This column is written by our blogger Megan Rutherford, with input from our helpline volunteers.
The term "bucket list" may have been popularized by the 2007 movie. But the impulse to seize life in the face of death is familiar to anyone who's been diagnosed with a serious cancer.
Ten years ago, when I was told I had breast cancer, I had one item on my bucket list. I wanted my disease and the scary treatments to go away, my old life to return. Later I added another item: I wanted to take a yoga teacher-training course to learn more about the practice that was helping me cope with cancer.
I accomplished both items. I've largely regained my old life. And I really did take yoga teacher training, which led to a little teaching and a lot more depth in my practice.
In the movie, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman set out to travel the world, skydive, climb mountains. But when I asked my colleagues at SHARE what they put on their bucket list, no one mentioned such dizzy heights. Here's what they chose instead:
Eighteen years ago, when she was diagnosed with stage 3C ovarian cancer, Chrystine hoped to live long enough to see her son graduate from college and to dance with him at his wedding. Miraculously, both wishes were granted. "He cried during that dance—as did the entire reception," she recalls. Now she has achieved a goal she barely dared articulate back when she was diagnosed: the birth of a grandson and a granddaughter. Blessed with such good fortune, she says, "I felt it incumbent upon me to spread awareness of ovarian cancer's signs and symptoms and support women with the disease." Retired from teaching high school English, Chrystine is now regional coordinator of SHARE's ovarian cancer helpline for western New York. Her good fortune is ours too!
Mary, just 34 when she was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, had always wanted to work for a nonprofit—"somewhere that I felt I was helping, where I could feel good about what I do when I got up in the morning and when I went to sleep at night." And after completing her treatment she did just that: Today she not only volunteers on SHARE's breast cancer helpline and co-facilitates the young women's support group, but she also works for the Children's Tumor Foundation. One other item on her bucket list: She's always wanted to go whale watching. This summer she's traveling to Portland, Oregon, where she'll put a checkmark next to that item too.
After her first diagnosis of early-stage breast cancer, Sylvia just wanted to return to her former innocence about mortality. "In other words," she says, "I didn't want to face the new normal." After her second diagnosis, 10 years later, she embraced the new normal. Her bucket list for the new normal includes:
* more quality time for herself, her family, and her true friends
* better nutrition and more exercise
* scraping off folks who "suck the life force" out of her
* saying no—and meaning it
* bowing out of drama at work and in life—"unless I go to the theater!"
* volunteering on SHARE's breast cancer helpline
* knitting, painting, horseback riding, and meditation
Her only regret: "I wish I'd done these before breast cancer."
Since Bernadette was diagnosed with breast cancer and later bladder cancer, her bucket list has changed many times: "Go to Iceland, see a Broadway show, lose 10 pounds, visit my daughter and family in Atlanta more often." But one item has remained a constant: "Thank God, and enjoy life every moment of every day." In this way, Bernadette, who volunteers on SHARE's breast cancer helpline, "has discovered that every day is beautiful if we look for the beauty and opportunities." Of course, misfortunes happen, she acknowledges. "A friend gets sick, our money may not stretch as far as we would like, we find new wrinkles. But I've learned that we can overcome so much if we do our best with faith and keep on keeping on."
And sometimes the items on a bucket list remain on hold—at least for a while. Diane, SHARE's breast cancer helpline scheduler, has always wanted to travel coast to coast on Amtrak, and to own a little place on a lake so she can see the sun rise over the water when she wakes up. So far, these remain dreams. But she imagines capturing them in a container, like the one in Jim Croce's 1972 song "Time in a Bottle." "I would transfer everything from my bucket list to that bottle," Diane says. "And that little bottle would keep my happy memories alive, along with 'the wishes and dreams that had never come true.' "
So, what wishes and dreams are on your bucket list? And have you achieved any of them?