8000 Last Days

by Stephanie Sugars

Stephanie SugarsAlmost everyone thinks:
A. It’s best to die suddenly in one’s sleep at an old age.
B. If one must be diagnosed with cancer, it’s best to devote months or perhaps a year to it, then be cured.
Or C. If cancer is incurable, then death should come after many years.

I’ve had the enviable experience of C. — living over 8000 days (22 years) with knowledge of active cancer in my body; continuous (largely alternative) treatments and with death as a constant informant. I’ve been oriented to my “last days” for so long, that my imagination is stretched to imagine an extended future.

I don’t make major purchases and buy basic supplies in three-month increments. I pencil in future activities, limiting them to six-months ahead. I’ve downsized to a two-room house; have marked my remaining material possessions with heirs’ names; kept only what I care about or sustains my life. No offspring or grandchildren tug at my heartstrings. My profession fell away after about 5 years with cancer. My primary relationship after 13 years. During my long bout of dying (or living?) with cancer, dozens of loved ones have died bringing death to my doorstep, though not into my house.

On many levels, life gets simpler. But on other levels, it’s more complex, more beautiful. Since it’s not about stuff or achievement or obligation or a primary love relationship, what does one do with one’s wild and precious life?

When I was first diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer at age 34, my pre-existing rare genetic disorder had prepared me for cancer, acceptance of alternative approaches and to meet death. I’d found within myself an active desire to serve others; to approach adventure with wonder; to “be the change.” While still in the hospital, my Reach to Recovery volunteer brought me a pre-release copy of Michael Lerner’s Choices in Healing, adding “wounded healer” to my life approach.

I choose to be of use, to be used up before I die. It’s autumn here in Northern California — all around me plants are used up. The cornstalks are gathered into shocks. Sunflowers nod their withered heads toward the earth. Fruit rots and falls. Walnuts roll underfoot, hidden by golden leaves. Images of life well-lived and of the cycles of life coming ’round again.

I consider my legacy — friendships; writing; the online support group for people sharing our rare genetic disorder; the dead and alive I’ve tried to serve. Which of my acts have fallen on fertile ground? Will conditions support springtime growth? Is it enough for people to know that someone’s survived a very long time with advanced cancer and made good use of that time? Is being enough?

Instead of thinking about death with regret or resistance, after all these years it seems a deliverance from a very tired, pared-down body. It seems like meeting with loved ones on the other side. It seems like reward for a life well-lived. It seems like an old friend who’s been whispering in my ear, sending me here and there. I listen. I follow. I learn. I serve.

Bio: Stephanie Sugars continues to be humbled by life and death, health and illness. She explores these and related topics at her blog, www.mylifeline.org/stephaniesugars.