At just 49, Bruce Beach was diagnosed with a rare cancer, and in five years, he will probably be dead. But against the odds, he has found inspiration in the most hopeless of all situations, he tells Nick Harding

Each day death breathes down Bruce Beach's neck with impatience. Until he felt its urgency, he never had much time for living. But mortality has given him renewed perspective. In the last two months Bruce has completed a source-to-sea quest down the River Thames in a canoe, and a three-week road trip around Scandinavia and Europe on a vintage motorcycle. He has recently recorded an album with his band, is preparing to play at London's famous 100 Club and, for good measure, has raised money for charity. By his own admission, when he was younger, Bruce was never one for living. "Things just got in the way, like work and bills," he says.

Like the John Lennon adage, life happened to Bruce, 49, while he was making other plans. All that changed the day he collapsed with excruciating abdominal pain and subsequently learned that he is dying. Perhaps modern life's greatest luxury is the indulgence of being able to come to terms with our mortality slowly, usually over a lifetime of good health. Sixty is the new 40 and our allotted three-score-and-10 elongates with each new medical breakthrough. Death, while still inevitable, can be staved off with 21st-century medicine and the correct lifestyle choices. Increasingly we get to meet it on terms of our own making.

Bruce has not had that luxury. His mortality came sharply into focus after surgeons discovered two tumours growing on his liver and he was diagnosed with cancer. The prognosis is that he will probably be dead within five years. The slow-growing, inoperable cancer is strangling the life out of him. He is a father of three. "That natural ageing-until-death process isn't going to happen to me because I won't make 60," explains Bruce. "It gets to me now and again to think I am not going to get what I thought I deserved. I would like to have lived to 90, but that is not going to happen. If I make 10 years I've beaten the odds. The prognosis is that I've got maybe five; eight if I behave myself. The irony is that, before the diagnosis, I wasn't interested in living; now I am dying I've never felt more alive."

Bruce was diagnosed with rare neuroendocrine cancer after emergency surgery last summer. It is a hormonal cancer that only affects one in 50,000 people and is the same disease that killed the snooker player Paul Hunter in 2006. Dubbed the "quiet cancer", it had slowly been growing in Bruce for around 15 years. He recalls: "After the operation I was in agony; even the morphine was not working. I was terrified and delirious. The surgeon came to my bedside and said, 'We found a tumour. I'm sorry, there is nothing we can do.' He made a fist with his hand to indicate the size.

"Anger was the first emotion I felt. I said to him, 'What do you mean, that's it? There's no hope?' He apologised again. The tumours were on my liver and wrapped around my mesentery, the central tissue that takes blood supply to my stomach. They couldn't remove them with surgery – it would have killed me.

"At that point I was a dead man walking. I was in so much pain there were days when I thought I'd be better off dead."

Scans showed that the cancer had not spread and Bruce was prescribed daily opium-based painkillers. He has monthly injections of a drug called octreotide, which help slow the cancer's growth. Bruce says: "I am learning to cope now. The drug affects my moods. I am more emotional and sentimental than I used to be. I watched Mamma Mia! with my daughter Sophia recently and it made me cry. I have good days and bad days."

With the physical symptoms under control, Bruce began the harder task of facing the grim reality of his condition. With the help of St John's Hospice in London he went to counselling sessions. "It is a huge thing to grasp. When someone explains that you are going to die and there is nothing that can be done, the reality is that you probably never truly accept it. I went through all the emotions: anger, despair, self-pity. I have a chronic disease – the cancer will not get any better, and chemotherapy will make me worse. I'd like to hope that there will be medical advances in the future that I might benefit from, but the reality is that this type of cancer doesn't get much funding and they don't know much about it, because one in 50,000 isn't much of a study group.

"After the diagnosis I broke down twice. I didn't want to make a habit of it but that release of emotions really helped ... Initially the best bit of advice I got was from my older brother who had throat cancer 10 years ago. He told me there is no cavalry coming. He said, 'You have to put on your armour every day and go to war.' Then I developed an idea of making the cancer my friend rather than my enemy. I figured I just couldn't use all that energy fighting it – it would exhaust me. It isn't a welcome friend – it's something I have to tolerate, but the key is acceptance. If I am always fighting the problem I can't move forward. I theorised that once I accepted what was happening to me, I could use that as the source and use it to get things done. I decided to make the problem useful and then I started to see all sorts of opportunities."

Living under a death sentence Bruce found hope, inspiration, and ultimately life. He explains: "I'm part of the generation who have enjoyed an unparalleled standard of living, but we rarely put anything back. I'm no saint and I don't want to be seen as one but I thought, 'If I can use my illness, make some money for a good cause and have some fun at the same time, what's the harm in that?' At the end of the day no one is going to turn you down when you say 'help me out, I'm dying'."

So the former builder and keen musician Bruce started calling in favours he'd accrued over a lifetime. He persuaded his friends to form a band, The West End Comb and Kazoo Company, and arranged venues to play in. They started gigging to raise money for the hospice. They recorded an album, Sons of Immigrants. He formed a performing arts club in London's Covent Garden, where he lives, in which artists and musicians now meet to exhibit their work and hold discussions. He has arranged a benefit gig for the hospice at London's famous 100 Club in November. "I've never been more interested in living in my entire life," he explains. "I always wanted to take part. I wanted to get involved but never found the opportunities."

With a boldness born of urgency Bruce has reordered his priorities. A request from the bank for a loan repayment was met with a letter that simply said "FUCK OFF" in big black letters. "Let them take me to court," he laughs. "I'll demand to be executed and they can televise it."

From the depths of despair, Bruce is now living a life he could never have imagined. "I've started to enjoy myself, which is the unexpected upside," he says. "And I've inspired others. That's one of the fundamental problems in life: everyone is too busy aspiring, they don't inspire. One of my friends is 50 and a French polisher nearing retirement, living a comfortable life. Now he's in a band and has taken up the saxophone and will be playing the 100 Club in November. A lot of my mates are involved. I said to them, 'It's about time we stood up, enjoyed ourselves and did some good.' It's a flight of fancy; the cancer has enabled me to live a more fanciful life. The proof is in the fact that I am here talking to a national newspaper. That would not have happened to me before."

Last month Bruce and his 17-year-old sons, Max and Cameron, completed a 187-mile canoe journey along the length of the Thames to raise money for the hospice. They set off from Lechlade-on-Thames in the Cotswolds and paddled to Southend-on-Sea on the Essex coast in eight days, camping at night. Bruce had always harboured an ambition to take the journey, a traditional rite of passage for Londoners in days gone by. He explains: "It was a bit of a metaphor, I have a cancer in my central river, and I was travelling the course of the Thames to cleanse myself. If I had known what I was getting myself into I would never have done it, though. Once you get out past Canary Wharf it can get a bit frightening when there are liners sailing past. But I figured that, by that point, we'd become proficient enough to know what we were doing.

"It a thing I wanted to tick off the list before I die. Having a purpose each morning – even as simple as breaking camp and getting in a boat with the boys – became comforting and exciting. I had moments of real optimism and felt really good. "

The journey gave Bruce the chance to see how his sons had developed into young adults and how they would cope in challenging situations. He explained: "I wanted to get an insight into my boys – not that I didn't have one already, but I wanted to see them under a bit of pressure, to see how they had developed as young men, because, when your kids go through the teenage years, you lose a connection with them. I've tried to give them advice as they've grown up and I wanted to see if they had picked up on any of it. For me it was way of checking they'd be OK when I am no longer here. It wasn't a goodbye; it was more of a hello.

"The boys know I am ill but I told them we are all going to die anyway; I don't want them to ponder on it too much. I'm the one who is dying, not them. I've always kept it light-humoured.

"It will get progressively worse and, when I dwell on it, that's the only thing that upsets me. We've all got that sword of Damocles hanging over us but, for me, the worrying thing is knowing the disease and knowing how painful it can be. That's my fate and I have to decide how I want to end up. But until it gets to that point I do have the opportunity to the control the quality of my life."

Bruce's message is this: that just because there is no hope, it does not follow that a situation is hopeless. He has replaced quantity with quality and sometimes that is far more important.

"When I finished the trip my daughter said, 'You can't be dying of cancer now – you've just rowed 187 miles.' And I thought about it and she's right – the more I stop thinking about dying, the more I can start living. If I keep doing things then I'll be too busy to die," he says.