Fiona Munro, pictured, said her terminal cancer diagnosis was a ‘gift’ that forced her to rethink her life and make time for her family, leading to her becoming ‘happier than ever before’
Fiona Munro doesn’t want flowers at her funeral. Instead, she would like mourners to come empty-handed — ‘and not wearing black, please. I’m more of a pink sparkly person’ — but leave pledging to perform a random act of kindness in her name.
Fiona, who has just turned 32, has started the process herself. Ever since she was diagnosed with terminal cancer last year, she has been determined to spread a little unexpected cheer, while she can.
Hence the fact she once left £20 on the table of strangers in a cafe, with a little note asking them to ‘play the kindness forward’ and explaining who she was.
‘Maybe it is my way of leaving a little mark, beyond my immediate friends and family,’ she says.
‘But I know it’s not something I would have thought about before my diagnosis.’
There are, of course, no rules about how you deal with a terminal cancer diagnosis when you are just 30.
Last February, Fiona — recently married, planning a family and with a high-flying career in medical research — received the devastating news she had ovarian cancer, stage 4.
‘There is no stage 5,’ she says. ‘They said it was inoperable. There was nothing anyone could do.’
She received the news on the day she was supposed to start a hard-worked-for promotion. She would never be back in the office.
How does a young woman, with the world at her feet, react to such devastating news?
Fiona says she didn’t ask the inevitable question — how long do I have? — but found out, as she puts it, ‘by accident’.
‘I never wanted to know. I deliberately didn’t ask, but at one appointment I happened to say to my lovely oncologist that the insurance company weren’t paying out because they only do if you have less than 12 months to live. She said: “Oh, bring the forms in and I will sign them.” I thought: “S***”.’
Incredibly, she relates all this amid much laughter. Why isn’t she crying?
‘What’s the point? I can’t spend what time I have left being miserable. Besides, I’ve come to realise this cancer is a gift — a gift I never asked for, obviously — but it’s forced me to rethink my life.
‘I spent my 20s striving to get to the top. I never saw my husband. But I’ve made changes — ones I would never have made before, and that’s good.’
But surely she would still give the ‘gift’ of cancer back at the first opportunity?
‘Actually no. Not if it meant going back to the way I was living before. My life has got quality now. I’m not on the treadmill any more. I’m happy, genuinely happy.’
Fiona, who lives in Dundee, is one of the remarkable contributors to a new BBC documentary which gives a voice to those who have been given the worst news possible.
On paper, A Time To Live, which is aired next week, sounds like an unbearably painful piece of television, a lament about lives cut short too soon. But in truth, it’s nothing of the sort.
When asked how she is spending her final days, Lisa, who has terminal breast cancer, says she likes to spend time laughing, having fun and ‘admiring my wonderful breasts that are made out of my tummy’.
‘I’m 50 and when I take my bra off, they don’t move. That’s quite nice,’ she says.
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Lisa, 48, pictured, said her cancer diagnosis was ‘devastating’ but improved the quality of her life after she quit her career and started noticing how much ‘brighter the world was’
Lisa, the mother of two teenage girls, was 48 when she was given 12-18 months to live.
She recalls sitting in the consultant’s surgery and telling her: ‘All I need is three years to get my girls into university.’ The consultant just shook her head and said ‘No.’
It hardly needs saying that the conversation she went home to have with her daughters was the most difficult one a parent can ever have, yet she was determined to set an example in how they should go on.
‘I said: “This thing will probably take your mother but it is up to you if you let it take your future. It is not an excuse to go off the rails. It is not an excuse to fail at school. The way to fight this is to carry on without this thing ruining your life.” ’
Could any of us be this positive, in Lisa’s shoes? She insists a cancer diagnosis, while devastating, has improved the quality of her life.
Thanks to ‘very very good’ life insurance, she’s been able to retire from work, step off the daily treadmill and live the time she has left.
‘I’ve been given a heads-up,’ she says. ‘I can live my life. I’ve been able to retire. It allows you to do things instead of talking about them. The colours are brighter.
‘The trees are greener. I notice the colour of my girls’ hair. I try to drink my husband’s face in. I look at his hands. He has beautiful hands.’
Award-winning film-maker Sue Bourne says she wanted the programme to strike a chord with ‘anyone who has looked in the mirror and wondered how they would cope if they were told they were dying’.
Her own experience of successfully going through breast cancer treatment ten years ago, and of losing a friend to the illness last year, obviously played a part.
Her friend would not talk about what was happening to her. ‘I thought that wasn’t a good way to die,’ she says.
She makes no apology for her subjects being those with positive attitudes. ‘These people have so much to teach us about how to live,’ she says. ‘I wanted it to be a programme about living, not dying,’ she says.
The youngest contributor, a spirited young woman called Jolene, was 23 when she was told she had incurable melanoma.
It makes dating impossible, she says. ‘What do you do? Say: “By the way, I’m dying, do you want to go out with me?” ’
Mother-of-four Louise, pictured, decided to focus on preparing her family for life without her, making sure her youngest son Ned, 13, has a better relationship with his aunt in Singapore to ensure he has a mother figure in his life
One of the older contributors, Anita, who is 70 and has Motor Neurone Disease (MND), thought she would live to be older.
‘I thought I’d be that old lady of 100 parachuting out of a plane.’
The upside of MND for her? ‘Life won’t get boring,’ she smiles. But the viewer isn’t smiling at this point, because Anita is already talking in the past tense. ‘It was a good life,’ she says. ‘I’m ready to die.’
Louise, a mother of four, was 44 when she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer 18 months ago.
Her youngest child, Ned, is 13, and she lives ‘in terror of him not having a mother’.
Although her diet today — everything from kale to milk thistle — means physically she is ‘healthier than ever’, she is also realistic.
She has started to prepare Ned for the day when she is no longer there, mainly by sending him to stay with her sister in Singapore.
While she wants to wrap her arms around her son and never let him go, she also reasons that he needs to get to know his aunt better now.
Then there is Annabel, 56, who had a novel way of dealing with the fact she is living on borrowed time.
She left her husband and took up salsa dancing — finding romantic opportunities in the process.
‘We were together for 28 years but I felt trapped,’ she says. ‘I thought: “If I’ve got two-and-a-half years, I don’t want to be in this house. I don’t want to be cooking dinner every night. I want to be free.” ’
Her life may be time-limited now, but it is happy. ‘If I hadn’t had cancer I’d just be a dull person,’ she says.
‘Because of the cancer, I’ve become a more interesting, outrageous, naughty older woman.’
So vibrant are these people that it comes as a shock to realise, even as you watch the show, that some are no longer with us. Some have died before transmission, reveals Sue, although she won’t say who.
Kevin Webber, who has prostate cancer, isn’t one of them, but knows that he might. At any point.
Annabel, 56, pictured, left her husband of 28 years after her diagnosis and said she now feels like ‘a more interesting, outrageous, naughty older woman’ due to the cancer
It beggars belief because Kevin, 52, seems invincible. The day after his first chemotherapy treatment, in 2014, Kevin, who has three children and works for RBS bank, examined his options.
‘I shuffled into the armchair and sat there like an old man, but next morning I thought: “OK, do I sit on the sofa all day and drink myself silly, and wait to die, or do I get up and do something?” ’
He put on his trainers and ran three miles. Then he ran a marathon. Last year — when he was supposed to be dead — he completed the toughest marathon in the world, a 150-mile desert race over six days. Why? ‘Because I can,’ he says. ‘It gives me a focus, a strength.’
Running — and raising money for prostate cancer — is now an obsession, to the point that when the drugs that are holding his cancer at bay stop working, ‘which they will, because they always do’, he will have a difficult decision.
‘There will be other options with drug treatment, but I have been so lucky because these particular ones have not had too many side-effects.
‘With other ones, my quality of life may well be affected.’ So Kevin is thinking of rejecting any new cocktail.
‘I’d rather keep going like this, for as long as I can, then hit the wall, rather than peter out,’ he says. In short, he wants to die on his terms.
It’s a sentiment Fiona shares — although her way of finding peace has been to go ever slower. She swapped a two-hour commute for a new career as a yoga teacher.
The fact she has to wear a colostomy bag and has an 18in scar running down her front (she underwent an 11-hour operation to remove her womb, ovaries, part of her bladder and a section of her liver), has been no barrier to her standing on her head or assuming the lotus position.
At her home in Dundee, she reflects on how cancer has made her a ‘nicer’ and ‘calmer’ person, albeit one with fewer options.
Incredibly she doesn’t see that as a bad thing either. ‘Before I was just like any other twenty- something, working towards a promotion, doing what was expected of me.
‘Cancer made things more straightforward. I didn’t have to agonise about whether I wanted children because the option was taken away.’
Indeed, her first response to the news she would be childless was to tell her husband Ewan, cheerily: ‘Well, now we can get a dog.’
What is her prognosis now? Astonishingly, her latest scans have showed her to be cancer-free, a fact she puts down to a ‘complete lifestyle overhaul’.
But that doesn’t mean she isn’t dying. ‘You aren’t cancer-free unless you are in remission for five years.
‘The cancer is still there, it’s just it can’t be picked up on a scan. You can’t go from stage 4 to nothing. I know I’m on borrowed time.’
She has put her affairs in order. The funeral has been planned. She tells me she has already cleared out her childhood possessions, ‘so Ewan doesn’t have to’.
‘I look at my life as two parts now. There was the old pre-cancer me and the new me, who has cancer. I like the new me more.’
It sounds like her friends and family have had more trouble adapting to her cancer than she has.
‘Mostly my friends don’t mention it. I thought that was odd, but recently one of them said: “I want you to know when you are no longer here, we will take care of Ewan.” That made me cry. I found it really touching.’
Remarkably, she can laugh about the idea of Ewan remarrying.
‘When you love someone, really love someone, you want them to be happy. But not immediately, mind. If he gets married again a month after I’ve gone I’ll be very p***** off.’
Fiona believes when we depart this world, we leave something of ourselves.
‘I don’t know if it’s a spirit, or perhaps an energy, but I do think you leave something behind, an essence of you.’
Was it the need to leave something behind that prompted her to take part in the film?
‘Possibly,’ says Fiona. ‘But I think it was also about showing people that life doesn’t stop just because you get cancer. You don’t flick a switch and say: “I was living yesterday but today I am dying.”
‘Life just changes. And sometimes for the better.’
- A Time To Live, Wednesday, May 17, BBC2, 9pm.