WITH remarkable fortitude, a brave smile and a quip, actress Lynda Bellingham stared death in the face and refused to let it kick her around.
When confronted with the worst diagnosis possible – she knew her cancer would kill her from the outset – she set about laying down the rules that would give her the best death possible.
Her stoic attitude and frank approach to the end of her life, seemed extraordinary. There she was, discussing funeral plans, even announcing her intention to withdraw treatment and let nature take its unstoppable course.
If anyone understood the Loose Women star’s pragmatic approach, it was cancer patient Ann Holmes. Like Bellingham, her cancer is also incurable.
And she too has found herself wrestling with the difficulties of planning her own best death.
“This is the third time I’ve had breast cancer – third time in three years,” she explains. “Although it’s incurable, it doesn’t mean I’m going to die tomorrow, I could live a long time.
“What I’m looking for is the best quality of life I can get.”
Once a taboo, the subject of how to die is increasingly being more openly discussed and not always with a morbid air – last year author Iain Banks revealed he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer in a statement peppered with light-hearted comments.Likewise, teenager Stephen Sutton took a grounded approach to the inevitable and inspired millions with his hospital bed thumbs up and cheery smile even though he knew his time was fast running out.
And writer Terry Pratchett, who has Alzheimer’s, has been vocal in how he intends to plan his own assisted suicide, carried out with his favourite choral music playing gently in the background.
Ann, 49, from Haddington, learned in December that her cancer is incurable.
As its grip has tightened, she’s received support from St Columba’s Hospice, once for six weeks for pain and nausea management, more recently as a short-stay in-patient.
“In my mind a hospice was end-stage – if you went into a hospice, you were going to die,” she says. “St Columba’s has been a huge revelation.
“This has not been an end-stage thing, this has been palliative care, from people who are absolute experts.”
As well as practical help, the hospice has helped her prepare in other ways too.
When she expressed an interest in going to church, they introduced her to Liberton Kirk congregation and the hospice chaplaincy service. I know that doctors definitely can’t cure what I’ve got and the disease is spreading a bit – not moving out of my shoulder into my lungs or anything, just growing in size.
“So one of the things I’ve been asking people is, ‘Well what does it mean to die?’
“I’ve never died before, I’ve absolutely no idea what that means or what it looks like – you don’t get to do it twice.
“They’ve all been helping,” she adds. “Everybody’s taking it at whatever level I want to take it at – if I want to talk about it, they’ll take my lead.”
Foremost on actress Lynda Bellingham’s thoughts – and no doubt with many others – was her family. Not surprisingly Ann’s focus is on son Daniel, 21, and how he’ll cope alone.
“It’s very difficult because I want to die a good death but I want to do it so Daniel isn’t scared by the whole episode, so that my family and friends still want to come and visit me, so it kind of works for everybody,” she says.
“I will probably move on to planning my funeral and things like that so at the end of the day my son can just pick up an envelope, and he knows just to follow the instruction.
“I had originally contemplated dying at home as it had a huge number of plus points – you have control over it, I like the idea that my Daniel could be there.
“But my concern is that he may be too scarred to stay in the house if that’s where I die.
“So I think maybe I should stay in the house as long as it’s comfortable and everything’s happy and there’s nothing really difficult to see, then towards the end I can stay in the hospice, and he can stay over in one of their family rooms.
“The hospice staff will work with me to give me the most comfortable death possible.” The hospice returned to Boswall Road, Trinity, earlier this year after a temporary move to Gogarburn while work was carried out on a £26 million rebuild project, partly paid for by Evening News readers.
It now accommodates 30 patients in single-bed rooms or small wards with balconies and giant windows to draw nature in from outside.
Others visit the hospice as outpatients to take part in therapies and receive support.
Now unable to continue working as a freelance project manager, Ann gets enjoyment from the hospice arts and crafts activities, retaining her sense of humour when she sees the mixed results.
“Some of it ends up looking like a six-year-old made it and should have some macaroni stuck to it, but I thoroughly enjoy it,” she adds.
For while teenager Stephen Sutton famously ticked off many adventures on his bucket lists of must-do activities, it’s simply not an option: “I’ve looked at all the ‘Bucket List’ things, and I did think about going to Australia, but I don’t have the strength or the energy to do it,” she adds.
“The Hospice staff are so good – so supportive,” she continues. “People are genuine and it’s not just an ‘I’ll hold your hand and it’ll all be alright’ sort of thing. I need practical, hands-on advice on how I can address this, and that’s what they provide.
“This is not a terrible place of death, all weeping and wailing in the corridors – I think we are completely blessed,” she stresses.
“This is the only St Columba’s Hospice and we should embrace it, and not be scared by it.”
Going out with a smile..
DEATH is often regarded as a taboo subject.
But some have broken ranks to talk openly of their end of life plans and even joke about it.
Author Iain Banks told how he had asked his long-term partner to marry him and “do me the pleasure of becoming my widow”. Actress Lynda Bellingham also embraced ghoulish black humour even down to the title of her book: There’s Something I’ve Been Dying To Tell You.”
Comic Spike Milligan asked for his gravestone to be inscribed “I told you I was ill.”
And American killer James French went to die in the electric chair with a quip for waiting reporters “Hey fellas, what about a headline for tomorrow’s papers? French Fries!”