“The quest to understand and fulfill life’s mission has stimulated Philosophical and Spiritual literature for millennia. Each of us is faced with the issue of re-examining what we have done in our lives and reflecting upon “Who am I, Why am I here… and what is there still to do?”
– Roshi Joan Halifax
Normally we have our whole lives to answer these existential questions, but for a young person living with incurable or metastatic cancer there is an urgency – a feeling that the end is near and there are bucket lists that haven’t been checked off or completed.
Rethink Breast Cancer created a film called I AM ANNA which tells the insightful story of Anna Craig: a mother, wife, artist, architect and young woman living with metastatic breast cancer.
The film follows Anna’s inspiring journey to create her legacy by building an addition to her house that fulfills her artistic dreams and leaves something for her family. Through this process we watch her help build a support network for young metastatic women and come to terms with the conflict of achieving her “bucket list” or legacy and balancing that with the needs of her family.
The film also explores the meaning of legacy and the many ways one can leave their mark on the world and in the lives of those they love.
Here are some steps to take in developing a strategy to help fulfill your dreams:
The word legacy has different meanings for everyone. It can be a bit intimidating and burdensome when we think about it in literal terms. However, we can think about it in broader strokes – what is that you want to leave in the world? How do you want to be remembered, and who do you want to remember you?
In I AM ANNA, Anna Craig talks about wanting to leave a legacy in three aspects of her life: as a mother, as an architect and as an advocate in the cancer world. During the film she is engaging in various art projects and the larger project of renovating her house, presenting the audience with the idea that legacy is everything from creating a list of your favorite films to going on a safari in Africa. It is about making memories and being true to yourself and the way you wish to live your life, no matter how long that is.
A good place to start is asking yourself the following question: What aspects of yourself and your life story are you passionate about sharing? And then: Who do you want to share it with?
Here’s a short list of ideas for legacy projects:
– Scrap books + photo albums
– Cards for loved one’s birthdays or special occasions
– Short video diaries
– Quilts or blankets for the crafters
– Playlists of favorite music or movies
– Time capsule
Create a plan
Before you set off on a project or task, it is a good idea to take stock of the issues that may get in your way. For example, what’s doable? What is the impact you are hoping to have? What research do you need to do to get there? What is the impact on family or friends? What is the impact on your health?
Think about it like a thesis statement or a road map of getting to where you want to be and what steps need to happen to get you there. If you want to go on a big trip, what type of financial planning needs to happen? If you have a photo project that you would like to complete, what platform will you use to put it together? Do you need help with your plan? Who are the people that can help you?
I always suggest some cautious optimism when making plans as things can change quickly. Symptoms and side-effects of treatment can side-line an art project or a trip. It’s a good idea to re-evaluate your plans as needed as priorities can change.
Engage your network
It’s really important to engage the people you love in the things that you are passionate about and the ideas you have for your future – however long that might be. Not only do more hands make less work, but there is the opportunity to share some special moments with those in your close circle through projects, tasks and conversations about your legacy.
Talking about end of life issues, including legacy, can be really difficult with the people you love. In my Psychosocial column, I give some suggestions for how to choose the right people to talk to and suggestions for starting that conversation.
Be good to yourself
“…You somehow have to find yourself in your diagnosis and be able to live with it as you’re living every moment for what it is; but also you are living life fast…not every second has to count, you also have to accept that you are a human being and embrace being human.” – Anna Craig
Part of living with an incurable and debilitating illness is the process of coming to terms with change. It’s important to grieve your losses, especially the loss of your idyllic dreams or future goals. You might feel a lot of pressure post diagnosis to get everything on your bucket list done, tomorrow.
As you begin to experience what a metastatic diagnosis means for you, consider that legacy is not always about big goals or making major marks in the world. Sometimes it’s as simple as nurturing the relationships with the people we love and making memories that you can both treasure through the time you spend together, while you have it. Being present and finding ways to live in the moment, instead of steps ahead in the future can help create space for you to live your dreams.
For more on legacy check out:
– YSC Metastatic Navigator: A Young Woman’s Guide to Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer
– End of Life Series: Let’s Have Dinner & Talk About Death, featuring Michael Hebb, founder of Death over Dinner, who explores a unique way to gather friends and family, fill a table and have an important discussion on our end of life wishes.