Every January we’re assaulted with messages on how to improve and change ourselves. Annie Slater, 37, who has terminal cancer, argues it’s time we lived for today
People tend to moan this time of year. I don’t know whether it’s down to the cold weather, or the end of the festivities, or the fact that most of us are flat broke, but everyone seems to have a serious case of January Blues, not to mention a million New Year’s resolutions for how they are going to change their lives. People become obsessed with how they ‘should’ be living. You should be cutting out carbs and learning a new language. You should be writing your novel.
But I think we’re already too harsh on ourselves without adding additional expectations into the mix. Let’s face it – everyone eats too much at Christmas. But that doesn’t mean that come January you need to suddenly start punishing yourself. Life’s too short – trust me, I know.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. When the doctor first told me my prognosis, I said “thank you” and then shook her hand – it makes me laugh to think of my reaction now. Now I’ve been diagnosed with secondary cancer, which has spread to my bones, and when it’s in your bones you know you’re screwed. The drugs haven’t worked so I’m about to start my sixth round of chemo and the doctors can’t even guess how long I’ve got left. They can’t cure me, but I’ve come to terms with that.
After my first diagnosis, I did everything to fight my cancer – chemo, double mastectomy, veganism. I was bombarded with information by well-meaning people constantly telling me to try this therapy or cut out this food because ‘it causes cancer’. I felt completely overwhelmed. Everyone had an opinion on what I ‘should’ be doing but the expectation on how I should now live my life was what scared me most.
Reflect on the positive
So I’ve learned to say b*llocks to that. And in doing so I feel like I’ve learned a pretty valuable lesson. I have no control over my future but the one thing I can control is how I live my life now, and I really want to live it, not restrict it with self-imposed rules. I used to love running, horse-riding – generally being outdoors, but my bones aren’t strong enough now. Instead of feeling miserable, I’ve decided to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, like walking my border terrier Pearl. Enjoying every single day has become my main goal.
So if you are intent on making a New Year’s Resolution, make it this: live your life, don’t restrict it. Stop writing down unattainable goals in your diary and think instead about what you’ve already achieved, because it’s very easy to lose sight of that. And when you stop and think about it, life is brilliant. Yes, I’ve missed out on loads of things because of cancer – my friend recently got me tickets to see Grayson Perry as a surprise as I love him, but I missed it because my chemo date moved. I was gutted. But I’ve done some amazing things too, like sailing on the Greenpeace boat and climbing the O2. I can say I’ve lived my life to the full and when I weigh it up, I’m much happier about the things I’ve achieved than worried about the things I haven’t.
Instead of planning ahead to do something great in the future, do it now. Live in the moment and take each day as it comes. I can’t really plan anything in advance – I’ve had to cancel every flight I’ve booked over the last two years because I ended up in hospital – so now I don’t want to tempt fate. Instead I try to see every day as a bucket list opportunity – any new experience, new food, new place. I want to make the most of it. The other day I had tacos for the first time and it was brilliant – my friends found my enthusiasm hilarious. I mean, who gets so excited over tacos? But it’s important to appreciate the small things. They are what make you truly happy.
There are things I’d still like to achieve. I would like to meet someone, but now that my cancer has got worse, dating is tricky. What I do know is that you have to be proactive – I’m never going to meet anyone if I just sit on my sofa. That’s why I went on First Dates last November – you’ve got to put yourself out there and I’m determined to try as many new experiences as possible. I wasn’t prepared for the public reaction though – it was both overwhelming and touching to hear that so many people were affected by my story. But I think the reason I’m single is probably because I watched too many films and ended up waiting for the fairytale prince to arrive to sweep me off my feet. That’s not reality, is it?
My other piece of advice is ignore what you see on social media. All it does it make us hyper aware of what our lives are seemingly lacking. But despite appearances, no-one’s life is perfect so we need to stop seeing it as a competition. People spend their whole lives thinking about what they haven’t got, rather than how lucky they actually are. I mean, I’m not in Syria, am I? I’m not starving to death. I have political rights and freedom of speech. I have wonderful friends and family. I can get up every day and buy a coffee if I want one. And if you can afford that basic luxury, you aren’t doing that badly.
So before you start beating yourself up for not scaling another rung on that career ladder or finding the love of your life or getting the body of a Victoria’s Secret model, take a step back and think, ‘would this really make me happy?’ Because I know what makes me happy, and it’s not being able to squeeze into an old pair of jeans. It’s walking my dog and spending time with my friends – the small things that soon I just won’t be able to manage anymore. And having an amazing body or a big house or loads of money wouldn’t change that.
Maybe it’s easier for me to say this because I’ve had a kick up the arse to get here. Realising what’s important in life is a process we all have to go through – I just got here quicker. The irony of the situation is that now I have figured all this out, my time to do anything with it is limited. But I’ve been lucky enough to learn how much people love me and to show them how much they mean to me too. Sh*t happens – but that’s life. I don’t intend to waste one moment of it feeling sad. And neither should you.
If you’ve been affected by cancer, Macmillan Cancer Support offers free support to patients, relatives and carers. Call 0808-8080 000 Monday-Friday from 9am-8pm or visit macmillan.org.uk
As told to: Georgie Lane-Godfrey