Julia Barnickle in Shoreditch, London
photo credit: Xanthe Berkeley

Taking Life As It Comes isn’t all about fluffy clouds in an azure blue sky.

It’s also not about giving up, resigning oneself to a miserable life full of impossible challenges.

It’s about my philosophy on Life.

A philosophy that I developed at the age of 18, which has served me well during difficult times throughout my life – and especially during the past 11 years.

Among other things, Taking Life As It Comes is about

  • Learning to Accept What Is, with grace
  • Feeling Gratitude for moments of Joy
  • Focusing on what you love rather than what you believe you “should” do
  • Enjoying the Present Moment rather than worrying about the future or having regrets about the past
  • Leading a life of Ease

* * *

When I was a child, life was easy. I went to nice schools and I enjoyed learning. I didn’t have to plan my future – all I needed to do was to get up in the morning, get myself ready and go to school. And when I came home from school, I could play to my heart’s content.

Admittedly, I was bullied from the age of 7 to 11 by one of my classmates – and from the age of 11 to 18 by another. But I didn’t let it bother me.

At the age of 18, I had a bit of a meltdown.

In addition to being bullied by a classmate, one of my teachers had joined in, sending me out of 6th form classes continually for wearing the wrong coloured socks – even when I wasn’t. I was also struggling with some elements of the subjects I had chosen to study, and feeling overwhelmed by having to come up with some sort of plan for my future beyond school.

On top of this, I kept choking on food (mainly chocolate, it has to be said) and finding myself unable to breathe. I was always on my own when this happened, and it was terrifying.

Over Christmas, shortly before my 18th birthday, I stopped eating anything except satsumas. After the holidays, I was taken to see the doctor.

My GP prescribed Librium, which she told me to take just before eating, in order to relax the muscles in my throat. I only found out many years later that Librium is a tranquilizer, generally prescribed to alleviate anxiety.

I don’t really remember much about the next 6 months, except that I continued to go to school every day, I kept taking the tablets, I ate very little, and I took my ‘A’-level exams.

I had applied to several universities – deferring my entry for a year, because I didn’t want to go straight from school to university. I wanted to experience Life first – but I had no idea what I would do during that year.

I started reading novels about a Tibetan buddhist monk who had moved to Canada – and I learned quite a lot about buddhist philosophies on Life.

At some point that summer, I decided two things:

  • I couldn’t keep taking the tablets for the rest of my life, so it was time to stop
  • Nothing in Life is worth worrying about

That second decision has been the backbone of my philosophy on Life ever since – and it’s that belief which has helped me through the difficult times.

* * *

From that point until I reached the age of 50, I pretty much sailed through Life.

Of course there were ups and downs, but there were no major upsets. I worked in IT, designing and implementing business systems, which I enjoyed and which was varied and challenging – if a job failed to meet my criteria, I changed job. I got to visit parts of the world I might never have thought possible – like New Zealand and Hong Kong. And, what’s more, I was being paid to travel to these amazing places!

When my final job was made redundant during my 47th trip round the sun, I decided I wanted to work for myself. After training, I started my own business as a Life / Careers Coach – and I also did occasional IT contracts in between.

Shortly after I turned 51, two things happened:

  • I was diagnosed with breast cancer
  • A month later, my Mom died

My Mom hadn’t been well for a few months – so I didn’t tell my family about being diagnosed with breast cancer, because I felt they had enough on their plates already. When she died, it didn’t feel like the right time to tell them either. I finally broke the news when I started treatment, nearly 3 months later.

Three years after treatment for that initial diagnosis, I was diagnosed with a recurrence of primary breast cancer in the same area, and had to undergo additional treatment. Two years later, primary breast cancer was found in one lymph node, in the armpit.

To me, it felt like this was the final knockings of cancer – a sign that cancer had given up.

That summer, I helped form the Sing to Beat Breast Cancer choir to back my friend’s daughter – the professional singer Camilla Kerslake – and classical boy band Blake, for a recording session and a number of live performances at breast cancer charity events.

Less than a year later, following a trip to Bratislava to give a talk about introverts in business, I discovered that breast cancer had spread to my spine, and I had to have emergency surgery to remove the tumour and prevent my spine from collapsing.

It felt like being slapped round the face with a wet fish.

Hello secondary / metastatic breast cancer (referred to as “incurable but treatable” in the medical profession, and “terminal” in the travel insurance business).

The following year, as part of my recovery process, I explored London with my iPhone – taking photographs and making films of the city that had been my home for over 30 years, but which I knew very little about. I also made some new friends from around the world.

The iPhone, by the way, was a Christmas present from my husband, who told me: “stop worrying about trying to earn a living, and do something you love.”

Hmmm. Hadn’t I said exactly the same words to my coaching clients on many occasions?

Two years after the initial diagnosis of secondary breast cancer, during a trip to Berlin to give a talk about introverts as polyglots, I found I wasn’t able to walk in a straight line.

I assumed it was something wrong with my ears, due to cabin pressure on the plane, but it turned out to be brain metastases in the cerebellum – breast cancer tumours in the part of the brain that controls balance.

A further period of recovery followed successful treatment of the tumours with Cyberknife – a robotic arm capable of delivering targeted beams of radiotherapy to the affected area.

During that time, I started painting again – something I had discovered when I was recovering from the spine operation. I had found it difficult to express how I felt – and painting helped me to express emotions without having to describe them in words.

Two years later, the brain metastases returned – accompanied by a tumour in one of my adrenal glands (which is very rare).

That same year, the choir re-formed after a 3-year hiatus, and we sang at another charity event at the London Palladium.

I had been having ongoing treatment, every 3 weeks or so, ever since the first diagnosis of secondaries, in my spine. With the latest diagnosis, my treatment had to be changed to include chemotherapy on an on-going basis.

I’ve never been a fan of chemotherapy, so I’ve found it challenging to accept chemo as part of the treatment I will continue to have until such time as it may no longer do the job.

* * *

It seems strange to me, dedicating so much space to events that have happened over the past 11 years, while squashing the wonderful events of the previous 30+ years into a single paragraph. The past 11 years have been momentous – there’s no denying that.

But that’s not what this blog is about.

In this blog, I want to show how the philosophy I developed, back when I was 18, has helped me throughout my life – and in particular during the past 11 years – and has led to friends remarking about the lightness of touch with which I’m able to talk about my experience of cancer.

So, at the age of 62, I’ve decided it’s time for me to talk more openly about my philosophy of Taking Life As It Comes – and hopefully compile my thoughts into a book.

I’ve sometimes said that I feel a bit like an alien from outer space, because my approach to Life seems to be so different from almost everyone I know.

So thank you for reading this far!

Perhaps, when I write down my thoughts on Life, it might be as if I’d written them in some as yet undiscovered language – making my words incomprehensible.

I sincerely hope not!

In the meantime, I’ll continue doing the things I love: writing, painting, taking photographs, filming, singing, travelling, having conversations with friends… and seeing what joys and challenges each new day brings.

In other words,

Taking Life As It Comes.

Julia Barnickle