'Like it or not, I HAVE to go to the South Pole' – Jersey Overseas Aid executive director Simon Boas speaks about life-changing diagnosis

Simon Boas, executive director of Jersey Overseas Aid, has been diagnosed with throat cancer Picture: ROB CURRIE

I have recently been informed that, like it or not, I HAVE to go to the South Pole. Or at least, that’s the best way I can think of describing what’s happened to me in the past few weeks.

About halfway through this soggy summer, a surprised doctor confirmed that the weird lumps in my neck were metastasised squamous cell carcinoma, and the reason I’d had trouble swallowing for a year was due to a tumour in my throat. (I TOLD you I was ill, as Spike Milligan wrote on his tombstone).

This all requires six weeks of pretty exacting chemo- and radiotherapy in Southampton, which is due to start in mid-September. And the best analogy I’ve found to explain it is that someone has told me ‘Right, Simon, you HAVE to go to the South Pole’.

I have no great desire to go to the South Pole, and it’s not something one does lightly. But most people these days go to the South Pole and come back fine, although it’s perilous and you probably lose some weight (and maybe even some toes). However, I’ll also get to see some interesting things on the way (cancer penguins?) and know myself better when I get back.

So, I’m currently preparing for my unplanned expedition. I’m passing on my work as director of Jersey Overseas Aid to my wonderful team there, and my responsibilities as chair of Jersey Heritage will go to my fellow trustees. I plan to keep in close contact with both by radio, but need to recognise that there will be times when I’m in a crevasse and the signal is weak.

I am going to lose weight on my trek south, so I’m feeding myself up as much as possible. Bruno’s Bakery and the Parade Kitchen are playing their delicious part. Yesterday evening, I ate over a kilo of cheese fondue, a personal best.

Less enjoyably, I ought to start the journey as physically fit as possible, so the other day I did a press-up. I’ll probably do another one fairly soon.

When all is said and done, this trip to the South Pole is a solo expedition. However, there are many people helping me. Cancer.je has offered me equipment (a phone for cheaper roaming) and even cash if I need it. Meanwhile, MacMillan has been stunningly, humblingly amazing. A sort of Polar Outfitters, if I can flog this metaphor for a couple more paragraphs.

‘I have recently been informed that, like it or not, I HAVE to go to the South Pole.’

They have supplied so much in the way of mental and physical support. They have also given me all the information I’ve been craving, and had experts in all aspects of this journey tell me exactly what to expect. I cannot sing their praises highly enough.

I have also had so much support from so many people in this wonderful Island. Cancer’s a funny one, in that it’s a scary thing and a lot of people don’t know how to react. But I’ve shed many more tears of happiness recently, at the affection I’m surrounded by than of self-pity.

Thanks to my day job at JOA, I’ve long known what a compassionate and generous place Jersey is. I’m so grateful to everyone who’s got in touch, and have resisted responding to the many offers of practical help with a request that my sheepdog’s anal glands need expressing (not true, actually, though you’d do it too, you lovelies!).

If it’s not too depressing, I shall keep you posted from time to time as I pick my way through the snow and ice.

I fully intend to follow in the footsteps of Amundsen rather than Scott, and a cure is definitely possible. Nevertheless, with the cancer fairly advanced, I have to accept that there is a decent chance I’ll be taking the Room Temperature Challenge rather sooner than I would have liked. I don’t know the exact figures and don’t really want to at the minute. But they’re easily two-bullets-in-the-revolver-type odds. Perhaps a couple more.

In one sense, this is all fantastically unlucky and unfair. I’m 46, unbelievably luckily-married, doing a job I love and suddenly facing the possibility of my own extinction.

I won’t pretend a note of self-pity hasn’t occasionally found its way into the songs I sing myself at 4am. And I must also admit to hearing a few bars of anger at that hour too: at taking more than a year to be diagnosed, at cancelled scans, bureaucratic errors, information droughts, etc.

However, that way madness lies, and during daylight hours, at least, I’m pretty good at tuning these emotions out. I’ve also managed – not quite sure how – not to blame myself too much.

Three decades of smoking and a few periods of fairly Churchillian boozing can’t have helped (though, of course, some get away with it for much longer).

And it’s possible also that my sporadic inability to calibrate how worried I should be about my health meant that doctors were slow to take new aches and pains seriously enough.

But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you (as the t-shirt says), and just because you’re a bit of a hypochondriac doesn’t mean you don’t have squamous cell carcinoma.

So I’ve managed to avoid some of the obvious pitfalls – self-pity, anger, blame – but how does it actually feel to get such a clear view of the scythe?

Well, this may sound bonkers, but it’s not actually that bad. The ONE thing which makes my eyes leak is the thought of its impact on my loved ones, particularly my beloved wife, Aurélie, and my parents.

The word ‘widow’ now chokes me up, and it’s even worse if I use it as a transitive verb. However, I’m not really sad for myself, or even fearful, and in fact, I’d say the feculent prognosis has fertilised some green personal growth.

Simon Boas Picture: ROB CURRIE. (36575168)

So, with apologies for inflicting them on you, stand by for some clichés. You’ve probably heard them before, and the oldest and truest part of you knows all this anyway, but our busy lives and brains are good at obscuring these thoughts. Cancer has clarified them for me.

First, I have much developed my ability to prioritise.

Important things: love; kindness; meaning.

Not important: money; status; validation.

It’s so easy to forget that the truly rewarding things in life are basically free. Moreover, in Jersey we are all richer than almost any human being who has ever lived. We have guaranteed access to shelter and food, and to health care and education and justice. We can instantly communicate with anyone, travel anywhere on the planet and we have the entirety of humanity’s knowledge in our pockets.

In Jersey, we live in one of the most caring, safe and close-knit communities in the world. Yet, we are usually on a treadmill to acquire more, and we compare ourselves to the few who we think are better off, rather than the billions who are poorer. I do not lie awake now worrying about the mortgage.

Second, I have found it much easier to see the best in people. I usually walk around St Helier beaming like an idiot anyway, as I’m hopeless at recognising faces and prefer to baffle a stranger than snub a friend. But since my diagnosis I feel kinder, and swifter to excuse.

Sit in the radiotherapy waiting room with people from every background and you realise that much more unites us than divides us (despite the best efforts of the ‘woke’ and their disappearing soulmates, the racist, to convince us otherwise).

Observe the little acts of tenderness, the stoic humour, the courage. Serious illness and its familiar equestrian companion are great levellers, because they remove the masks we all wear and reveal the vulnerable humans underneath. And it’s quite easy to extend that outside the oncology department to realise that EVERYONE is basically just doing their best. Even the woman who pinched your parking space, and the medics who insisted you just had acid reflux.

And finally, with the future uncertain, one lives more fully in the present. One can still worry about what comes next, of course (and I’ve just learnt the word ‘scanxiety’). But I am also appreciating so many things I might not otherwise notice or feel grateful for.

A happy dog stretching in the grass; a perfect mushroom; a really good stilton! Little things bring me enormous pleasure at the minute (and God, I’m going to miss cheese when the feeding tube goes in).

Conversely, not being able to make plans removes any temptation to scheme, covet or fret.

What I really wish is that I’d understood all of this many years earlier. With any luck I’ll recover, and have decades benefitting from (and annoying others with) these insights.

And it is my sincere hope that some of you lovely people might reach these conclusions too, while there’s plenty of sand in your hourglass.

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