What if you didn’t have long to live?

The question that is so important and the answer that is not.

I remember sitting with a client during a session while she was waiting for results of a cancer test.

“What would you do if the results are positive and you have two years to live ?”, I dared to ask the unspoken question.

“Quit my job, travel, spend time with family.”

“And if you had twenty years?”

“I’d carry on just the same as I am.” This conversation led me to being curious about where she changed her approach. 5 years? 3 years?

My own experience leads me to wonder not just about where we draw the line, but also how we avoid asking the blunt question, ‘What if I don’t have long?’.

When I was diagnosed with very shortened odds this gave rise to a flurry of advice, mainly designed to keep me away from the contemplation of the question.

I was advised to do all sorts of things:

Fight it

Be strong

Be positive

Have faith

Take cannabis oil

Eat differently

Visit a healer

All of which may improve life quality but are not guaranteed to improve life expectancy.

To me much advice was to keep, not just me, but the advice giver away from the random nature of when death comes. If they could hold on to their belief that I could fight this disease off through sheer willpower they didn’t have to face losing me and they didn’t have to face asking themselves this question sure in the magical powers of being able to save themselves with their chosen method.

Actually, true to my own nature, I wanted to ask this question, I wanted to contemplate it. “What if I die? What if I don’t have long?”

 everything becomes precious and beautiful and valued

I live in a perpetual state of this question ‘hanging over my head’ and the first thing I notice is that everything becomes precious and beautiful and valued. I also notice I don’t worry much about things anymore, I don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s a bit peculiar not to have my plans and not to have everything mapped out. All plans, whether they are to pick up my PhD or to meet up with a friend, have a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. On the other had with no plans there is no pushing unrealistically to achieve them. The only certainty for me is that nothing is certain.

When you get news that throws up this question, no matter how well you are at that time, you are often quickly plunged into being unwell. In my case, major surgery, chemotherapy and other medication have meant that the answer I thought I would have to the question – see people, visit places, go to Italy etc. – are not possible at the moment. Most people who have the question thrust upon them, or those with little time left, don’t have the health to travel, the energy to talk to visitors, never mind the astronomical travel insurance necessary to leave the country at a time you may feel you need to be near your own doctors. I don’t find that I’m sad or regretting the places I can’t go, my focus has naturally changed and I feel happy and peaceful in this time and space.

compulsive behaviour, to get back into control isn’t courage, that is fear

I don’t know how long I have. Occasionally I have played the statistics game: If 15% of people survive 5 years … some of those must smoke, refuse treatment? Does this include the people who get run over by a bus? Sometimes I do this game, trying to increase my odds and reassure myself I’m in the surviving group. I think I have better odds than average, I really do. But what about after 6 years? Ten years? And in the meantime, there’s always car crashes to be avoided and pneumonia and blood clots…

This game is to avoid the question. Just like the advice to cure myself by thinking positively. Compulsive behaviour, to get back into control isn’t courage, that is fear! Of course at times I wrestle trying to control the outcomes, anyone with chronic illness (which is now increasingly the cancer definition) tries their damnedest to get well, to be their old self. People with chronic fatigue and ME for example usually have motivation and lists of things they want to do, but their illness is not controlled by motivation or positive thinking. What if they don’t get better, what if this quality of life is simply how it is? And what if our length of life isn’t what we want?

Why avoid the question when it’s so life affirming?

What I am actually doing with my uncertain amount of time (and remember your time is also uncertain, everyone’s is) is to look at the tree, stroke the cat, go to yoga. I sleep a lot, lie in bed, message with my friends a lot. I do engage in healing meditations and positive affirmations and express gratitude and joy every day, but because it feels good to do so, not because of magical thinking that this will create the outcome I want.

I’ve also had lots of visits from people. And I have been to Croatia, Bath, Scotland and Wales  – it is lovely but so different to what I imagined I’d do if it were Bucket List time. In Bath I was in bed 20 hours a day. In Croatia I didn’t manage to do much but rest as I am having to relearn walking and can’t stand for long. In Wales I lay on my yoga mat in a field and swam in the sea and then lay on my mat again. As I lay there I listened to the layers of sound, a dog barking, voices, the sea, birdsong, the breeze, my breath. When I lie here in bed I hear the owl often, foxes, people, traffic, cat purrs. Life is beautiful.

Quality of life, richness, layers, sounds, sights, smells, textures and tastes. Laughter, sleep, hugs, dinner.

 bucket lists are for the well, not for the sick

You know what my point is, why do we all work so hard to avoid the question when it’s such a lovely experience to live with it? And the question is really no more mine than yours. If you have a Bucket List, do it now while you can, those lists are for the well not the sick. But also while you are well, get used to doing nothing, to listening to the layers, to looking at something for hours. This does magically extend time.

 why avoid the question when it’s so life affirming?

This is life affirming question. So much so that some Buddhist meditations involve meditating on a skeleton to remind us of our mortality. The question is not, “what would you do if you had little time left?”, because funnily enough ‘doing’ isn’t the priority when it comes to it.

What if you don’t have much time left?

Asking the question is supremely important. Answering it, less so.

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Finally as a PS to those to whom I haven’t replied to yet – I have had so many messages, cards, texts, emails, messages, whatsapp and visitors I am really struggling to keep up. I do value the love and the messages and I am working my way through them but they come in faster than my energy replenishes. Thank you so much for you loving, kind thoughts. I’m still here, I’m still OK. I’m not terribly ill and I’m not terribly well, I’m just where I am and I treasure the connections I have with you.

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3 comments on “What if you didn’t have long to live?

  1. Helen Chetwynd on said:

    Thank you for sharing your real and meaningful experience, I try to learn from such insights. The other day I watched the floaters in my eyes and listened to my tinnitus! I’m not kidding, I thought, they’re mine and quite interesting. Just being in a moment can take up so much time and sadly, this doesn’t match other people’s schedules, it gets lost so quickly. Thank you for reminding me, I’m going to watch my frog.
    Helen x

  2. Helen Ellwood on said:

    I love the phrase, “Bucket lists are for the well.” So true.

  3. Stephen Curtis on said:

    My work in Ireland gave me the insight to value most, the “lived experience”. You have taught me so much. Thank you.

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