“The first thing to do was leave my husband” – meet Annabel, a terminally ill participant from A Time to Live

When Annabel was given just two years to live, she made a big decision, as told by a new BBC documentary

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It’s spring, the season of renewal, on a day when the sunshine is a promise of the season to come. On the fringes of north London, Annabel Nnochiri (see main image), who is dressed in purple to complement the pink streak in her long hair, is reflecting on the changes she has made to her life in the past five years.

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It’s her 56th birthday, and we are talking in the top-floor flat that she chose as her new home in 2012. The whole place is awash with natural light, and the white walls are crammed with her own paintings – canvases bursting with colour.

Until five years ago Annabel had never wielded a paintbrush, despite working as an art teacher all her life. “You don’t have to be an artist to teach art,” she laughs. “But suddenly I wanted to paint, and that meant lots of colour, not wintry landscapes with barren trees. And I wanted to learn salsa, and join a choir, and take my children to Barbados at a week’s notice. But the first thing I wanted to do was to leave my husband. And I would never have done any of that without the power.”

The power? “Of having incurable bone cancer,” she explains, “and a prognosis of two-and-a-half years to live.”

Annabel is one of 12 contributors to take part in a remarkable programme by the award-winning film-maker Sue Bourne, about people who are living positive lives after being diagnosed with a terminal illness.

In 2010 Annabel had breast cancer; after treatment, she was in remission for a year. Then in January 2012 her parents were killed in a car accident, and Annabel believes her body found its own way to manifest her terrible loss.

“Pain in my leg started in March, and by June it was so bad I couldn’t bear it. A biopsy was done, and an 8cm tumour was found in my hip. The breast cancer had metastasised to my bones. “I had talked with others for a long while about ending my marriage. But when I was diagnosed as terminal, I thought, ‘If I’ve got two-and-a-half years left, I don’t want to be in this house, I don’t want to be cooking dinner every night… I want to be free!’ I kept singing songs about freedom and flying away.

“Right at the beginning I told my children what I wanted to do. My son was 19 and my daughter was 16 at the time. If they had not agreed, I wouldn’t have done it, but they both said I would be happier if I left. I planned it for six months – buying this flat without telling my husband. When I told him, he thought it was just a phase and that I would go back to him. We have a good relationship now. I didn’t leave to be with someone else, but I have had a very happy love life since then, and he has found someone else and is happy too.”

In the programme there’s a marvellous moment when Annabel says near-conspiratorially: “Because of the cancer, I’ve become a much more interesting, outrageous, naughty older woman.” She grins at the mention of it.

“I used to be very anxious, worrying what people thought of me. Now I just don’t care, because of the cancer. My children are far happier, and we are all closer. My daughter says I’m her role model. I’ve learned to be more selfish – but I also help others deal with cancer. When I’m in hospital I always try to reassure people who are nervous. Some are petrified. Someone did that for me, and it made such a difference.”

Last year she heard Sue Bourne on the radio outlining her plans for the programme, and knew at once she wanted to be involved. She is also strongly supportive of one of Bourne’s key decisions about the content.

Sue Bourne’s original advert for the documentary

The filmmaker nods from across the room. “The convention would be to conclude by saying which of the contributors has died since filming took place last autumn,” says Bourne. “I didn’t want that. The BBC wasn’t keen at first, but the film is about the living, not the dying.

“I had breast cancer six years ago, and it made me realise that life is finite. We all think we’re just going to keep on living, but we’re not. My best friend had cancer last year, and wouldn’t talk about it. She died very quickly, and I thought that wasn’t a good way to die. Then at the start of 2016, when it felt as if a lot of famous people were dying, there was suddenly a dialogue happening about death and I realised how rare that is.”

Five years on from her terminal diagnosis, Annabel is serene. “I think I could live a few more years,” she says. “I do still want to live – for my children, to see my grandchildren. I dislike being referred to as a cancer survivor. I’m just getting on with it. Living with it. It’s a long journey.

“I was Catholic, but when I got my terminal diagnosis I was so angry with God that I stopped going to church. You just have to get through the anger and grief, and accept it. What came eventually was calmness, wisdom and spirituality. If you show kindness, it will always come back to you.”

She touches the National Lottery ticket on her kitchen table with a smile; 14 million to one – you never know. “I still do it now and again,” she says. “I want to give the money to my friends.”

The next day an email arrives for me from Annabel. “This is what I meant to say when we were talking, but didn’t quite,” it reads, and there follows a quote from the American writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive, and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour and some style.”

And in the mind’s eye there stands Annabel, with the pink streak in her hair, smiling in the home – the life – she has made for herself, filled with colour and light.  

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A Time to Live is on Wednesday 9pm, BBC2