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A Staring Contest with the Reaper

I was diagnosed with stage IIIC colon cancer as an elder millennial—thirty-four when I received the news—and facing my mortality so directly was not something I’d ever done before. 

Death is an inevitable part of the human experience. It’s something that’s still taboo to discuss, at least in Western culture, even though we’ll all eventually meet our demise.

But I didn’t expect to lock eyes with the Reaper so soon. More than that, I didn’t expect it to be a staring contest.

Unfortunately, the Reaper has an unwavering, unblinking leer. The Reaper will win. Always and eventually.

We’re mortal, after all.

As I underwent treatment, the Reaper was ever present, gazing into my soul, berobed in darkness, and taunting me with his ethereal whispers.

Memento mori,” the Reaper would remind me, the alliteration wrought with certainty.

Remember that you will die.

When I inevitably fail to maintain my focus through the pain and tears of staring into the Reaper’s eyes, I will be dead.

I’ll have lost a contest for my life to a skeleton in a housecoat. Doot, doot.

I’m not afraid to die…

I’ve made peace with my disease and know that, ultimately, it will probably take me. That’s not a defeatist opinion.

It’s simply a reality that others may deny, which I cannot.

My acceptance should not be taken as resignation: I do not wish to die.

There’s just a probability that cancer will be my cause of death.

As the saying goes: you don’t know you’re cancer-free until you die from something else.

…but very afraid of dying…

The thing that I fear most is the decline of my condition.

I don’t want to struggle or suffer.

I don’t want to be in pain.

I don’t want to lose my dignity or have my independence taken away.

I don’t want to be a burden to the people I love.

I don’t want to put others through the profound grief and loss that will come with my demise.

I don’t want to find myself looking back at my life, feeling regret.

…and of the choices I have to make,…

Nobody wants to put together their advance care plan in their thirties, but I have one. I wrote it three months after my bowel resection surgery.

By preparing a document that explicitly outlines my choices surrounding tough medical decisions, I’m easing some of the burden from my spouse.

Although she may feel guilt from vocalizing my decision if I’m unable to, there will at least be relief knowing it’s my decision. No need to second guess if it was the right call.

At first, it was hard to confront the minutiae.

Here are a few examples (and I’ll likely put together a piece on advance care planning with more details at some point):

  • What’s the likely course of my disease?
  • What impact will it have on my mind and body?
  • What if I don’t want to (or can’t) continue treatment?
  • What would have to happen for me to choose not to undergo life-prolonging measures?
  • What would make the end more peaceful for me?

Very broadly speaking, I was forced to confront my values and what’s truly important to me.

I came to the conclusion that I’m a quality over quantity kind of guy. So, as long as I can find enjoyment in the things that I love, I’ll continue to tolerate whatever bullshit happens next.

But I also know that I’ve set things up so that if things go south in a hurry, I’ll still get what I want.

Take that, cancer. Fucker.

…so I live today, tomorrow, and beyond until it’s no longer my choice.

This isn’t meant to be some cliché about living life to its fullest. Nobody even knows what that means.

If I want to watch Big Mouth and eat burritos, is that me living life to its fullest?

How about taking a nice, rainy day nap with my spouse and cats?

What if I sell all of my worldly possessions and buy a camper van, travelling across North America?

Let’s get wild: How about if I want to drink a six pack of craft beer with breakfast every morning?

Some of those choices may seem more exciting or just better than the others. Sure. I’ll buy that.

But, I think my ideal day would be eating burritos in my campervan with Shannon, cats at our feet, chilling with a six’er of craft as the rain dances off the roof. I digress.

My point is that so long as you’re the one in the driver’s seat, making your own decisions, and doing the things that you enjoy, you’re living your own life to its fullest.

You don’t need to have a perfect diet. You don’t need to get ripped at the gym. You don’t need to quit doing things that you enjoy in order to fulfill someone else’s idea of what it means to live your best life.

The definition of a “full life” is subjective.

…and without getting too sappy about it, I already have the things that make my life full.

Here’s a list (albeit incomplete):

  • I have Mrs. Canuck
  • I have my family
  • I have my friends
  • I have my pets
  • I have the means to be able to enjoy life’s little pleasures
  • I have a career that I actually enjoy
  • I have purpose

What more could I want or ask for?

If I died in my sleep on any given day, there’s a 99% chance that I’d be dying at peace and with no regrets in my mind.

That, to me, is living.

When I can’t live any more, it won’t be my choice, but I’ll be happy with how things turned out.


My name is Jason Manuge. I'm an early onset Stage IV colorectal cancer survivor. You can find me on social as CancerCanuck!

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