I’m 46 and have months left to live. This is how I’ve learned to accept my death

Simon Boas
Simon Boas at home. 'It's a gift to be able to prepare yourself and your loved ones for your own extinction' - David Ferguson/The Telegraph

A letter called “A Beginner’s Guide to Dying” by a 46-year-old Jersey-based man with terminal cancer has been dropping into in-boxes all over Britain in the last couple of weeks (read the full letter here). Thousands have shared it, with the words “Read this!”

Its author, Simon Boas, given six to 12 months to live in February, has since read from the letter on BBC Radio 4. “The prognosis is not quite ‘Don’t buy any green bananas’, he told listeners cheerily, “but it’s pretty close to ‘Don’t start any long books’.”

Quoting Emperor Hirohito, who announced in 1945 after two Japanese cities were obliterated by nuclear bombs “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage”, Boas said of the 27 tumours now in his lungs in addition to the throat cancer, missed by doctors: “Well, I’m sorry to have to announce that my cancer situation has also developed not necessarily to my advantage.”

At a time when the world is ravaged by wars, death and famine, Boas’s cheerful stoicism seems to have touched the nation: “I’ve existed for 46 years! It’s as churlish as winning the £92 million Euromillions jackpot and then complaining bitterly when you discover that there’s another winning ticket and you’ll only get half the money… We should be dazzled by our good fortune – dancing on the tables every day.”

Since his letter was first published in the Jersey Evening Post, Boas, who is executive director of Jersey Overseas Aid, has been contacted by many hundreds of people. “The response has been wonderful and it’s brought me such happiness to know I have made a difference,” he explains when we meet. ‘I resolved at the beginning to write back to everybody. But it’s taking quite a lot out of the day now.”

Some of the people who reach out to him are dying themselves; some are on a cancer journey; some are grieving; some are philosophising about a good life and a good death; some are re-examining faith; some are fans of his humour and his kindness. Celebrants too have requested permission for his words to be a consolatory text at funerals.

I too wrote to him because he changed my perspective on death and thus on life. “Come for lunch!” he wrote back. “A life of meaning is about small acts, not big achievements. So it doesn’t matter if you’ve lived a quiet life in the suburbs or been president of the USA. It’s about looking for happiness and kindness.”

Simon Boas
Boas has been contacted by hundreds of people since his letter was first published - David Ferguson

Boas’s stoicism is not of the “chin-up-old-boy” sort, where pain is left unconfronted. It is more philosophical, a rare modern-day example of the teaching of the Stoics, who began in Athens in the late fourth century BC, and who believed a life of joy can be attained with the correct attitude to the universe. It’s not what is missing, but what we have already or have had. “How lucky it is to have lived at all,” Boas writes. “Just for us to be born… is like hitting the jackpot every day of the year.”

Coloured Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags are draped around the garden fence of the home he shares with his French wife Aurelie, 41, in Trinity, north of Jersey’s capital. When strangers draw up trying to find him, wanting to thank him, the flags are a helpful clue. Jersey Royals, candles and jars of honey are all left on the doorstep as presents. Letters arrive despite having only half an address on the envelope.

He opens the door of their cottage and immediately flings his arms around me, a strong physical embrace echoing the spiritual comfort he has already dispensed. “If I can’t change the cards, I’ll play them as well as I can,” he says, showing me into the sitting room.

His work colleagues are devastated. Sometimes, he orders everybody to down tools and head to the pub with him at 3pm. “I want to skid into my grave on two wheels.”

He is delighted that we can have lunch together before he becomes too ill. “Enjoy the tiny ways you can make other people a little happier,” he says, “that way lies your own happiness. I’ve never compared myself upwards. It’s a gift to be able to prepare yourself and your loved ones for your own extinction.

“Knowing I am going to die, it’s easier to concentrate on kindness and the best in people. I’m leaving life loving it, and everybody in it.”

Jersey Overseas Aid focuses on six countries: Nepal, Ethiopia, Malwai, Zambia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone for development work, all of which Boas visits, as well as funding emergencies such as the humanitarian crisis following the bombing of Ukraine. Now he will never go to Africa again, nor see through aid projects he has planned and to which he has allocated millions in funds. “But I’m happy if I never leave this lovely community in Jersey. There’s a nice hospice here for me.”

Jersey’s States Assembly is scheduled to debate proposed legislation on May 21 after becoming the first parliament in the British Isles to decide “in principle” that assisted dying should be allowed. “I’d like the option even if I don’t use it,” says Boas. “I don’t see any value in increasing length at the expense of quality.” In three weeks time he will discover if immunotherapy will extend his life by a year or even more. He used to be an atheist, but no longer. “It’s a terrible cliché to get terminal cancer and suddenly start believing in an afterlife. Now I don’t see death as necessarily being the indelible full stop to things.” He has planned a few songs and readings for his funeral (and a couple of funny jokes), “I’m working out with Aurelie where I end up. I don’t care, but she’s a Catholic and I think she wants a burial and a grave, and we need to think where she will be.”

Simon Boas with his wife Aurelie and dog Pippin
'Simon is high on human connection and friendship': Boas with his wife Aurelie and dog Pippin - David Ferguson

Boas is very tall, now quite thin and without the beard Aurelie liked on him, a casualty of chemo and radiation. Candles burn brightly at the kitchen table, set for our lunch of soup and the cheeses that he can no longer eat himself. Cheese is his favourite food. “My last meal might very well be a cheese fondue,” he says. A feeding tube looms in the future.

When we set off later for a walk, he pulls on his new aviator jacket, and says “a bit of a midlife crisis, but cancer trumped me caring about that!” If immunotherapy buys more time, he is thinking about expanding “A Beginner’s Guide to Dying” into a book. Last October, after treatment, he spent two weeks in hospital with pneumonia: “It really helped me see the world through a Stoic lens.”

Boas grew up in Winchester, Hampshire. His father, a businessman, retired early. His mother was a language book editor and worked for the Citizens Advice Bureau. “Both were always charitably minded, working in soup kitchens and at the food bank. They let me go off on my first aid convoy to Bosnia when I was only 16 and I worked in a night shelter while at school. They’ve always told me “the world is your lobster”.

Boas hiking in Georgia in 2018
Boas hiking in Georgia in 2018

As a boy, he was a scholar at Winchester College, three years above the prime minister. Boas exhibits the very best of that school, known for fostering intellectual curiosity and eccentricity. He has been reading voraciously: the Stoics, Buddhist teachings, the contemplative traditions, the work of the Christian monk Thomas Merton. He studied English at Oxford before dropping out in his final year following a car accident, which made him rethink his life. After learning Arabic, he returned to studying, reading international policy analysis at Bath University. Leaving Oxford was perhaps the first sign of an unconventional path: witnessing rocket strikes, gun battles, being shot in the leg, pulling his own tooth out, being detained on a trumped-up murder charge in Vietnam, getting himself off by singing in a brothel. And on it goes. He has lived and travelled all over the globe.

Much of Boas’s professional career working for an NGO has been spent in Palestine: for the Palestine Economic Policy Research Unit; as special adviser to the Minister of Planning for the Palestinian National Authority; as head of the UN’s food and agriculture office in Gaza; followed by various Civil Service roles before moving to Jersey in 2016.

Boas on an overseas aid commission in Lebanon
Boas on an overseas aid commission in Lebanon - DAVID FERGUSON

He has sung in a choir on three continents, is still a Samaritan and a volunteer Jersey police officer. “I think my friends imagine me in the back of a police car, not driving one!” he says.

“I sometimes feel high with happiness and I do check myself that I’m not in denial,” he explains. “There is just so much to be grateful for. Knowing I’m dying, I can feel sadness and joy and anger all at once. And I’ve been lucky. I’ve always tried to step away from regrets and expectations. It has made dying easier. I’m leaving life loving it and everybody in it. Knowing I’m dying means I see the joy.”

“But there is no right or wrong way to deal with the worst news and some people might deny it until the very last minute and there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t for a second want people with a terminal diagnosis to think “Why aren’t I feeling such joy too?”

The kitchen is full of cut flowers, tulips in pinks and purples and the prettiest pink-and-white-striped camellias, grown by Aurelie, whom he met in 2008 on a bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. She had just begun an internship with a Palestinian news agency as part of a masters in journalism. Within two days they were housemates.

Simon with his wife Aurelie
'I sometimes feel high with happiness and I do check myself that I'm not in denial': Simon with his wife Aurelie - David Ferguson

If Boas’s impending death has touched Britain, how must it be for her? Or for his parents left behind? “Most of the time, I am fine,” says Aurelie. Their love for each other is palpable. In recent years, it has weathered the dark cloud caused by rounds of unsuccessful IVF treatment.

“Simon is high on human connection and friendship,” Aurelie explains. “Floating above the pavement. Because he is being so strong and putting such meaning into the whole thing, it helps me. I can’t think about the future, so we’re very focused on the moment. And sometimes I can forget about the cancer otherwise I’d be paralysed. Simon is so far ahead of us all [in attitude]. I do have to say to him: ‘Can we talk about something domestic for a moment?’ and not feel guilty about asking that.”

Simon and Aurelie on their wedding day in 2010
Simon and Aurelie on their wedding day in 2010

The only time his eyes fill with tears is not about how doctors missed the tumour in his throat back in 2022, but contemplating Aurelie’s future without him, and of his parents. He has a younger sister, Julia, a therapist. “I’m sure my parents are having long dark teatimes of the soul. They want to be strong for me, though.”

Aurelie, who is retraining, qualifies as a counsellor this summer at exactly the moment Simon reaches the most pessimistic date of his prognosis. Their hairy ginger French dog Pippin, a Picardy Shepherd, watches over her owners protectively. “I have cried a lot of tears into that dog’s rough fur,” Boas says while stroking her. He first experienced pain in his throat in the summer of 2022, and difficulty swallowing. He was treated for acid reflux. He returned to the GP and was referred to an ENT consultant. A camera detected swelling, attributed to the effects of reflux. Symptoms persisted. In February 2023 he returned for further investigations. An email went astray. He was diagnosed with stage-four throat cancer in August 2023.

“The medical process let me down a bit,” he says, with characteristic understatement, “but I resolved not to live with blame and anger. Blame isn’t going to buy me a single extra day. All it’s going to do is make me angry and sad and twisted in whatever time I have left.” His care since has been exceptional. His South African oncologist has allowed him the odd roll-up and wine (“only South African wine, though”, she said, jokingly).

Last autumn Simon and Aurelie moved to live with his parents in Winchester for his chemo and radiotherapy at Southampton Hospital. There was still hope then, albeit not full recovery, but he had by then resolved to be optimistic.

The pneumonia struck in October. In January this year, PET scan results were late coming. On the day he was called in to be told of the lung cancer, Aurelie was in Paris on a long-planned trip with girlfriends. “I would never have gone if I’d known,” she says. The delay was due to the bleak prognosis. “My doctors were sending the results to more and more doctors, even to the Marsden, asking, ‘Surely there must be something we can do to help this man?’ There was nothing.”

He was given the news at Jersey General Hospital. “I’d already stopped planning my 50th but the timescale [of death] was much sooner than I imagined.” He was with his best friend from Winchester. “I cried a lot and we drank a bottle of gin and went on long walks. I also wrote ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Dying’ immediately. The worst was knowing that I had to tell Aurelie.”

Simon Boas
Simon initially wrote his now famous letter for the Jersey Evening Post - David Ferguson

He told her in the car, at Jersey Airport, when he picked her up three days later. “I think by then I was a little bit more composed.” They took themselves off to her family house in Brittany to be alone and to process. “I do feel sadness and joy all at once,” he says.

“I didn’t fit the profile,” says Simon, who has smoked on and off since school. Throat cancer is experienced by non-smokers too. “If I’d been 60, it’s the first thing they’d have thought of.”

“That’s how the doctor defended himself,” says Aurelie.

“People make mistakes in every profession,” says Boas. “If I was in rural Nepal, I’d probably still be on paracetamol. That I even had a doctor is pretty lucky. Billions in the world don’t.

“I want people to understand that if I’m leaving life with a degree of equanimity. It’s not because I don’t like life, it’s for precisely the opposite reason. It’s because I love it and the people in it. There are still moments, like at 3am, when I tell myself ‘now is not the time to plan my funeral’. But I took three resolutions quite early on and I’ve managed to stick to them. The first is not to blame the doctors. The second is not to blame myself and the third is not to chase miracle cures.”

They have two more trips to France planned, in May and in July. Pleasure, though, is found at home, spending time with Aurelie, going for walks with Pippin and drinking Muscadet with friends. “I’m lucky not to have too much of a bucket list. I’ve climbed the Pyramids and done big motorcycle trips, but you only have to do one tiny thing to make an impact. We’ve all led significant lives.”

Read the letter in full

A Beginner’s Guide to Dying by Simon Boas

My favourite bit of understatement ever comes not from a Brit or a Spartan but from the Japanese Emperor Hirohito. In August 1945, following Japan’s defeats in every recent battle and the obliteration of two cities with nuclear bombs, he broadcast that “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage”.

Well, I’m sorry to have to announce that my cancer situation has also developed not necessarily to my advantage.

Last August I was diagnosed with advanced throat cancer, and was started on a fairly aggressive regime of treatment to try to cure it. Sadly, although the chemo and radiation did a good job on the tumours in my throat and neck, I’ve recently been told that my lungs are now riddled with the bloody things. The prognosis is not quite “Don’t buy any green bananas”, but it’s pretty close to “Don’t start any long books”.

So it seems I’m going to hop the twig, and probably sooner rather than later. But many things give me comfort. The huge support and compassion which my wife and I have received from friends and neighbours, and even total strangers. My job, running Jersey’s Overseas Aid programme, which I’m so lucky to love. (I’m still working every day, but quite often leave at 3pm for a pint with someone. The rules are different in Cancerland!). And there are three related thoughts I have again and again, which bring me joy and which I would like to share.

First of all, I take comfort from the thought that I’ve had a really good – almost charmed – life. (I’ll start with the boasting, in the hope you will have forgiven or forgotten it by the end.) I have dined with lords and billionaires, and broken bread with the poorest people on earth. I have accomplished prodigious feats of drinking. I have allocated and for several years personally delivered at least a hundred million pounds’ worth of overseas aid. I have been a Samaritan and a policeman, and got off an attempted-murder charge in Vietnam (trumped up, to extract a bribe) by singing karaoke in a brothel.

I have climbed the Great Pyramid, sailed across the Med, and chipped chunks of concrete off Checkpoint Charlie. I have travelled extensively on five continents, sung in choirs on three, and crossed borders with diplomatic immunity. I have seen whales and tigers and bears in the wild. I have seen air strikes, rockets and gunbattles, the despair of the bereaved and the vacant stares of the ethnically cleansed. I’ve rolled a car, been shot in the leg and pulled one of my own teeth out. The Times has printed eight of my letters, and I have recently vanity-published an exceptionally rude poem about cyclists.

Most of all, I have loved and been loved. I’m cocooned in the stuff; my cup overfloweth.

At 46, I have lived far longer than most of the humans in the 300,000-year history of our species. So have you, probably. And if the book of my life is shorter than many modern people’s, it doesn’t make it any less of a good read. Length and quality are not correlated in lives any more than they are in novels or films. So carpe that diem and keep it carped. And enjoy the tiny ways you can make other people a little happier. That’s actually the secret of being happy oneself.

My second comforting thought is this: Nobody knows whether there’s a God, or an afterlife, but it seems unlikely to me that our existence is merely a brief and random flash of consciousness between two eternities of nothing. A benevolent creator strikes me as no more far-fetched than the latest efforts of physics to make sense of our world: for example that volume is illusory and the universe is really a hologram, or that there are infinitely many universes all existing in parallel. Our almost-instinct may well be almost true: What will survive of us is love.

And finally, the thought I keep coming back to is how lucky it is to have lived at all. To exist is to have won the lottery. In fact, there are so many bits of extraordinarily unlikely good luck that have occurred just for us to be born, that it’s like hitting the jackpot every day of the year. Consider some of them:

There is something rather than nothing. The laws of physics, the strengths of forces, the mass of an electron, are poised precisely so that stars and planets can form. Inanimate stardust somehow combined to become self-replicating, and then somehow developed further into eukaryotic, complex life. And then complex life didn’t just stop at ferns and fishes, but evolved into creatures that were aware of their conditions. Matter became conscious of itself.

Of all the billions of people in the world, your parents met and merged. And of all the sperm and eggs they produced – this is a billion-to-one shot just on its own – the only two that would make YOU fused and multiplied. If the moment you were conceived had been any different at all – a week later; a bottle of Blue Nun soberer – you wouldn’t have been born.

To the staggering improbability of you just being here to read this – in physical and biological terms – is added our good fortune in where and when we live. To update Cecil Rhodes, to have been born in Western Europe is itself to have won first prize in the lottery of life. And we live in the longest era of peace in human history, where our chances of dying from disease or violence are lower than ever before. We also live in an age of extraordinary abundance, the poorest of us richer than any medieval king in terms of access to food, energy, care, transport, knowledge, justice.

So, if I whine that my life will have been shorter than many modern people’s, I am massively missing the point. I’ve existed for 46 years! It’s as churlish as winning the £92 million Euromillions jackpot and then complaining bitterly when you discover that there’s another winning ticket and you’ll only get half the money.

Life is inordinately precious, unlikely and beautiful. You are exquisite. When you say – as you do, 20 times a day – “I’m fine”, realise that you don’t just mean “I’m adequate”. You are FINE. Refined. Unique. Finely crafted; fine dining; fine china! You really are fine in that sense too. We say it all the time, but unknowingly we speak the truth.

We should be dazzled by our good fortune – dancing on the tables every day. And I mean to keep dancing in whatever time I have left here, and (who knows?) perhaps afterwards too.

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