The dreaded bucket list...

Sunday, July 20, 2014

One of my biggest internal struggles on my cancer journey has been with the sometimes exciting, but largely depressing, notion of a bucket list.

My choosing to have, or not to have, a bucket list would change every few weeks. But I realise now, the weeks when I was pro-bucket list I was convincing myself that ‘living in the moment’ and ‘making the most of life’ were phrases that instilled purpose and happiness in a time of uncertainty and sadness. However, when thinking about what I would write on my bucket list, I did not feel like I had purpose and I definitely did not feel happy. Instead, I felt defeated, upset, and I felt like I was dying.

For me, a bucket list was a reminder of what I could not have.

When I sat down and thought about what I wanted to achieve in life as a woman in my early 20s, I could add little to my bucket list if I was hoping for it to be realistic.

My dream has always been to be a wife, but most importantly to be a mum. I remember when I was in East Timor travelling with a group of young people, we were discussing what we wanted to be when we ‘grow-up’. As we went around the circle I heard of their amazing career aspirations and I was nervous. My dream was nothing like any of theirs. My dream was to be a Mum and my career would come second to this.

My dream of being a mother has slipped away. Unless a miracle was to happen, I will never be a mother. Even if that miracle happened and I went into remission, Serge and I would be faced with making a decision to have a child knowing that the chances of my cancer coming back would be real. We would have to discuss the reality of Serge being a single parent. I couldn’t add my biggest dream of being a mum to this bucket list, so I moved onto thinking about my other goals for the future.

Making tortillas in Guatemala.
My year working in East Timor confirmed my career direction. I wanted to go back to University and study to become an Occupational Therapist. I had been accepted into a postgraduate masters and had begun prerequisite study when I was diagnosed as Stage 3. When the diagnosis changed, my chances of being well enough to do full time study, let alone be alive to graduate were slim. So out went that dream.

So my big goals in life were out the window, hence my first reason to be angry at the idea of a bucket list.

I moved onto my second plan of attack. I thought if I didn’t have children and didn’t have the responsibility of a career, what would I be doing? Without hesitation, I would be continuing my love affair with travelling. Serge and I could see the world together. I could easily write a bucket list of all the places in the world I wanted to see. I would take Serge to the places I have called home, Guatemala and East Timor. We would eat our way through Central and South America. We would island hop through the pacific (of course, remembering to slip, slop and slap!). We would visit Serge’s extended family that are spread out throughout Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. There would not be a corner of the world excluded from my bucket list.

My colleagues in East Timor
But once again, I was left defeated. The majority of places that made up my list were strongly discouraged by my doctors as holiday destinations for a person with advanced cancer, but moreover, a person with a little mystery mass that had called my brain home. I was given suggestions of countries that would be safe for me to travel to, as well as countries where we would not be faced with crazy medical fees if something were to happen to me when I was there. But I did not like the idea of having a list that was limited. If a bucket list was to play such an important role in my life, I didn’t want to write it with restrictions.

Enjoying 'fish on a stick' in East Timor
My first two attempts at a bucket list failed. My social workers listened to me go back and forth about the worth of a bucket list. You would think, surely, that I would be able to put a list of things together that would brighten my last however long and create wonderful memories. So I went to trusty google (I never learn!) for some inspiration. There were lots of exciting things to fill a list with – swimming with dolphins, learn to surf, learn a new language, take up dancing etc etc. However, at the end of the day, I realised that my biff with a bucket list was not just because I couldn’t fill it with all the goals I wished for in my life, but it was because at the end of the day a bucket list is something I was to write because I am dying.

It is at this point that I placed a bucket list at the very bottom of my to-do list.

A bucket list may mean something different as I move further into my cancer journey, but for now, I am going to try a different kind of list. What makes this list different is that it isn’t about making sure I go out and create memories before I die. Instead, it is about bringing joy to my everyday life.

I am going to share with you my first three items on my list:

  • ·      To always have beautiful flowers in our home
  • ·      To always order a pavlova if it is on the menu at a restaurant (ignore all concerns for my waistline)
  • ·      To have a ‘fold-down’ (all cushions removed from my bed and blankets turned down) by Serge every night. (I don’t know if Serge would approve of this one, but it is one of my favourite things!)

For now, this list will be my answer to a bucket list. 


  1. Such a beautiful post Emma, so eloquently explained. It's funny, I remember exactly those discussions in Timor and it's the one thought we all immediately went to when you were diagnosed. I can't pretend to imagine what it's like, but one thing I've always admired about you is your pragmatism and your ability to accept, acknowledge and enjoy the simple things in life - especially when we were being absurdly lofty in our aspirations. I imagine it's not always a matter of "enjoying" life but I'm hardly surprised you've ended up at this realisation of a different list; it has always been a strength of yours well before this diagnosis, I love you for that and it teaches me a little something every time. Besides, fresh flowers are just about the perfect anecdote in any situation. Big hugs and much love. Mel xox

  2. I can't begin to understand how you must feel.
    Life is never fair., so acceptance is the first part of the battle.
    You are not alone.

    I hope every day is filled with flowers, pavlova, turned down beds and Love!

  3. Emma, you've said it all. And once again so beautifully. You have every right to feel this way about those damn bucket lists. And even more motivation than anyone I know of to just want to live every day with as much fresh flowers and pavs and turned down beds as you can get! A little chocky on the pillow wouldn't go astray either, I say. (And let's not forget a few sushi dates with me too!).

    Big Al xx

  4. Hi Emma,
    I can see why the word Bucket List can have negative cogitations. I like your approach :)

    I look forward to the next post.

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  6. another great post doll! so proud of you! forever inspiring. xx

  7. I love the three items on your 'bucket list', your blog is very inspirational and I wish you well.
    Sometimes life does not seem fair

  8. You are a treasure, I love your delightful list!


Thank you so much for your comment. I really appreciate you taking the time to connect. Emma x

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