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A list for living, not a bucket list

  • 11 October 2013
  • From the section Magazine
Helen at Silverstone with Formula 1 star David Coulthard

Many people now make bucket lists. The BBC's Helen Fawkes explores the experiences people want before they die, and her own "list for living".

What would you do if you found out that your time was limited? If you were told that you could be dead within months, you certainly had no more than five years to live?

Well, that's the situation which I'm facing. On Christmas Eve last year I found out that I had incurable ovarian cancer. I felt waves of shock, sadness and anger. But I also knew that once I'd come to terms with the devastating news, I was going to make the most of the time I had left.

A few days before the diagnosis, as I waited for one of many medical appointments, I thought about the things I might never do. I started to write down some of the stuff in my reporter's notebook. This was the start of my bucket list.

On the catwalk - one of Helen's items checked off

Getting a dog, exploring the ancient ruins in Rome, taking a speed boat down the Thames, having my book published, learning to play poker and seeing penguins in the South Pole are just some of the 50 things I want to do.

This has become known as a bucket list because it's all the things you want to achieve before you kick the bucket. But I don't like the term. I'd rather focus on the living, not the dying. I prefer to call it my "list for living".

This cancer business is so horrific that it can easily take over your identity. Having this gives you something else to focus on and makes you feel like you again. So far I've managed to do 10 of them. I've pulled a pint in my local pub, I went to Paris with a group of friends just for lunch, modelled in a fashion show and zoomed down a zip wire. Next weekend I will present a Radio 4 programme, Pick of the Week, which will mean another big tick.

But what's most important to me is right at the top of the list - move to the countryside and live in my own house. This is also what I wrote down in my notepad while I waited at hospital back in the winter. A couple of months ago I finally got my own home in a village. It needs lots of work to coax it out of the 1980s but once its done I'll be able to live there. It's an incredible feeling doing something I've wanted for years.

I'm not sure I'll ever get to do everything on my bucket list but Susan Spencer-Wendel, from Florida, is someone who has. Susan is terminally ill with ALS, or motor neurone disease, an incurable condition which destroys the nerves that power her muscles.

Susan realised that she had around a year left of relatively good health so she went on all the trips she wanted to with her loved ones. This included going to see the Northern Lights with her best friend and wedding dress shopping in New York with her teenage daughter - something she knew she'd never get to do for real.

Susan wrote about her story in Until I say Goodbye: My Year of Living with Joy - A book she tapped out on an iPhone using just one thumb. She told me that her joy came from getting the best possible outcome from the worst of circumstances.

"I discovered the depth of love I have for the people around me and the depth of love they have for me. I discovered friends I never knew I had. And this lifts me each and every hour."

Just like Susan, my list for living is about taking back some control. When you're told that you could die soon, many of your future plans are shattered. Life revolves around tests, treatments and trying desperately to feel well.

Pulling a pint in a local pub
Getting ready for an adrenalin rush
Paris: Friends, long lunch and afternoon cocktails

My bucket list has given me some kind of a structure. There are no excuses anymore. You have to get on and do things rather than thinking you must do it someday. It's almost like giving pleasure a priority, in doing so you create powerful memories. I have one friend who must have spent hundreds of hours at hospital with me so it was really special to be able to do something totally unconnected with cancer and go glass-blowing.

My list for living has made me realise that when I'm taking part in something I enjoy I feel so much better. It gives me a real boost. In May, I went to see Stonehenge at sunrise with a friend. As soon as I stood inside the ancient stone circle it was like my chemo fog lifted.

For a magical hour, just the two of us watched night turn into day. As we left, the spell was broken. Not long afterwards I felt so chronically ill that I was barely able to walk.

This was near to the end of some very toxic treatment. What helped to get me through it all was my plan to recover afterwards on a ridiculously perfect beach. It was so chilly and wet at times that I needed my coat but I had a blissful time in Cornwall. It was number five on my list so this shows you how badly I wanted the holiday. It's so vital to have something to look forward to. I may be fighting a killer disease but I still need some hope in my life.

I used to be very sporty and I still crave that adrenalin rush so I picked a few things like sky diving and swimming with sharks just because they would terrify me. I haven't yet been brave enough to do those. But I have been driven very fast around a racetrack. A friend arranged for the ex-Formula 1 star David Coulthard to drive me around Silverstone. The speed was so exhilarating that I couldn't even scream to start with. It's funny how being scared to death can make you feel so alive.

One of the reasons I responded to my diagnosis with a bucket list was because of a book I'd recently read, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Bronnie Ware looked after terminally ill people in Australia. She realised that many of them shared the same concerns. For example, they wished they hadn't worked so hard and they'd allowed themselves to be happy.

When I interviewed Bronnie for my documentary she told me that one of her favourite clients was a woman called Grace. She always wanted to travel but didn't because of her husband.

"She was a lady who spent her life in a very unhappy, dominating marriage. Her husband went into a nursing home because he was ill. She then became terminally ill within a few weeks of gaining the freedom that she had waited 50 or 60 years for. So she actually never got to live any of those dreams and she insisted on me promising her that I would live a life true to myself," Bronnie explained.

I'm glad that I don't have any big regrets. This is partly down to another bucket list that I made. Twelve years ago I was diagnosed with cancer for the very first time. While I was ill from the evil chemo cocktails I couldn't do anything but think about what I wanted to do once I was well again. I came up with a list of 10 things. Within weeks of finishing treatment I was in Moscow, pursuing my dream of becoming a BBC foreign correspondent.

I'm clearly a fan of bucket lists but I understand that they're not for everyone. I wonder whether they create too much pressure to try to cram in everything? Psychotherapist Philippa Perry is worried that some people may have one for the wrong reasons.

"My first reaction is to think of it in terms of a shopping list. It reminds me too much of a consumer society. A shopping list of holidays and sights and sensations. It's not about being alive, it's about going through the motions."

My aim is not just to have things to tick off but to be left with a whole load of special memories with the people who mean the most to me. I know that when I'm dying and I'm too sick to do anything else they will be at my bedside reminding me about our adventures.

Like the time we went to Paris. How we ended up at a beautiful cocktail bar in the middle of the afternoon after a long lunch. Another customer remarked that we sounded like we were having a lot of fun and asked me what we were celebrating. After an embarrassing moment, I told her we were celebrating life.

Helen's list for living: 1) Live in my own house (almost done), 2) Move to the country (almost done), 3) Get a dog, 4) Play a netball game, again, 5) Recover from chemo on a ridiculously perfect beach (done), 6) See penguins in the South Pole, 7) Go to Paris by Eurostar just for lunch (done), 8) Visit Pompeii and drive along the Amalfi coast, 9) Explore the ancient ruins in Rome, 10) Snorkel on a coral reef, 11) Trek in Nepal, 12) Go to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, 13) See the Northern Lights, 14) Ride a camel across a desert, 15) Drink a mojito in Cuba, 16) See Stonehenge at sunrise (Done), 17) Go into space, 18) Get married, 19) Get my book published, 20) Present a BBC Radio 4 programme, 21) Hold an exhibition of my cow photographs, 22) Do voluntary work, 23) Run a 5K, 24) Skydive, 25) Go gliding, 26) Ride a horse through Hyde Park, 27) Try kite surfing, 28) Zoom down a zip wire (done), 29) Surf somewhere hot, 30) Go coasteering somewhere cold, 31) Take a speed boat down the Thames, 32) Swing on a trapeze, 33) Fly in a hot air balloon, 34) Take a private jet over London, 35) Fly in a stealth airplane, 36) Be driven very fast around a race track in a sports car (done), 37) Sleep under the stars, 38) Get a tattoo, 39) Have a henna crown painted on my baldy head once the hair falls out, 40) Grow my hair long, again, 41) Be a model and work the catwalk (done), 42) Learn to play poker, 43) Pull a pint in a proper pub (done), 44) Hold a party in a castle, 45) Go glass-blowing (done), 46) See puffins in UK, 47) Swim with sharks, 48) Sail alongside a pod of dolphins at sea, 49) Catch fireflies in a jar, 50) Drink champagne in one of the best bars in the world just before Christmas to celebrate still being alive.

Helen Fawkes shares her list for living on BBC World Service at 08:06 GMT (09:06 BST on) on Monday 14 October

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