I'm on borrowed time – but I’m loving every moment She's ditched selfish friends, bought gifts for her sons' future brides and plans a summer of parties. How one inspiring woman is facing up to death
21:17 GMT, 14 March 2012
Each day I wake up feeling grateful to God for being here, and for what I have. My bedroom is festooned with cards and presents from people who love me, and I look out through the window onto the lawn where my 13 chickens are pecking about contentedly in the grass.
Our dog, Boo, will probably be curled up on the floor beside my bed, while my husband, Andy, will be downstairs in the kitchen of our Tudor rectory, making me a wonderful breakfast — blueberries, bananas and, when I feel like it, a delicious bacon and tomato sandwich.
I have come to terms with the fact I am likely to die very soon. The doctor said that if I didn’t have further treatment, I probably had until March, but here we are, halfway through the month, and I am refusing to turn my face to the wall.
Comfort: Jane is always cheered up by her pet dog Boo
I am 54, and enjoying every minute I have left to the full. My days are busy with writing, eating the wonderful food prepared by my husband, and spending time with family and friends.
I have planned my birthday party in May, and hope to be here for Christmas with Andy and our three sons — Will, 25, Charlie, 20, and Henry, 11.
Three years ago, I was diagnosed with an aggressive kind of breast cancer. I’d had no symptoms, but when one of my nipples became inverted, tests revealed an 8.5cm tumour in my breast.
I had a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but the prognosis wasn’t good: the cancer was all through my lymph nodes.
I am not the kind of person who sits about moping, but the diagnosis was a terrible shock. I got on with life — gardening, walking the dog, looking after our hens, raising my sons — but there were days when I felt very unwell.
'Those who you thought were your friends
desert you in your hour of need. Those who were mere acquaintances take
your breath away with their kindness'
Then, last autumn, tests revealed the cancer had spread to the covering around my brain, the meninges, though luckily not inside it, so I can still think straight. It’s like wearing a cancerous swimming cap.
The doctors predicted I would not die ‘hard’. Rather, the cancer will close down my brain gradually then, eventually, I’ll die unconscious. They gave me until last September, then revised that to October.
I passed those landmarks but, about a month ago, there was more bad news: the cancer has spread like wildfire and is now in my pancreas, liver, chest, lung and spine.
‘Make sure my arm doesn’t fall off,’ I urged the doctor. ‘I need it for typing.’
My consultant at London’s Royal Marsden Hospital explained that I’d be given two bouts of chemotherapy. ‘If you don’t have them, you’ll be very sick by the end of March. Then . . .’
I have never been one to show despair. But this latest news about my all-too-imminent demise shocked me so much I said ‘B*gger’ — then apologised for my language.
When you’re told you will die much sooner than you’d expected, every moment counts. I have just had the first session of chemotherapy. It seems I am a troublemaker who won’t shuffle off to order. I enjoy my doctors’ surprise when I tell them: ‘I feel OK. Actually, I’m rather busy. Sorry to hear my platelet count is so low [that’s a blood test to see if you’re strong enough for chemo].’
Hindsight: Old photos have made Jane realise she was better looking than she thought in her youth
The strangest thing about dying is what it tells you about people. Put simply, they divide into those who are lovely — and the rest. Those who you thought were your friends desert you in your hour of need. Those who were mere acquaintances take your breath away with their kindness.
Strangers, though, can be positively cruel. Take the nurse at a posh private local hospital who I met after struggling out to buy balloons for my son’s birthday disco after my first bout of chemo three years ago.
‘Aren’t you lucky to be treated at our local hospital You’re very lucky indeed,’ she finger-wagged at me.
I agreed politely, twice. At the third mention of my luck, I pointed out that the hospital had actually ignored the fact that I was at a high risk of developing breast cancer — both my mother and aunt had it — and as such should have had a mammogram every year. As it was, I hadn’t had one for three years before my diagnosis — which was unlucky because the cancer was now so advanced.
Her face hardened. ‘You won’t live long,’ she snapped, then hurried off. The balloon man was so shocked he gave me two balloons free.
I have also been astonished by the number of people who dropped me when they found out I was ill, especially old friends. ‘I don’t want to disturb you,’ was the initial excuse for not turning up at the hospital or sending a card, followed by silence.
One of Henry’s godparents, chosen for her caring qualities, has not shown her face since I was diagnosed. I have appointed him a new godmother now.
Having cancer has made me be rude to time-wasters. For instance, a relative wrote me a note when my diagnosis became terminal, saying: ‘We don’t know when we’ll ever see you again. We’re very sad and sorry you are ill.’
They only live 40 minutes’ away.
So, I replied: ‘You’re so sad that you never wrote a card or visited for three years. You call yourself Christians, but you can’t be bothered when I’m ill.’
'I am trying hard to make the most of every minute left, spending my time and energy on those who have proved worthy'
I’ve discovered the ones who make a great show of being caring are often the least help, so I like to make them squirm.
There are terrible physical trials to endure when one has cancer, but somehow the emotional ones such as these are harder to bear.
Last autumn, the cancer — I never say ‘my cancer’; I distance myself from it — chewed through a nerve that controls my eyes. I was losing my sight, and had to wear an eye patch. Children were frightened of me. But then, in January, excruciating ‘whole head’ radiotherapy restored my failing sight overnight.
The doctors were good on this occasion, but they don’t always do a fabulous job, in my opinion. They know I think that, though I try to be polite. Drugs are not properly prescribed, treatments are omitted. I had to remind them last week that they had booked me in for too many chemo sessions.
On the plus side, I’m not in agony, except when someone upsets me. Sudden stress turns into pain zinging up and down my body.
But as Dr Johnson once said, imminent death concentrates the mind. These days I am up at 5am to crack through all the things I meant to do years ago.
Memories: Jane in Granada in 1977
But it’s not easy, and emotions run
high for the whole family. My 11-year-old son, Henry, shut himself in
his room for four days after he overheard the news earlier this year
that my cancer was terminal.
But now, at least, we are closer than
ever. He does a funny little dance to entertain me every night before
bed and thinks up jokes to make me laugh.
I’ve found a caring senior school for
him to move to in September, and in readiness I have made him a
personalised calendar with every reminder a mother would normally make
in person: ‘Take your sports kit in’, and ‘Remember Dad’s birthday!’ I
cried buckets when I wrote my Christmas message on it, simply telling
him to have a wonderful one (but I still intend to be here then).
So how does it feel to know you are dying I feel like a disembodied brain trailing a body I’m told is getting weaker. I take steroids to keep my brain from swelling and my vision clear, and the occasional slurp of painkilling medicine called Oxynorm.
I spend a lot of time in bed, but I get up when I need to or when I feel strong enough. I am trying hard to make the most of every minute left, spending my time and energy on those who have proved worthy. Just looking at Boo, who never leaves my side, gives me a boost.
Mother's love: The presenter with her sons when they were younger, she has written future birthday, Christmas and wedding day cards for them
A strong Christian faith helps, as
does knowing that people are hoping and praying for me. I take all
offers of psychological support. I met the retired cancer support expert
Dr Stephen Greer at the local hospice, and my positive attitude is down
to his counselling. He loves a sparky woman. I also have a cancer
‘buddy’, Margaret, from Breast Cancer Care, who phones regularly.
Andy, my husband of 20 years and
partner of 33 years, is a brilliant cook. ‘I feel like Heston
Blumenthal!’ he says. He serves whatever I ask for. Today’s dinner
Sweet potato with liver, watercress, horseradish sauce and mashed
I have prepared myself for death. I’ve given people lots of my books — I’ve written one on roses and one on paintings — which I hope they appreciate, because I don’t like giving my things away! I’ve also given my designer clothes from my days working as a BBC1 and GMTV presenter to a young working mother.
I have planned my funeral: everyone will wear bright colours and drink Champagne afterwards.
The main regrets of the terminally ill include wishing they hadn’t worked so hard and not allowing themselves to be happier
I have also planned my 55th birthday party for May, and we’re having open-air theatre in July in the garden of our house in Cheam, Surrey.
Friends have helped me to look out old photographs, stories I’ve written, and film of me on TV. I realise I was a better-looking young woman than I’d thought, and that I’ve done more than I ever imagined I would.
I’m writing future birthday and Christmas cards for my three boys, having checked to make sure they wanted to hear from their old (potentially dead) mum for years hence. My eldest son, Will, asked for practical tips and hints for life in his cards, rather than slush. I have bought three pairs of heart-shaped earrings for my sons’ future brides.
When I die, it won’t be goodbye for my sons. I have told them they will have only to think of me to know what I would say about something.
I am writing and self-publishing several more books. I’ve recorded an audiobook on hen-keeping, my book ‘You Can’t Die, What Would the Dog Do Without You — Adventures In Breast Cancer’, and I’m also hoping to finish a detective novel.
My final tip Make jam. It’s the ultimate stress-buster, and you can give it to the friends who do visit and care deeply about you.