The Bucket List: Sans Morgan Freeman & Jack Nicholson

I don’t think there is a way to say this without sounding a cheesy.

I made a bucket list…

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A cancer patient made a bucket list, how original.

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So why now? What prompted this cliche?

A single article: 91 year old’s bucket list journey

I read the initial article as it circulated social media a few months ago. It’s about a woman diagnosed with Uterine Cancer at age 90. She decided to skip chemo and go travel to do all of things she has always imagined doing in her lifetime. As you may see, she did a whole heck of a lot in the span of a year, probably more than most do in their lifetimes.

No one wants to live out their days hooked up to IV poison. At 90 years old I would have said “eff it” too and just let everything else take its course.

Admittedly I was jealous of Norma. If it was evident that I would meet my maker soon, I would want to do the same. The reality is that I’m in my 20’s, there is a lot of life to be had, and no indication that I’ll be kicking the bucket anytime soon (that’s a good thing). I still need to work full time and plan for the future.

Norma’s adventure got me thinking about purpose and fulfillment. Am I doing everything I want to live a purposeful life? What do I want to do that I haven’t done yet? What can I do that will push my own boundaries? As I spun through the “I really want to ______” rolodex of my mind I became overwhelmed. Can I do what I need to do? Will I have the resources? Will I feel well enough?

Is there enough time?

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And there I went again, staring my mortality in the face.

It happens every now and again. The thought of my own mortality isn’t persistent. Sure it’s intrusive, but not a daily thing. For me, it doesn’t act as these ongoing big, dramatic, moments. When I go to bed at night I don’t think to myself “hope I wake up tomorrow!” I think “my phone just indicated that I need to wake up for work in four hours and twenty-one minutes, yikes.”

The reality is that intrusive thoughts will visit you periodically and you have to sit with the discomfort and find productive ways to transform it.

The grim realities of disease can either drag you down or they can motivate you (although truthfully it’s a little of column A and a little of column B.) In this case, I sat with these strong feelings and allowed it to challenge my pattern of thinking.

I had the great privilege of speaking with Zach Mercurio, writer and educator recently. Zach writes and speaks openly about awakening one’s purpose. He has published some great articles in the Huffington Post as well as on his blog, Purpose Speaks. His message is mainly “why does this matter?”, more specifically “why does what I’m doing matter right now?”

Coming down from the energy of the Izzy Gala, combined with speaking to Zach on this topic, and being super peanut-butter-and-jealous of Norma, my bucket list was born. It was a way to reconcile the nagging thought that time could be* running out.

*I purposely said “could be” instead of “is” because no one knows when their story eneds. For all I know, I can live with cancer for 10’s of years or a freak sinkhole could form around my bed and I could fall in and die without warning (for real THIS HAPPENED in Florida in 2013). I’m not Nostradamus therefore I have no business agonizing over how much time I ultimately have on this earth. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is what I’m doing right now.

So back to the bucket list. Or perhaps a more appropriate name would just be: Joyful Opportunities. A collection of low stress, high intrinsic reward ideas to pepper into my daily life as I see fit.

You may be wondering: “Jess, what’s are these “joyful opportunities” you speak of?!”

I’ve opted to keep my list to myself for a few reasons, although I will share a few examples to demonstrate my pattern of thinking. First, it’s highly personal and although my list is pretty vanilla, I’m not inviting others to weigh in on what I find meaningful to me. Secondly, this should be a low-pressure endeavor. By putting such goals in a public forum I may feel more stress to have to achieve them. These joyful opportunities are to serve as rainbow sprinkles on an already fulfilling life, not check boxes on a to-do list. I’d rather keep the full list between me and the pages of my journal.

(P.S. Steph Frazitta, if you’re reading this, my list lives in the fresh pages of the new journal you gifted to me. I couldn’t think of a better home for it.)

I will say that I found my goals falling into three overarching themes: 1.) Travel, 2.) Things I want to create, 3.) Things I want to do for others. (and as a byproduct of all themes, 4.) Things I want to eat, nom nom nom.)

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I acknowledge that I won’t do everything that I wrote in my journal but I was fairly realistic and simple with the experiences I hope to have, so much of it is doable. One example that I am willing to share is something I hope to do this weekend:

  •  Bake a lattice top apple pie from scratch.

I chose this experience because it’s one of those things that “matters now”. Baking to me is calming, low-stress, productive, and requires you to be in the moment. It allows me to share with others and quietly create something beautiful (hopefully) and delicious (hopefully).

Sure I have more adventurous experiences on my list and pie might sound boring but again it is an intentional endeavor and matters to me in this moment.

I’ll end on a spoiler alert: sky diving, bungee jumping, and freebasing did not make the list. Anyone who knows me should not be shocked by this.

Enjoy the long weekend everyone! Be sure to fit in moments for yourself where the joy to stress ratio isn’t too skewed in the stress direction.

Dear former self…

Three years. If you can believe it, I have now been treated for cancer for nearly three years. In 20 days another canceriversary will come and go. I am still living with disease, yes. But I am still very much alive and thriving.

The weeks leading up to the anniversary of the cancer diagnosis have me feeling reflective. It brings about strong feelings but not the types of feelings that one may expect. I probably should be more angry that this happened, but as I’ve said before I’m just not. Sure, cancer isn’t fair, it isn’t right, it isn’t deserved- it just is. So instead- look at the mountains we have moved. Look how far we (yes, not just me) have come together since that horrible day in November.

I wish the terrified 24 year old girl in the hospital bed at Charlotte Hungerford could have looked into a crystal ball and saw herself now. At that time I thought nothing could ever be the same. I thought that I’d be let go from my dream job, unable to maintain a romantic relationship, unable to see the world, stripped of all independence. Although there have been many points in the last few years when I’ve been forced to hit pause or slow down, I’ve never been fully stopped.

After nearly three years with cancer I think it’s important to reflect less on what was lost and more on what is:

  • This girl with cancer can work full time, even through weekly chemo.
  • This girl with cancer can find a boyfriend and build a relationship surrounded by unconditional love
  • This girl with cancer can educate students on their academic paths and help them follow their passions.
  • This girl with cancer can give presentations and tell multiple corny jokes in the process.
  • This girl with cancer can articulate her thoughts through writing
  • This girl with cancer can sign up for a 3 hour DDP yoga workshop on a whim (No, seriously. Fellow 1990’s WWF fans, this is not a joke)
  • This girl with cancer can cook for herself…when she feels like it.
  • This girl with cancer can clean her apartment…again, when she feels like it.
  • This girl with cancer can co-advise Colleges Against Cancer to support students touched by illness
  • This girl with cancer can travel out of the country on a (desperately needed) tropical vacation with said boyfriend (who also desperately deserves a vacation)
  • This girl with cancer can crush dead lifts and squats (with lots of encouragement from Weese Fitness)
  • This girl with cancer can travel to Chicago to attend the National Collegiate Honors Council conference
  • This girl with cancer can band together with friends and family and raise a crap-ton of money for the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition
  • This girl with cancer can poke fun at her buzz cut and dress up as 2007 meltdown Britney Spears for Halloween (and dance the night away!)
  • This girl with cancer can volunteer at a children’s hospital to support other families facing illness
  • This girl with cancer can suck down a cocktail (occasionally) with her favorite nurse
  • This girl with cancer can speak honestly about her experience in a public forum
  • This girl with cancer can binge watch seven seasons of Parks and Rec without shame or regret
  • This girl with cancer can find her voice
  • This girl with cancer can accept that it is okay to ask for and accept help from loved ones (even if it kills her)
  • This girl with cancer can accept that she is not superwoman and cannot do it all, and that’s okay (even if it kills her x2)

My understanding of cancer is not black and white. It has been a continuum of ups and downs, struggles and successes. I accept that I cannot be everything to everyone. I accept that I have limitations. I accept that I may drop the ball or have a bad day, or week, or month. But every new day on this green earth brings another set of accomplishments.

Even if the list above was more like:

  • This girl with cancer can binge watch seven seasons of Parks and Rec because it makes her smile (yep using the same example. It’s that special to me.)
  • This girl with cancer successfully had a bm after surgery, finally (I’m not sorry, this is a real struggle SO real for many)
  • This girl with cancer had an appetite today and ate half a bagel and some peaches!

…it would still be a list of accomplishments from each and every day that something improved in the slightest.

So allow me to please hop in the Delorean and travel back in time to my former, newly diagnosed, self-

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Dear 24 year old Jess Sultaire,

It’s going to be okay. Not because I know the outcome of this disease but because I know that the life you will live over the next three years will be full of far more successes than failures. The life you will live beyond the next three years will challenge you immensely and be one that brings you joy and pride. Hang in there kid.

Love always,

Jess Sultaire of the past and future

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