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Stephen taught us so much about life

'IN light of my current circumstances I have decided to be more pragmatic with my time." Of the dozens of moving, wrenching, uplifting cancer stories relayed in the press, who would known that pragmatism would triumph?

And triumph the story of Stephen Sutton undoubtedly has. The 19-year-old, who died on Wednesday morning, caught the public imagination and held it captive.

His lure was a farewell photograph posted to Facebook at the beginning of May. Rather than greeting the end of his life with rage or frustration or quiet acceptance, Stephen opted for pragmatism.

With a selfie of him lying in a hospital bed, smiling beneath his oxygen mask, he wrote: "It's a final thumbs up from me. I've done well to blag things as well as I have up till now, but unfortunately I think this is just one hurdle too far."

It wasn't, as it turned out. Stephen still had a little longer to live and during his extra time he prompted people to donate to the Teenage Cancer Trust -- the total has now breached the £4 million mark, against his original £10,000 target. He organised a National Good Gestures Day in Birmingham, asking people to dole out high-fives, hugs, handshakes, fist-bumps and thumbs-up to the people around them.

Most of all, Stephen became a focus for many thousands of peoples' grief and admiration.

While we might think we know what will capture the public imagination, the public is still a fickle beast. The attention paid to Stephen's story was overwhelming; one million people liked his Facebook page and thousands followed him on Twitter.

On the day of his death, newspapers live blogged updates while the Church of England has offered Lichfield Cathedral for his funeral.

What was it about this teenager that drew people in? Why this story and not hundreds of others?

Despite advances, cancer affects so many that almost everyone will know someone who has or has had the illness. In the face of a terminal diagnosis Stephen Sutton's positivity was relentless and his focus turned to what he could do in the short time he had. His Bucket List - ranging from the prosaic "Do a sky-dive" to the quirky "Have Tim Minchin write a song for me" - caught the attention of his home town, Birmingham, before charming the UK. He was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2010 and described his diagnosis as a positive thing, a wake-up call. He also deviated from the language we use to talk about cancer, that of a battleground: fighting, winning, bravery. He spoke of his "journey" and concentrated not on time but on achievements.

Having seen cancer close up I have always thought the patient is not so much battling as a battlefield: the war is between the cancer and the treatment. With so much of the cancer narrative being about facing the disease with fists flying (Cancer: we're coming to get you) it was refreshing to see someone concentrating on control of his life, rather than his illness. Not fighting does not mean losing.

He also gave people a chance to be proactive in their support. Rather than be distracted by the negativity of the news agenda or social media feeds, people could watch the fundraising tally increase. At one point Stephen was trending above the independence-related #publishthepoll - remembrance trumping nasty political bickering.

What I take from Stephen Sutton's story is that so many people wait until a major life event before they're spurred to make changes - to lose weight, change careers, travel, tick off the list of things, long bubbling on a back burner, we'd like to achieve. The lesson is to not wait until you're dying before appreciating life.

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Health

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