How Helen Fawkes filled her years with life

By Joanna Jolly
BBC News

Helen Fawkes

A week ago, the BBC journalist Helen Fawkes died from ovarian cancer at the age of 45. In the last few years of her life she wrote a blog about living with the disease. It was warm, honest and often funny and included what she described as her "list for living" - her way of making the most of the life she had.

From the moment Helen Fawkes was first diagnosed with cancer, she knew her life could be cut short.

The diagnosis came not long after her 30th birthday, and a move to London to take up a job with BBC 5 Live radio.

Back then, the disease motivated Helen to pursue her dream of becoming a foreign correspondent.

So, when she had recovered, she moved first to Moscow as a radio producer, then to Kiev, Sarajevo and Belgrade as a BBC reporter.

When she returned to the BBC in London, she began working on a book describing how cancer had changed her life for the better.

By this point, she was confident she was free of the disease.

But shortly after her 40th birthday she began experiencing pain and was told, in early 2012, that the cancer had returned.

Her doctors had discovered a tumour the size of a pea in her abdomen.

It was then that Helen started her blog.

"Most people are just so stunned by the news that they're not sure how to respond," she wrote.

"A few friends have suggested I write about this as they were stuck for words."

In her first few entries she writes in clear journalistic detail about the operation to remove her tumour.

Find out more

  • Listen to Helen Fawkes' radio documentary, the Bucket List, which she made in 2013 for the BBC World Service
  • By talking about her own lists for living and asking others about theirs, Helen considers what people want to grab from life when faced with death

It turned out she had many more tumours than the doctors originally thought. They were removed successfully, but Helen had an extreme allergic reaction to the pain killers.

"I started to dream about a group of people. I could hear their voices in the distance," she writes of lying in the hospital bed.

"'Can you hear us Helen?' they seemed to ask.

"'Yes of course I can hear you all,' I thought to myself and ignored them."

Eventually she did open her eyes.

"In doing so, I chose to live," she writes.

Helen's operation was followed by rounds of punishing chemotherapy. She wrote about how she liked to think of her drugs as a Daniel Craig James Bond.

"I imagined my own microscopic army of special agents," she wrote, as she described the pain and exhaustion brought on by her treatment.

She always found something to laugh about. Much of her blog became devoted to the matter of hair loss and her choice of wigs - she named two of her more outrageous blonde ones Raquel and Candice.

She wore Candice to the premiere of the Bond film, Skyfall - which she had been invited to by a cancer charity.

By the end of 2012, it appeared the worst was over. Helen was declared cancer-free by her doctors and returned to work determined, she wrote, to enjoy her second chance at life.

But, just before Christmas, she received the devastating news that her cancer had returned. This time, she was told, she would never be free of it.

"All I can now do is try to destroy each tumour every time I get one," she wrote.

"I'm not terminally ill, but I will die a lot sooner than I ever imagined."

With the news, Helen went back to an idea that had helped her when she was first diagnosed with cancer in 2001. She called it a List for Living - a plan of all the things she wanted to do before she died.

"When I wrote my first List for Living it included dreams that I thought were practically impossible," she wrote.

"The list led me to achieve more than I ever imagined. Now I hope that what will be my last List for Living will again give my life purpose with incredible goals to aim for."

The list contained 50 ambitions. Some, like pulling a pint in a real pub, were easy to achieve. Others were travel destinations - Rome, the Amalfi Coast, the mountains of Nepal. Some, like going into space, seemed almost impossible, though her name was engraved on a microchip carried by Nasa's Osiris-Rex spacecraft, launched in September last year.

Image caption,
41) Be a model and work the catwalk (DONE!)

Two of the most important items she achieved quite quickly - moving to the countryside and buying her own house.

Helen moved back to her home county of Gloucestershire, close to her parents.

While there, she ticked off another item - holding an exhibition of cow photographs she had taken entitled, Have I got MOOs for you.

Friends pitched in to help her with other ambitions. One arranged for her to speed around a racetrack with the Formula 1 driver, David Coulthard.

Others took her on trips to see Stonehenge at sunrise and the northern lights in Norway.

"It was spectacular to watch the aurora dance for us," she wrote.

At the same time, Helen was enduring what seemed like endless rounds of chemo. She was also coming to terms with her diagnosis.

"You grieve for the life you hoped that you'd lead," she wrote.

"While it has been horrendous, it hasn't been quite as bad as you'd think.

"I'll never be happy with this cruel twist of fate but half a year on from the diagnosis something has changed, something that I couldn't have imagined happening.

"I now feel like I have acceptance of the situation."

In 2013, Helen was awarded an honorary fellowship by her old university, Goldsmiths College in London.

She was recognised not only for her work as a journalist, but also for the impact that her blog was making through its positive and honest portrayal of life with a terminal disease.

Helen wrote that she disliked the seriousness that surrounded cancer.

"I don't want constant sadness," she wrote.

"Having a deadly disease doesn't kill off your sense of humour or even your desire to have some fun."

And, in between the gruelling medical treatments, she did continue to have fun - ticking off more and more items on her list.

She presented a programme on Radio 4, slid down a zip wire, went glassblowing and drove along the Amalfi coast with an old friend.

At the same time, she continued to work shifts as a news reporter for the BBC, with the encouragement of her doctors.

In 2015, after experimental treatment reversed the progress of her cancer, Helen had her first long stretch without chemotherapy since 2011 - which she described as her "record-breaking chemo holiday".

"You wake up and feel well," she wrote.

"That's such an incredible feeling."

At this point, her blog entries become sparse. Friends say that this was, in part, because Helen was busy getting on with other things.

After moving back to Gloucestershire she had joined a film club. There she became friends with a man called Luke and after a few months, their friendship turned into something more.

Although Helen didn't mention this explicitly in her blog, Luke was clearly in the background as she ticked off more List for Living items - riding a steam train, flying a kite and seeing puffins in the Faroe Islands.

Then in March 2016, Helen found out that the new treatment had failed to stop the progression of her disease.

"It's such a harsh blow," she wrote.

"I know this is expected and I realise that I had a much bigger chemo holiday than predicted, but it doesn't make it any easier to accept."

More chemo followed, and with it came exhaustion. By this point, Helen was hardly writing anything at all.

But early this year, she did post a story. She described how she was able to tick off one of the most treasured items on her list.

"I got married!!!" she wrote.

"This was the last thing on my List for Living that I really wanted to do and it is the most special. This was much more than just ticking something off a list.

"So much more."

That was Helen's last entry.

The final pictures on Helen's blog show her beaming next to her new husband.

"It's not the years in your life that matter," she had written.

"It's the life in your years."

Helen's new List for Living in full

  1. Move to the countryside (DONE!)
  2. Live in my own house (DONE!)
  3. Enjoy walks with Sasha the dog (DONE!)
  4. Play a netball game, again (DONE!)
  5. Recover from chemo on a ridiculously perfect beach (DONE!)
  6. Have a day at the zoo (DONE!)
  7. Go to Paris by Eurostar just for lunch (DONE!)
  8. Visit Pompeii and drive along the Amalfi coast (DONE!)
  9. Explore the ancient ruins in Rome (DONE!)
  10. Snorkel on a coral reef (DONE!)
  11. See snowy mountains in Scotland
  12. Take a dip in Iceland's blue lagoon
  13. See the Northern Lights (DONE!)
  14. Go tobogganing
  15. Bathe in the Bath Spa as the sun goes down (DONE!)
  16. See Stonehenge at sunrise (DONE!)
  17. Go into space (DONE!)
  18. Get married (DONE!!!)
  19. Get my book published
  20. Present a BBC Radio 4 programme (DONE!)
  21. Hold an exhibition of my cow photographs (DONE!)
  22. Do voluntary work (DONE!)
  23. Learn to make sushi
  24. See the Giants Causeway
  25. Visit Barcelona
  26. Ride my bike again
  27. Fly a kite (DONE!)
  28. Zoom down a zip wire (DONE!)
  29. Travel on a steam train (DONE!)
  30. Go coasteering (DONE!)
  31. Take a speed boat down the Thames (DONE!)
  32. Swing on a trapeze
  33. Fly in a hot air balloon (DONE!)
  34. Take a private jet over London (DONE!)
  35. Go on a road trip
  36. Be driven very fast around a race track in a sports car (DONE!)
  37. Sleep under the stars (DONE!)
  38. Learn to play poker
  39. Get a henna tattoo
  40. Grow my hair long, again
  41. Be a model and work the catwalk (DONE!)
  42. Eat a meal in a prison
  43. Pull a pint in a proper pub (DONE!)
  44. Have a picnic (DONE!)
  45. Go glassblowing (DONE!)
  46. See puffins in Britain (DONE!)
  47. Swim with sharks
  48. Sail alongside a pod of dolphins at sea (DONE!)
  49. Ride a camel across a desert
  50. Drink champagne in one of the best bars in the world just before Christmas to celebrate still being alive (DONE!)