Remembering Helen Fawkes: the BBC journalist whose exuberant ‘list for living’ touched many

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Anna Brech
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A BBC journalist who inspired thousands of people with her courage, kindness and unhampered lust for life, has died.

Helen Fawkes spent 17 years battling ovarian cancer and underwent more than 100 gruelling rounds of chemotherapy.

She used her blog to document her journey, in posts that illuminated her enormous capacity for humour and tenacity. 

In particular, her “list for living” captured the imagination of many.

Helen began this as a five-year plan of life goals that she scribbled down on the back of an envelope, after completing chemotherapy the first time she was diagnosed with cancer.

It was a light-bulb moment that sparked her career as a foreign correspondent for the BBC; a vocation that brought with it “the most amazing adventure abroad”. 

Helen re-visited and expanded the list after being diagnosed with an advanced, incurable form of cancer on Christmas Eve 2012.

“I’m not terminally ill but I will die a lot sooner than I ever imagined,” she wrote. “The crazy thing is that I feel so well and yet I might be dead by the summer.

“As you can imagine I’m utterly devastated. I feel upset, angry, emotional, sad….But my time is limited. I can’t afford to put on my life on hold any longer. I want to carry on as normal as much as I can. I’m still going to work, and plan to drink the odd cheeky vodka and flirt with unsuitable men. Maybe not all at the same time!”

The heartbreaking revelation came just weeks after Helen celebrated returning to work with the BBC, having undergone surgery and received the all-clear from doctors earlier on in the year.

But, with attempts to shrink each tumour prolonging her life, the reporter was determined to feel truly alive in the time she had left. “I want to have fun and enjoy my last few months/years,” she pledged.

She was adamant her list was one for seizing the moment, rather than a bucket list; “I don't like the term. I'd rather focus on the living, not the dying.”

Helen’s diverse list covered off all manner of ambitions, from the modest to the decadent and the far-reaching.

Space travel, for example, was a long shot but getting a dog, exploring the ancient ruins in Rome and taking a speed boat down the Thames were all very much doable.

As news of Helen’s list for living spread, people from all walks of life chimed in to help her achieve her dreams.

In May 2013, Formula 1 ace David Coulthard took her for a spin around Silverstone in a Porsche 911. 

“This gave me such an adrenalin buzz,” Helen wrote afterwards. “It felt like I’d just a won a race... I realised that doing something incredibly scary had made me feel so very alive.”

Other goals she ticked off included pulling a pint in her local pub, travelling to Paris with a group of friends just for lunch, modelling in a fashion show and zooming down a zip wire.

Helen’s objectives had a wry, poetic humour to them, too. On Christmas Eve 2013, a year after she was told she may have six months to live, she celebrated by drinking champagne in one of the best bars in the world.

The final item and “most special” entry on Helen’s list for living that she blogged about was getting married to her partner, Luke.

The pair tied the knot in a “beautiful frosty” winter wedding at the beginning of this year.

“Over the past few months I’ve become very ill,” Helen wrote. “The main treatment finished in the summer but I continued with a maintenance chemo until December which was exhausting… Luckily I got out [of hospital] just in time for something very special to happen. It was completely unconnected with the cancer and totally amazing… I got married!!!

“The day itself was so special. It was even better than I could ever have imagined. This was the most magical, wonderful day of my life… Luke is an incredible man. He’s the best husband you could wish for.”

After news of her death this week, Helen’s colleague and fellow foreign correspondent Lyse Doucet wrote, “Dear Helen Fawkes – how hard you fought death by living each day to its fullest. You inspired & enriched so many other lives on your way.”

When she first found out she had incurable cancer, Helen wrote:

“I know how I’m probably going to die and roughly when it’ll happen. It’s weird having a likely expiration date. I really hope my Best Before is at least 2023. But you know it’s not the years in your life that matter; it’s the life in your years.”

Images: Helen Fawkes’ blog and Twitter


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.