The Terminal Cancer Patients Finding The Key to Happiness

Terminal cancer patients finding the key to happiness


As I flopped on the sofa, feeling washed out after the kids’ bed time, I flicked through BBC iplayer, looking for something to wind down to, before dragging myself to bed.  It’d been a pretty normal day, with me feeling bogged down by all the things I’m not finding the time to do.  Getting the house “sorted”, arranging playdates for half term, un-replied-to whatsapp messages, sorting childcare and working on my business are perma-tasks.

This is a common theme these days – spending a lot of time thinking about what I need to do, but making little progress because I’m too tired/ nap time isn’t long enough/ I don’t have the headspace right now.

And I happened to watch the BBC’s documentary about living with terminal illness (A Time To Live).  It’s funny how some things drop in your lap at the perfect time.  This was exactly what I needed at this moment.

Shifting Priorities

It followed the story of 12 people who know their time is limited, and thoughtfully and gently probed into how they are coping and how they plan to spend their last days, months and years.  And the most unexpected theme to come out, was how happy they were.  It’s as if the pointy finger of fate which comes knocking on your door throws all the cards into the air, and they land, reshuffled, neatly, in a new order.  I was amazed how accepting many of the documentary participants were.  Yes, there were times of rage, anger and deep despair but many of them talked about clarity, shifting priorities and enjoying life so much more.  Lisa, in her 30s, remarkably wouldn’t give up her cancer diagnosis if it meant losing out on the insight and happiness she has now.  Wow.  Gobsmacked.  “My life has got quality now.  I’m not on the treadmill any more.  I’m happy, genuinely happy.”

Another woman, on finding she had only a couple of years to live, left her husband and travelled the world, turning her life completely on its head – new home, new ventures, new hobbies.  Imagine at such a vulnerable time, leaving everything you know and venturing so boldly into unchartered waters.  What bravery.  What confidence.

So what is it that’s changed for these people?  And what can be learned from it, if anything?

Tender Simplicity is The Key to Happiness

Well of course, no one can really know what it’s like to have a short time left on this planet unless you’re experiencing it for real, but it’s interesting to try imagine ourselves with a limited amount of time, to test if we are living a life genuine to ourselves.

And there’s a beautiful and tender simplicity that emerges.  If we imagine ourselves as a boat, travelling our way through life.  There are waves of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’, nudging us one way and the other.  Stormy seas that we seem to absorb and feel battered by.  Maybe we don’t really know where we’re sailing to, because we’re keeping all our options open, or maybe we’ve got our head down, going along a route, looking only a foot in front of us, but actually forgetting to lift our head to check the destination.  Our lives are so littered with being busy, doing stuff and being connected that we can forget to check in with our bigger picture.

It’s as if the clouds have parted for these people, the sun has come out and they are now looking skyward, appreciating the clouds and enjoying the journey.  How lovely.

We find it so easy to fret about everything – the family budget, our kids’ happiness, buying a birthday present for the next 40th party.  What could we learn if we had limited time?

Try a simple exercise

Get a notebook and a pen and find somewhere peaceful and quiet.  And write down your thoughts and musings to the question “If I knew I had a short time of life left, what would I do?  What would I be?  How would I be?”  Keep your thinking at a high level – put logistics and the ‘how’ to one side and just let your thinking flow.  Notice how you are feeling as you are thinking about these things.  When you write them down, which things give you a particular sense of centredness and connectedness?

Next question – “What is stopping me living this life today?”  Is it something tangible, or a character trait of your own?  And for each of the things you write down, “How can I minimise these/ make them go away/ live with it or them?”

Tapping into this is so fundamental to us living genuine, effective, affectionate and successful lives.  If you’re running a business, wanting to progress in your career, looking for more joy, or just not feeling quite ‘at home’ in your life, then this is a great place to start.  It’s the foundational context within which we need to live to keep us happy.

Letting Go

For me, it’s less about what I want to do, but more about what I need to let go of.  I realised my days are being held somewhat to ransom by my to-do’s and unmade decisions.  The pictures I choose to put on the (currently bare) walls at home don’t matter – the fact that this task is encroaching on my time and headspace does.  I’m 90% doing and 10% being, and that’s probably being generous.

So, my resolution to myself – weirdly not to stop getting stuff done, but to not let it fill my headspace.  Make decisions quickly.  Think less, act quickly, move on.  Done is better than perfect.  I’m going to take nice walks with my baby, drink coffee in the sun, move slowly, and indulge in my last few months of maternity leave.  I’m going to lie on the carpet with my children more.  I’m going to stop analysing my budget spreadsheets to the nth degree seeking reassurance, and have faith it’ll work out okay.  I’m going to live more from the inside out – what feels right to me.

And the other thing that was so easy to see from this exercise, was which business ventures I need to stop and which to pursue.  It was reassuring that my main focus is exactly where I want to be.  It feels so right, that other things just fell away.  See? Beautiful simplicity.