What would you do if you had a year left to live?

Though I’ve spoken about breast cancer for Susan G. Komen for the Cure (emphasizing the importance of early screening and detection), until recently I had never had a mammogram. In my training I’d been taught that mammograms weren’t that accurate or useful in women under 40 (our health system’s protocols reflect that), so I got regularly checked by my physician whenever I had a physical and otherwise was waiting until I was older to get testing. This year, because my mother had breast cancer in her 40’s, my physician recommended I get one.

So I went for my appointment, and then got a call from the radiology office.

“You need to come in for more views,” the voice told me.

“I’m a doctor – please read me the report,” I asked her. Clearly not used to doing so, 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 one of these results knows, you hear the word “nodule” in giant capital letters, and the words “possibly artifact” as a slightly (not too) 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, especially given the cure rates when breast cancer gets detected and treated early – but some people inevitably fall into the percentage of people who don’t make it, even if the odds are with them.

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

I could imagine myself aggressively screening and fielding emails and phone calls. The other day, I wrote about how my friend, top-ranked Gen-Y blogger Jenny Blake (who’s also a manager at Google) and I have intense conversations about how to weed out life commitments that aren’t soul-stirring or relevant to our life’s purpose. Suddenly, if I might only have 365 days left, those decisions wouldn’t be so difficult.

Join that committee for that cause I’m not jump up and down crazy about? No. Go out for that uninspiring dutiful dinner? No way. Spend time with that person who drains me and gives me a headache? Uh-uh. Walk the coast of Cinque Terre in Italy with my man? You better believe it.

If you only had 365 days left and knew it, how would you spend them?

What would you immediately shave from your life? What would you urgently begin to make time for?

The irony here is that 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. None of us knows. Heading towards forty, lately I’d been feeling the reality of that more and more.

When I was in my early 30s and passionately diving into dance, I felt like I had the rest of my life to study  and enjoy it. Who cares if I skipped the yearly trip to Jerez de la Frontera that year (and the next) and missed studying at the International Flamenco Festival – after all, I had forever, didn’t I? Not so. The other day I realized that I possibly might have only ten years of really good, powerful dancing left. Hopefully I’d dance until the end (in my eighties? Or nineties?), but 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 about it. He talked about 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 so, if you frame it as Rohn does: “Twenty more years of a yearly golf trip means you have only twenty more golf trips left in your life.” Sounds a lot different that way, doesn’t it? Try applying that language to anything you love to regularly do but have been putting off, and see if it wakes you up.

I mentioned walking along the Italian Coast with my man – that may have been the biggest wake up call for me. It has been a really tough couple of years for me and my Armando, he came up to Canada to give it a go as a permanent resident since early 2008. He suffered through his first Northern winter (and swore never, ever to do it again), and was faced with job hunting during one of the toughest markets in recent times. We’ve had some great moments, but overall these have been our most challenging two years since we first met in Mexico 7 years ago. Lately I had been increasingly frustrated with how things have (or hadn’t) worked out, and had been distancing myself emotionally as I tried to figure out next steps.

Wondering how I might spend my last year sure slapped me back into perspective – instantly. Who would I want to spend my time with? My best friend in the world, of course. Would I want to spend it freezing in the Vancouver rain together, complaining about the traffic and the high cost of living? Hell no.

If I had one year left I would find a way to finally go to Italy for weeks on end with Armando (we’ve never been together), and I would fly to see the other people I love most in the world who I haven’t seen in years. I would cuddle my farflung baby nephews every second I could, eat the healthiest, purest high-energy foods (with some fabulous chocolate cakes thrown in every now and then for good measure), write write write (but only when I truly felt inspired), talk to God as often as I could, and spend lots of time soaking up the blessed Mexican sun and Mexico’s equally sunny people.

Choices about how to spend my time that seem so agonizing now would suddenly 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.

Did you ever see the movie “Last Holiday”, starring Queen Latifah? If this post is resonating with you, rent it. It’s about the fresh choices a down-in-the-dumps, given-up-on-life woman makes when confronted with the diagnosis of a terminal illness.

Motivational speakers/experts frequently challenge people with this question of how you’d spend your life if you only had 6 months left. Some might think it impractical, since usually what we’d do wouldn’t involve our day jobs or other responsibilities we can’t suddenly abandon in our daily lives.

But think about it, really. What would you do if you might only have 365 days left? I say might, because in this imaginary scenario, like with any illness, there’s a chance of cure – so you can’t go blowing all your money or gorging 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 to?

I’m being a lot nicer to my husband, and more picky about how I spend my time than ever. And here’s a bonus – if you spend as much of your time as possible doing what’s the very most meaningful, invigorating, joyful and fulfilling, you’ll infuse your very cells with that joy and likely dramatically increase the years that you actually get here (and improve your health, energy and quality of life in doing so).

Say yes to life! And just say no to anything that drains it away from you.

As for my mammogram, the follow-up films were negative – free and clear! I was so overjoyed that I skipped out of the clinic’s waiting room still 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 really didn’t care – I’d been given my life back, in more ways than one.

Susan Biali is a physician and author of Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You. She blogs at her self-titled site, Dr. Susan Biali, MD.

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