"I've done very silly things," says Dan Thomas, staring into the camera. His hope, he continues, is to help people with cancer avoid doing the silly things he's done while dealing with his cancer. He is 32. It's the 11th of January, 2018. This is the first video he'll upload to YouTube.
One of the silly things, he reveals in a video a few weeks later, is a suicide attempt. In August of 2017, he went out and got drunk, then planned to return to a hotel room to kill himself – but, on the way, drove drunk, crashed and woke up in a cell. "I made that plan because I felt I'd been left alone," he says, "felt I'd been ignored." He calls drunk driving that day "disgusting" and expresses disappointment in himself.
Dan, a software developer from Weston-super-Mare on England's west coast, was diagnosed with sarcomatoid carcinoma in 2015, a cancer that Wikipedia describes as "relatively uncommon" and whose top Google result is Dan looking for other sufferers on a messageboard, to no avail.
Uploaded to his channel, "PeeWeeToms", Dan's videos are at first awkward as he embraces YouTuber tropes like endless cuts and green-screen backgrounds, and sometimes seems to be reading from a script. However, when he eventually introduces his family – and the cuts become videos from his surgeries and hospital rooms – the reality of his situation is plain to see, along with the pain and fear that anyone who's experienced cancer knows well.
Naturally, Dan's moods fluctuate, from cheery and energetic to demoralised and red-eyed, frequently staring at the camera before averting his gaze, not wanting to break down. Many heartbreaking moments occur across the near 200 videos. One is him finding a lump on his back while filming. Another is him and his mother panicking after learning that his cancer is finally inoperable. That latter video has 2.5 million views and is by far the channel's most watched, and one of the hardest to watch. "No one knows how long I've got left now," he says, "and that's that."
Amid these shocking moments, an understated one occurs when Dan looks at the camera and says, "I really want to have my life back, it feels so far away." Suddenly we realise that it isn't just the cancer that's crushing him, but his inability to make peace with it. These videos, as much as they help people, are Dan's attempt to let the illness in, then let it go.
Our main takeaway, though, is Dan's incredible optimism. Ultimately, the playfulness he exhibits on a regular basis makes the channel a testament to his spirit rather than some deep dive into the erosion of his body. "I'm not going to let it suffocate me," he says, and he doesn't – vlogging trips to Disneyland Paris in May and Reading Festival in August, six weeks after his treatment stops completely. Even while drastically losing weight he proposes to his girlfriend, and they marry on the 12th of September this year, beaming, despite the pain he must be going through.
Finally, on the 28th of September, Dan dies. In his last video he appears older and shrunken, his voice croaked to a whisper as he explains that he can never eat again. An oxygen tube is attached to his nose. His eyes close repeatedly with sadness and weariness. This is the human experience as its worst. He then points to a pink patch on his chest. "I keep thinking that's my nipple, but it's cancer," he says, and laughs. It's a distillation of what his videos had become: an impossible overcoming, a laugh at the fires of hell.
Some of Dan's vlogs bring me to tears. Having lost my mother to cancer in 2007 there's a painful familiarity to his never-ending bad news and sunken-cheek slide into death. Saying that, there's also happiness in my tears, a gratitude that, through my mother's death, I become a stronger person. I'm no longer trapped by the bitterness it caused, but inspired by what I learned: life is fucking precious. That's the same thing we learn watching Dan. In fact, more than any other media I can recall, his channel approximates what it's like losing a loved one to cancer, right down to it changing our perspective. From park bench to deathbed, to follow Dan's journey is to never be the same again.
Evidence of this is everywhere. Though Dan's YouTube channel only has 163,000 subscribers – and many videos struggle to break 100,000 views – the volume and sincerity of its comments are miraculous. On his final video alone there are over 15,000 comments, and on one of his family announcing his death there's the same.
Take the incredible number of people saying that Dan has drastically changed their lives. This 58-year-old woman decided to shed the shackles of loneliness to go to North Carolina and help with the Hurricane Florence cleanup. "I realise now that we should never live our lives alone," she writes.
Many also say that Dan has helped them with their depression. This woman decided that taking her own life is no longer an option. "Watching his grace and the way he handled his own mortality has changed me forever," she writes.
And there are those who say that Dan inspired them to give up drugs. This Belgian man battled addiction for ten-plus years. "Dan made me realise that there is so much to live for."
If Dan's hope when starting his channel was to help others with cancer, he not only succeeded thousands of times over – as evidenced by comments on his videos – but, in fact, left behind a blueprint for us all on how to live courageously. Even if he felt alone when planning his suicide in August of 2017, by the time he died last month he'd created one of the most life-affirming communities on the internet, which encompasses men and women of all ages from all over the world.
When Dan died, his family made a video announcing his death and vowed to fight on. Because of those who rely on him, they said, they'll continue making vlogs about what it's like now that he's gone. A few days later, his wife Becca posted one inviting everyone to his funeral. Comments flooded in, some even from America, saying they were coming.
Becca and his mother Lin then released an update saying they were going to complete Dan's bucket list, including zip-lining and riding speedboats and helicopters, documenting that as well. Lastly, on the 8th of October, Becca posted a video. She's standing in the same spot where Dan proposed to her. Wind whips against the microphone and through her hair. As tears stream down her face she says, "I'm glad I got to call him my husband, and I've met so many amazing people through him – and now, even when I'm alone, I don't feel alone, because it feels like someone's always there."