How would you live if you only had 365 days left?

What life changes would you make if suddenly diagnosed with cancer?

Posted Aug 29, 2010

woman on mountaintop

Though I've spoken about breast cancer for Susan G. Komen for the Cure (emphasizing the importance of early screening and detection), until a week ago I had never had a mammogram. This year, because my brother had breast cancer, my doctor recommended that I get one.

I went for my appointment (which wasn't nearly as bad as I thought, I'll spare you the pancake-y details), and then got a call. 

"You need to come in for more views," the voice told me. "I'm a doctor - please read me the report," I asked her. She fumbled through the medical terminology but I understood clearly. A 4 mm heterogeneous nodule in the left breast, "possibly due to artifact". As anyone who's received similar results knows, you hear the word "nodule" in giant capital letters, and the words "possibly artifact" as a slightly reassuring whisper.

That night I lay awake, gazing up into the night sky through the overhead skylight as sleep eluded me. What if I had cancer? What if I only had, say, a year left? Unlikely, given the cure rates when breast cancer gets detected and treated early - but some people inevitably fall into the percentage who don't make it.

Life suddenly got clear, really clear. A mind-body medicine enthusiast, I would immediately leap into action to remove all significant stressors, avoiding anything that would stimulate stress hormone release or generate free radicals.

I would aggressively screen emails and phone calls. The other day, I wrote about how my friend, top-ranked Gen-Y blogger Jenny Blake (also a manager at Google) and I have intense conversations about how to find time for priorities. Suddenly, if I might only have 365 days left, those decisions wouldn't be so difficult.

If you only had 365 days left, how would you spend them? What would you immediately shave from your life? What would you urgently begin to make time for?

Each of us actually does have a finite period of time here on this earth, we just don't live like we do. You really might just have a year left, or two, or ten. Lately I'd been feeling the reality of that more and more.

When I was in first passionately diving into dance, I felt like I had the rest of my life to study and enjoy it. The other day I realized that I possibly might have only ten years of really good, powerful dancing left. Flamenco is extraordinarily physically demanding and I'm not guaranteed that my knees or hips will hold out, though I'd do everything possible to ensure that they do.

I recently heard a recording by Jim Rohn that warned against the sneaky passing of time and the way we deceive ourselves. He described how we might say "I've got twenty years left to enjoy my yearly golf vacation." Twenty years sounds like a long time, right? Not if you frame it as Rohn does: "Twenty more years of a yearly golf trip means you have ONLY TWENTY MORE GOLF TRIPS left." Sounds different that way, doesn't it? Try applying that language to anything important that you have been putting off, and see if it wakes you up.

Choices about how to spend my time that seem so agonizing now would be very simple - the only limiting factor would be money and trying to figure out how to balance all the things I really really really want to do.

What would you do if you MIGHT only have 365 days left? In this imaginary scenario, like with any illness, there's a chance of cure - so you can't blow all your money or gorge yourself into a 100 pound weight gain you'll later regret. But if these really might be your last days, what would you allow into your life, and what would you finally have the strength and absolute clarity to say NO, NO, NO, to?

Here's a bonus - if you spend as much of your time as possible doing what's the very most meaningful, you'll infuse your cells with that joy and purpose and likely dramatically increase the years that you actually get here (and improve your health, energy and quality of life in doing so).

As for my mammogram, the follow-up films were negative - free and clear! I was so overjoyed that I skipped out of the waiting room wearing my backless hospital gown top (until I realized what I'd done and ran back into the clinic, bright red and still giggling). I didn't care - I'd been given my life back, in more ways than one.