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Leaving a legacy

What would you do differently if you were diagnosed with a terminal illness? Would you change anything about your life? Are there relationships you would invest more in? Or risks you would take? These are questions that many of my cancer patients struggle to answer, as they oftentimes are unable to make it through grueling treatments and the course of their disease. Over the past four years, I have seen many of my beloved patients come and go, some leaving the world behind, some re-entering it as "survivors." The most powerful encounters for me have been when people are approaching death, but have the boldness to talk about it. It gives me chills to get to have intense, meaningful conversations with people that are reflecting on the true meaning of life and what kind of legacy they want to leave. 

I came across an article in Huffington Post this week that some of you may have read as it went viral on the Internet. It was an obituary, but not just any obituary. It was one that was written ahead of time, by a Seattle author, Jane Catherine Lotter, with a great sense of humor. She was actually a humor columnist in a newspaper and was diagnosed in January 2010 with endometrial cancer. She struggled through treatment and unfortunately the cancer recurred and was terminal. She starts out her obituary with a generous dose of her sharp wit, which I loved. "One of the few advantages of dying from Grade 3, Stage IIIC endometrial cancer, recurrent and metastasized to the liver and abdomen, is that you have time to write your own obituary. (The other advantages are no longer bothering with sunscreen and no longer worrying about your cholesterol.)" This is a woman that is boldly owning her diagnosis, and not walking on eggshells. Very few are this bold and it is unarming and refreshing when I come across a person who can talk about their own impending death. As Jane spends time thanking the various people in her life, she gives a special shout-out to her social worker who encouraged her to join a support group for endometrial cancer. This was so encouraging to me, as oftentimes patients underestimate the power of being known by someone in the same boat as them. From what I have seen, support groups are the most underutilized resource that patients miss when they go through a terminal illness. 

My favorite quote from her obituary was the line, "may you always remember that obstacles in the path are not obstacles, they ARE the path." What a solid worldview that is passing onto to her children and other loved ones that knew her. Instead of asking "why me? I am only 60 and too young for this!", she is at peace with her path. A path that includes cancer, and one that ends in acceptance and honesty. She bravely states, "I was given the gift of life, and now I have to give it back. This is hard." Her authenticity is striking and something that will continue to challenge me as I return to work with my patients day after day. What an example for us all. 

So I turn to you as readers- what would you want to write in your obituary? How would you sum up your life in a matter of paragraphs? You may not be dealing with a terminal illness, but I challenge you (and myself) to continue to get clear about the priorities in your life and to go after those. What kind of legacy will you leave behind? 

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