How the Declaration of Independence Applies to Living with Cancer

July 2, 2015

“Now I am face to face with dying. It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me.”

These words came from Oliver Sacks, the renowned professor, neurologist, author, amateur chemist and now ocular melanoma patient who recently was told his cancer could not be stopped. And Oliver Sacks is right—everyone living with terminal cancer has a choice about how to live through their disease. And if it were me, I’d live with the immortal words of Thomas Jefferson in mind.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are three qualities guaranteed to every American by the Declaration of Independence, and nothing—not the government, not a disease and certainly not a prognosis—can take those qualities away from you.

So if the years of your life are less, let your life’s experiences multiply. Let them grow exponentially, impossibly, erratically; let them fill up every corner and crevice of your being. Don’t just stop to smell the roses, feast on them with your eyes. And when you’re done, go and pick them to give them to someone you love, and watch them smile. Soak up everything, from the stars on a moonlit night to the endless stream of cars in a six o’clock traffic jam; headlights and stars both lighting the darkness to guide us onward. As you blaze onward too.

Don’t dwell on the ‘liberties’ or actions denied to you because of your changing condition; dwell on the freedom you have to discover new interests, new hobbies, new routines and all people. Climbing Mt. Everest may not be possible, but there’s nothing to stop you from traveling to the town just an hour away or exploring the lives of the neighbors who always wave from the driveway. Explore yourself. Get lost in your mind, a galaxy of memories, insights, goals, connections and above all, love. And once you know yourself, be yourself. The most common regret nurses found is not living true to oneself—don’t compromise this part of you. Don’t give up this freedom.

Pursue happiness, but also let it find you. Seek out the ones you care about, and let yourself be happy with them without past grudges or harbored guilt obstructing you. Forgive mistakes that are blocking your happiness, whether it’s their fault or yours. And if there are days when you feel sad, then feel sad! Rattle the heavens with your cries; shake the earth with a wrath to match Achilles. But don’t forget still to laugh and to smile and to jump for joy at the slightest thing, because that is as much a part of life as you are. Pursue reasons to make yourself happy.

Living with terminal cancer doesn’t mean fading from existence. It means living out every day with the determination to hold the American founding fathers to their end of the bargain; with the determination to maximize our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

If you are seeking support for living with terminal cancer, call CSC’s Cancer Support Helpline any time Monday – Friday 9 am-9 pm (ET) at 1-888-793-9355, or check out our online support resources at