My attempt at a bucket list


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The surgery that will change my life

When I first met my surgeon after receiving my diagnosis, he had a frank discussion with me.

You’ll need to have an 8 to 12 hours long surgery to remove the stomach and the esophagus.

I extrapolated what he said and understood that this was not going to be a small surgery. In essence, this type of surgery has the same effect as bariatric surgery, usually offered to patients when weight loss is unsuccessful despite aggressive lifestyle changes and medication. At a height of 6 feet and a weight of 143 lbs, many would consider me to be lean. To some, this might seem to be a gift, but in my case, my inability to gain weight, having weighed 140-145 lbs my entire adult life, is rather a nuisance. Weight loss through a bariatric-style surgery is a legitimate concern for me.

You’ll need to eat small, frequent meals.” 

I’ll have to find ways to eat 6 to 7 meals a day at set times, regardless of whether I were to be hungry. Again, weight loss is a legitimate concern for me, but I’m sure I’ll adapt.

There is a 5% chance of a leak, which is life-threatening.

I would have been surprised if the surgery carried no risk. I convinced myself that the surgeon looked diligent, and that the 5% will surely be reduced to 0%.

You’ll need to sleep at a 45 degree incline for the rest of your life.

Can’t afford to choke on digestive fluid in my sleep. I’m sure it won’t be a big deal.

This surgery will change your life.”

My life… will never be the same. I replayed what the surgeon said to me over and over again in my head. As a physician, when I deliver difficult news, my interaction with a patient lasts 15 to 30 minutes. Some patients respond with tears, while others remain stoic (such as myself). It has never occurred to me that the patient can take the doctor’s words, and replay them 5000 more times for weeks on end. How I felt in my surgeon’s office had no correlation with how I felt when I got home. The seed of bad news that was planted in the office became a tree by the time I got home. Bad news are exhausting. I’m still having a hard time visualizing my future lifestyle, but for now, I need to focus on the fact that the surgery will help save my life.

It has never occurred to me that the patient can take the doctor’s words, and replay them 5000 more times for weeks on end.

Creating the bucket list

My surgeon insisted that I focus on fulfilling a bucket list before my treatment started. Chemotherapy, at the time, was still a month away, which meant I had a month to “enjoy life.” My initial understanding of a bucket list was a list of all the life experiences and dreams I need to fulfill before I die. This included visiting all 5 continents, skydiving, flying on a hand glider, scuba diving,  and one day going to space. Many of these items were simply not feasible when you have an unpredictable bleeding mass in your stomach, and had to be close to a hospital. Stephanie, my partner, suggested that we go on local adventures while I still had the energy to do so. This idea quickly died when we realized our appointments for the month. In preparation for chemotherapy, I ultimately had 16 appointments scheduled with doctors, counselors and a dietician. I spent 3 days admitted at the hospital for a diagnostic laparoscopy, which is a minor surgery under general anesthesia to see how far the tumour had spread inside my abdomen. I underwent a handful of imaging tests that required fasting and a half-day of waiting. While the calendar was packed, we did spot a few holes of free time and we had managed to organize 3 days of surfing in Kincardine, Ontario, a 3-hour drive away from Toronto where we live. The idea was to get away from the city, spend some time together surfing, and come back in time for our PET scan. The morning of that trip, I got a call from the PET scan technologist to review the preparation needed for the day of the scan. It turns out that I wasn’t allowed to do anything strenuous, such as jogging or riding a bike, for 3 days prior. To preserve our trip, we had tried to envision ways to surf without exerting too much, and discovered that the only way to do so was…. to not surf at all. My FOMO did not outweigh the risk of a false positive. We ended up cancelling our trip. We had other traveling ideas that were also shut down, as there was simply not enough time to enjoy them.

Redefining the bucket list

The very things that stopped me from fulfilling a bucket list became the bucket list.

My bucket list was further transformed as the month went by. With a good chunk of the month dedicated to being inside a waiting a room, I started making plans to catch up with friends and family at the hospital. I figured that we were going to talk about my diagnosis at some point, and there was no better way to share my journey than to have them walk beside me. Unexpectedly, I enjoyed unique moments with close ones during these outings. This is when I realized that in the process of accomplishing non-bucket list items, I discovered what really mattered to me. It wasn’t going on global adventures or having unique lifetime experiences. It was simply spending quality time with friends and family, and nurturing those relationships. Nothing else mattered. My numerous medical appointments facilitated these priorities. The very things that stopped me from fulfilling a bucket list became the bucket list. My new list did not generate as much adrenaline as my old one, but it doesn’t mean I didn’t derive the same, if not greater, satisfaction from it. In doing so, I worried less about the future, and focused more on the present. In the end, the remedy against bad news recurring in my head wasn’t about seeking new experiences, but rather opening my eyes to things around me that I took for granted. In my case, it was quality time with family and friends.

19 thoughts on “My attempt at a bucket list

  1. You’re incredibly brave and have my biggest respect!


  2. Sending you all my best wishes ❤


  3. Your blog and journey are so inspiring and heartfelt! Sending you my sincerest regards.


  4. Amazing Terence… I’m very touched by your perspectives and I’m also close to tears. I didn’t want to hear about you again after 2-3 years in this way. I will message you soon privately


  5. So sorry this happened to you and wishing you a speedy recovery.


  6. You’re very strong Terrance … I know you’ll make it through … wishing you a quick recovery and many great years to come


  7. Thanks for taking the time to write. Love to you and Steph


  8. Hello, I came upon your blog and wanted to send you support and positivity.

    Your thoughts are humbling and inspiring, and being touched by cancer within my family, your experiences brings back many memories.

    It is insane how the surgeon had presented the odds in the same way to my father, who was diagnosed with lung cancer 4 years ago. He was told back then, “You have a 50% chance of not being in this room within the next 5 years.” We were shocked, and personally as a health professional myself, i was horrified that the statistics were presented in such a way to a patient.

    Four years after my father’s diagnosis which had occured just before chinese new year of 2014, my father is in great health and finally planning his retirement the following year. The experience brought our family closer than before, and made us realize how much we took for granted.

    I believe that obstacles are thrown our way for a reason, it allows us to reflect and reconsider our priorities. I wish you all the best in your journey, and from these experiences you will definitely come out stronger!


  9. I’m so sorry to hear this news, your perspective is so valuable and you’re so brave for sharing your story. I wish you lots of strength and resilience, quality moments with friends and family, and the best outcome from your treatment!


  10. Hi Terence, I came across your blog on Vivian’s Facebook post. Stomach cancer has touched my family in the past and it’s a lot to handle and take in. Your positive outlook is inspiring and commendable. Thank you for sharing your story with us. I wish you all the best in your journey.


  11. Ilana Halperin July 24, 2018 — 9:45 pm

    thanks for sharing with all of us Terrence, I am so very sorry this has happened to you but greatful
    You are taking the opportunity to shine a light on the doctor turned patient perspective. good luck with surgery and chemo and keep the posts coming. best wishes


  12. Lots of love Terence, you’re an incredibly strong person and I deeply admire your courage. Constantly in my thoughts and prayers and send you positive vibes!


  13. Douglas Slobod July 25, 2018 — 6:15 pm

    Hi Terence, I was shocked and saddened when I started to read your blog. Thank you for sharing your experience – I am hoping for the best for you!


  14. Thank you for your sharing this. Your ability to articulate your thoughts and emotions as you enter this scenario is a gift to all who come across the blog. Wishing you the best.


  15. Thank you for sharing your journey Terence. Sending you lots of love 💛 Please keep writing, you have a gift for it and your posts have been very eye opening.


  16. Terence,
    My thoughts are with you. It takes courage and much resolve to share your experience with the world, through your writings, and I admire that.

    “Diseases can be our spiritual flat tires – disruptions in our lives that seem to be disasters at the time but end by redirecting our lives in a meaningful way”

    Stay hopeful, as hope is the divine motivator!!.. and keep it coming!

    “When it rains look for rainbows, when it’s dark look for stars”



  17. Thinking of you and sending you continued strength and courage


  18. You are so incredibly brave Terence! Stay strong and all of our best wishes are with you!


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