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buckets are for filling up, not kicking over

I’m writing this post at 35,000 feet on a flight from Phoenix to Los Angeles.  I just saw the Grand Canyon for the first time in my life!  As I’m flying back, I’m thinking about bucket lists.  And life. And death. And what it means to be alive.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer nine years ago.

I had two recurrences, five surgeries, eight rounds of chemo, 30 days of radiation, one year of Herceptin infusions, three years of Zometa infusions, five years of Tamoxifen and Zoladex, and now I’m half-way through another five years of Arimidex and Lupron.

I have doctors appointments every three months.  There’s a blood test my oncologist can check to monitor my cancer.  If the marker spikes, it means my cancer’s back and I need to start chemo again.

I did some research and found that checking the marker doesn’t improve your chance of survival.  It just lets you know sooner that your cancer’s back and you might die.

“Why would I want to know my cancer’s back sooner if it doesn’t improve my survival?” I asked my oncologist.

“The only reason you’d want to know is if you’d live differently if you knew you were dying,” he said.  “Like — if you’d want to quit your job and have time to parachute out of an airplane or fly around the world or spend more time with loved ones.”

“Let’s cancel the blood test,” I said.

“Are you sure?” he asked me.

I nodded.  “I already live like I’m dying.”

And it’s true.

If you’ve read The Invisible Girls, you know that when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was seriously dating a man named Ian.  Shortly after my mastectomy, he picked me up from my apartment one evening to take me out to dinner.

He suggested several restaurants that we’d enjoyed in the past.  And I became irrationally angry.  “Why would we want to go there?” I demanded.  “We’ve BEEN THERE BEFORE.”

After facing my mortality at 27 years old, I became acutely aware of how short and how precious life is.  And I didn’t want to retrace any of my steps.  I wanted to blaze new trails — even if it meant doing something seemingly insignificant, like dining at a new restaurant.


It’s been nine years since my cancer diagnosis, but I still feel the same sense of urgency.  The world is a big, beautiful place.  There are so many things to see and to do.  I’m not going to live forever.  So let’s start exploring now.

Lots of people talk about their bucket lists.  It’s a list of things to do before you die, but for most people, it becomes a list of things to do as you are dying.  

What if we rethought the idea of bucket lists?  What if, instead of filling up a bucket with experiences and memories and then kicking that bucket over shortly afterwards as you’re dying….what if we fill up buckets to carry with us as we’re living?

What if we look at live as an adventure?

What if we see the world as a land of endless possibilities and experiences?

What if we celebrate life by slowing down and noticing that we are, in fact, alive?

What if we create space in our lives to do the things we’ve “always wanted to do?”

What if we stop procrastinating and look for opportunities, even this week, to experience the world in a unique way?

What if we stopped thinking about what we want to do before we die, and started thinking about what we  would enjoy doing while we are pain- , disease-, and deadline- free?

What if we already lived like we were dying?


So…..I want to hear from you.  What’s on your bucket list?  When are you going to start crossing those experiences off the list?

In the words of Mary Oliver,

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do 
with your one wild and precious life?” 

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Thanks for sharing!

8 thoughts on “buckets are for filling up, not kicking over

  1. I am trying to spend some months abroad, starting in September. I feel it’s now or never. And I really want to do it! I haven’t succeeded yet, but I keep trying.

  2. Thank you. For years on vacations I either visited family or stayed near my house. Then last year I decided to start taking one special vacation per year hopefully to places I had not seen. Last year I went to Dan Francisco and Yosemite. I write this from New York City. And discover things not touristy. Take a photo walk down 6th Avenue and discover Bryant Park or see a diner or cafe begging to be discovered or when on Staten Island search out the graveyard where an aquaintance of Washington Irving, named Ichabod Crane is buried and see the monument to the real person whose name got appropriated without asking by Washington Irving in the Headless Horseman. If you go to find a known attraction look to discover one on your adventure as well.

  3. As always you are spot on with this insight & I couldn’t agree more! After nearly dying myself last January from my accident, I too realize every day is a gift from God. I’ve never been a big bucket list person, but rather, I just try to live life noticing (I love Mary Oliver); I try to appreciate each moment, each person, each conversation, each breath, each “right here” which are all gifts. If I think bucket list in the traditional way, I cannot go far away for a while as I am still healing, but right here, right now I want to find a new park, outdoor nature area with my kids each week this summer, places that are local, close to our home-I call it Outdoor Adventures with my kids. Long term though, it’s Australia and Alaska. Instead of bucket lists, I have had dreams- places I want to see. In 2013, my dream to experience Africa came true when my twins and I got to visit my daughter Rachel, who was living in Tanzania for 6 months! …enjoy your incredible time away, dear Sarah-I so loved our time last April! – cornelia

    1. thanks so much for the comment, cornelia. you have a full and beautiful life. hope we get to spend more time together soon!

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