Every day I wake up, I wonder how much longer I have. A month, ten years, fifty years? Where will I be when it happens and who will be at my side? Will I be scared, or will I feel calm? I’ve come to accept this simple fact. I’m dying. We all are and have been since the day we were born. We’re all dying from this terminal illness called life and there’s not one thing we can do to stop it. Yet, allowing ourselves to accept death frees us in many ways to live. Next to public speaking, death is what us humans fear the most. But does it really have to be that way? The term, Memento Mori comes to mind when I think about cancer. Translated from Latin, it means “remember your mortality.” Every day we have a choice to live voraciously, or squander another 24 hours.
The word “cancer” terrifies people because it symbolizes the beginning of a long, painful and unpredictable fight. Instead of passively going through the motions of life each day, wasting time and taking simple pleasures for granted, someone who is diagnosed with cancer will have to work diligently to hold on to their every breath. Physical, financial and emotional strains are put on a person afflicted with cancer and sometimes the outcome is uncertain. Some cancers are easily treated, while others are harder to beat and the survival rate is extremely low.
Randy Pausch, the author of The Last Lecture, died of complications of Pancreatic cancer in 2008- less than two years from diagnosis. He was given the dismal news that his illness was terminal in 2007. Pausch is known for giving a positive lecture about pursuing your childhood dreams at Carnegie Mellon University several months before he died. His illness had motivated him to give the lecture because he was essentially running out of time, and instead of wallowing in sadness, he didn’t want his life to be wasted. He wanted to enlighten those who may take their days for granted. Pausch stated, “Time is all you have and you may find one day that you have less than you think.”
Think about that for a moment. What would you do with your time if you were left with only months to live? Maybe you’d rent a sailboat in the Caribbean and spend the last days of your life out at sea. Maybe you’d move to Thailand and take up Scuba diving.
Perhaps you’d rather visit famous museums all over the U.S. and find out what you’ve been missing all these years. Or you might just read more books, dine on the fine china or sleep in more often. Imagine how vibrant those experiences would be if you knew you were running out of time to experience them. Time is a precious commodity because it is irreplaceable. Unlike money, time is something that we can never get back once it’s gone.
Less than a year ago, the world lost one of the most innovative men of our time. Steve Jobs of Apple, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2004 and lost his battle with the disease in the fall of 2011. Perhaps something that drove him to pursue his passion with Apple was this sentiment; “When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
Lance Armstrong would certainly be considered one of the last people to be diagnosed with cancer, but at the age of 25 years old, he found out he had testicular cancer and it had rapidly spread to his abdomen, lungs and his brain. His diagnosis was already in stage three when it was discovered and the doctors gave him a 40% chance of living.
When the illness struck, Armstrong had been a competitive athlete for 9 years of his life- a far cry from a lazy, sedentary guy. In his book, It’s not about the bike, Armstrong is quoted as saying; “If there is a purpose to the suffering that is cancer, I think it must be this: it’s meant to improve us.”
What kind of a mindset does it take to flip this terrifying disease into something that actually drives a human being to demand more out of life? To appreciate every single day like it’s a rare gift and to conquer obstacles that most of us couldn’t even imagine? Facing our mortality is inevitable. We’ll all face it in one way or another, someday. But I don’t think it should be feared, I believe it should be accepted and embraced. Memento Mori can be powerful motivation to live a more fulfilling life, to face our fears and act on our deepest passions so at the end of our life we have no regrets.
Someone living with cancer realizes the importance of the most fundamental things we take for granted on a daily basis. They learn to slow down and live more in the moment. Cancer doesn’t have to mean the end of life, as Lance Armstrong learned after winning 7 Tour de France races once he beat the disease. Life may truly begin for a cancer patient after their diagnosis. It is our responsibility to learn from our life lessons and I believe those who are fighting or who have beaten an illness like cancer have an incredible will to live and demand the most from their life. They also have the ability to inspire us to slow down, look around and revel in the beauty of our existence.