.

"Because I have it gives me the opportunity to look at things in a closer, more detailed way. My eyes are being opened up and lucky me."

A lot of research done on dealing with a terminal illness has shown that people often end up living a happier and much fuller life in the time they have left, says psychoanalyst and counsellor Gladeana McMahon.

Jane Tomlinson
Jane Tomlinson inspired many people
"People deal with such news differently, some never come to terms with it. But most go through an acceptance process that includes anger and disbelief, but ultimately leads them to re-evaluate life.

"It gives them a new focus, a new clarity, a new perspective on what is important. I call it smelling the roses."

People get caught up in the petty minutiae of daily life, let it stress them and lose out on what is really important and in front of their faces, she says. Mr Ransom agrees.

"You feel you are in a war zone sometimes, trying to achieve what you think you want with a lot of other people striving for the outcome they want," says the father of two from Stockport.

"At times I have likened my own experience to the salmon swimming back to the breeding ground, struggling up the river. One of the things I've let go of is always wanting to have my own way and always wanting particular outcomes and actually going with the flow of things.

Life's misfortunes

"I've turned myself round and am going with the river. You feel happier than when you are struggling against it the whole time."

Often the pressure to achieve is about getting a certain lifestyle. But while people chase the latest gadgets and goods, they should not lose sight of the fact that these things cannot hold back life's misfortunes, says Mr Ransom.

"We spend a lot of our time trying to protect ourselves, this whole consumer society fits in quite neatly with it I think.

People should 'slow down'
"We buy things and the more things we have we sort of build a fortress around ourselves and think we can't be got at. But none of these material things really matter, illness demolishes them all."

But ultimately no one knows what time they have left. Diagnosed with a terminal illness or not, your life can change in a instant. That's why you should seize the moment, to ask all those questions you have in your head and tell people how you feel, says Mr Pehlps.

"I've been to a load of funerals in my time and so many times people turn round and say if only I'd got the opportunity to ask dad or mum this question, but now I'll never know," he says.

"From the moment you are born and start learning to speak you have the opportunity to ask, so use that. Use it to tell people how you feel about them. I wouldn't wait until you have an illness or anything like that, get on and do it now."

Advice to the Living will be broadcast on Thursday, 3 January at 2000 GMT on BBC Radio 4.

Below is a selection of your comments:

My Mother died 6 years ago of lung cancer. I spent her last 3 weeks with her. In a strange way it was the best 3 weeks of my life. I was able to tell how much she meant to me and how much I loved her. It changed my life. I now tell the people I love that I love them on a regular basis.
Wendy Yeo, Portsmouth

When Prof. David Short of Aberdeen, a committed Christian, eminent cardiologist and physician to the royal family, was told in his 80's that he had leukaemia, he opted for palliative care, and made the following statement: "I now can be quite certain that I shall not have to face dementia; furthermore, I can now eat as much butter as I like!"
Kenneth Ross, Prestwick

A key point is nobody knows how long they have left. I have Cystic Fibrosis, Diabetes, Addison's Disease (Adrenal failure) and Fibromyalgia. When I was born people with Cystic Fibrosis had a life expectancy of less than 12 years. Now I am in my late 30s and am still determined to get the most out of every day! Despite my health I managed to go to University and get a BSc and MSc in Computing before becoming a lecturer. I recently had to take medical retirement but am now focused on health psychology and recently achieved an MSc with distinction from the Open University. I live every day not as my last, that would be too sad, but nearly my last and give it all I can. I try to stay positive regardless of what life throws at me.
Jeff, Worcester, UK

I have been diagnosed with cancer but thankfully have come through it. I was expecting a relevation in my thinking. Ironically, I seem to be more career orientated than ever. So, don't always expect a change in perseption when you have been diagnosed with a illness.
Jay, Greenhithe

How very refreshing to hear about people rejecting the move towards yet more consumerism, its a shame its come from people that have come face to face with their mortality. Its high time we ALL took the opportunity to stop and really see how much good there is in the world and in our lives, particularly in the people around us.
Shami Scholes, Oxford, UK

I coulnd't have said that better. My Motto in Life is CARPE DIEM (sieze the day). My husband and son passed away when I was 21 and this made me more aware than ever how short our time on earth can be. There may or may not be somewhere nicer to go when we die but just in case the fun stops when we take our last breath I make sure that every day carries a sense of happiness. That may mean spending quality time with my new and wonderful husband and children or simply taking the time to really notice the beauty in my surroundings. Do something different every day, walk the dog somewhere different buy a different newspaper. Sometimes the smallest change to your day may give you a different persective.
Kelly Lindsay, Tayside, Scotland

I haven't been diagnosed with a terminal illness, but last year I decided that I would start doing the things that I wanted to do. I am enjoying my life so much more now. Just like Mr Phelps, I am also being more open with family and friends, our relationships have improved so much. For all of the new experiences in my life, I am richer.
Nicky, London, UK

What an interesting article, thank you. My Dad has cancer and has been given a year to live. My Mum is doing everything she can to try and find a medical way of extending his life, while my Dad just gets on with things. My Mum's anger about the cancer has been forced onto myself as she has become so verbally hurtful towards me. At times I feel so isolated as all I want to do is tell my Dad how proud I am of him and that I love him, but because of the childhood I had I struggle to show any kind of affection towards my parent's. I also do not want my Dad to feel that I am giving up on him, as this is not the case. My Dad is a very stiff upper lipped man, who rarely shows his emotions and to date I have yet to hear him say he has cancer, he calls it "an illness". Every day I try to sit down and write a letter to tell Dad how I feel, but it gets left. This article has given me the courage to write and hopefully my Dad will understand - thank you.
Sam, Hampshire

Great article. I believe it's healthy to consider our own mortality, and frequently reflect on what really matters. Modern life can be so noisy as to drown out the most important things from our thoughts. It is people that matter, and not things that can be bought - family and other loved ones. It's been said that no-one on their death bed ever wished they'd spent more time at the office.
Seth, Norwich

Thank you for this. I have this morning been to the funeral of a dear friend who died of ovarian cancer aged 30 on Sunday. She never lost her lust for life and performed in three stage musicals in the eighteen months that she was ill. She was an inspiration.
Clare Meadley, Leeds


Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific