What My Friend’s Terminal Diagnosis Taught Us About Living


The day after my husband and I returned home from celebrating our first anniversary, we received a phone call that effectively ended our status as carefree newlyweds. A good friend of ours had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the doctors predicted she had six weeks left to live. She was twenty-eight years old.

I won’t dwell on all the sadness the next five and a half weeks brought us, mostly because there was so much of it that I can’t really put it into words yet. Instead, I like to remember the immense love we witnessed every time we watched her husband carry her to bed and kiss her goodnight. I remember the nights I clung to my own husband, so incredibly thankful that he was there next to me instead of in a hospital bed. I remember the sense of adventure our friend always had, even in the days before she passed away, when she confessed that what she missed the most was cooking her favorite exotic foods.

Our lives have changed so much since that phone call. The small spats that worked their way into our first year of marriage now seem childish. We spent my husband’s twenty-seventh birthday in a hospice room, during the last hours of our friend’s life. Today, instead of arguing over who would do the dishes (my husband volunteered!), we outlined a plan for finalizing our wills. Last week, I finally submitted an application to a graduate school program that will begin in the fall. The biggest change, though, has been our plans for the future.

In February, we are both leaving our relatively stable, corporate jobs for three months of roughing it around Australia and Southeast Asia. It’s an idea we’ve been thinking about for a long, long time. We’ve been aggressively saving up for it for nearly a year. We’ve been “planning” it for almost as long, but always with an out. There was a big part of me that thought the fun was in planning, even if we didn’t actually go through with it. There’s always next year, or the year after. We want kids someday in the future, but we can take our time with that and still have plenty of time to travel.

My timeline is different now. Watching a friend become a widower in his early thirties proves that sometimes, next year or the year after doesn’t happen. The week that we received that terrible phone call, we booked the first part of our trip to Thailand. We’re in the process of putting together the rest of it, and sometime in the middle of January, we’ll be telling our employers that we’re leaving and getting our house ready to rent out. We’ll return to the unknown, potential unemployment, and hopefully grad school enrollment. The planner in me, the part that embraces the corporate career and home ownership, is terrified. But my husband tells me we will be okay, and so far, even in the darkness of tragedy, he’s been right. As long as he is here to remind me of that, I’m jumping in—wherever this adventure leads us.

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  • My heart goes to you, it is very hard to lose a friend, more so, when they are so young.

    ” But my husband tells me we will be okay, and so far, even in the darkness of tragedy, he’s been right. As long as he is here to remind me of that, I’m jumping in—wherever this adventure leads us.”

    I send all the love your way, enjoy your adventures in South East Asia (it is definitely on our list too), and you are so spot on. Life is today, we have to live it now. (Yeah I just sounded like a commercial, but it is true).

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Zoe

    Your adventures sound amazing.

    One thing I want to chime in on, often, when I read narratives about starting a new adventure, they include long periods of international travel, which, hey! is amazing.

    But there are lots of other ways to start adventures that don’t include leaving your job and travelling for three months (not to say that’s not awesome, but not feasible/desirable for some).Start volunteering. Pick up a new hobby. Take 2 weeks off from work (unpaid if you have to) and go somewhere you’ve never been. etc, etc. It’s not all or nothing between staying the same old routine and completely getting out.

    • AnotherCourtney

      Absolutely! For us, the thing we were putting off was this trip to other side of the world. For you, it might be two weeks in Mexico or a year on a sailboat. And a lot of times, it doesn’t have anything to do with travel. Maybe it’s going back to school or having kids, or even something (slightly) less life-changing, like asking for a raise at work. Just be careful not to put it off until it’s too late.

      And definitely consider writing a will/advanced directive. Especially if you’re married and/or have children, it’s exactly the kind of thing that you could run out of time to do.

  • Steph

    Very sorry for your loss… and also very grateful for this post.

    My hubby and I recently bought an RV and are trying to figure out our summer plans for using it. We are saving aggressively and keep going back and forth between quitting our jobs entirely (with several months of living expenses set aside for when we get back) or taking a shorter trip. We are still in the process of deciding and i suspect if we do choose to take the larger leap it will take a bit more time to decide for sure.
    However, having a close family member pass away recently at just 56 (which at 33 doesn’t feel too far away) has definitely got me thinking about how short and precious life is and how important it is to make the most of the time we do have.

    Again, thank you for this post and so sorry for your loss

    • Class of 1980

      “However, having a close family member pass away recently at just 56 (which at 33 doesn’t feel too far away) has definitely got me thinking about how short and precious life is and how important it is to make the most of the time we do have.”

      It isn’t far away! ;)

      However, you do feel a lot younger than you imagined you would in your fifties.

  • PAW

    I really needed this perspective today, framed in the context of small spats and fights about dishes. It is so easy to let the world narrow to the point of conflict and fall into a routine, when there are much larger patterns (and goals, dreams) we can tap into!

    I hope to hear about your trip, and I wish you courage as your community moves through this time of grief.

    • SJG

      I too needed this post today. My guy and I are trying to navigate this thing called marriage post-baby (our little man is six months old), and it’s a doozy at times to even think about feeling sexy, feeling up to working on our marriage after drool and skipped naps and messy diapers. But I know that we will get through this, just as we have endured other tough things, like the sudden loss of my husband’s grandmother and the impending separation of his parents. Thank you for the reminder that having someone by your side is sometimes enough.

  • Charis

    I am very sorry for your loss, and thankful for your post.
    I lost my uncle to leukaemia in October and he was only 51… his kids hadn’t even gone to college yet. He went from healthy to passing away in a fortnight.
    It is so easy when faced with loss to become bitter, to wonder why and to become consumed with the unfairness of it all.
    But I think that even though those questions remain, and that you will still grieve, you can sometimes manage to salvage something from it. I re-started a relationship which I had ended previously when I realised the problems we faced were not so big after all, and that we could work things out.
    I am so glad this awful event provided you with the encouragement to do something great for your lives.
    Have a wonderful time travelling!

  • KB

    While it’s sad that it sometimes takes a tragedy to make you seize the day, it’s a great tribute to your friend that she inspired you to do this. Safe, adventurous, and wonderful travels!!

  • Jashshea

    So sorry for the loss of your friend. Hopefully you can honor her memory by learning some SE Asian recipes – enjoy your trip and lean on each other.

    • AnotherCourtney

      I love this idea. Thanks!

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  • Erika

    First of all I send your friends husband and all of you lots of good thoughts and prayers. I can’t even begin to imagine what everyone is going through. And thank you for reminding me to go home and squeeze my hubby just a little bit tighter tonight.

    Also, we actually did something similar last year. We quit our very stable jobs and for 6 months traveled around SE Asia. Its so easy to travel there, you’ll have an amazing time. If you ever need any tips feel free to email me. And we also posted all of our hotels and restaurants on our blog, so feel free to research if you like. We use the FootPrint guide book (on amazon) b/c we wanted something different than Lonely Planet and we loved it. http://www.inspireamerika.wordpress.com

    Have an amazing adventure! And I agree with Jashshea….some SE asian recipes are fantastic. We actually offered someone $5 at a restaurant in Laos to teach us how to make a dish. Our own mini cooking class.

    • AnotherCourtney

      Thank you, Erika! I just might be getting in touch with you as we get closer to our trip. Until then, don’t mind me as I peruse your website (love the title!). What an inspiration that will be!

      PS – It never would have crossed my mind to ask someone to teach me how to cook like that. Thanks for the tip!

      • Erika

        Feel free to email me! Happy to help in any way. emurdock@gmail.com

        And yes. My husband just realized, why pay for a cooking class, when I can just ask this nice lady, take pictures of each step, write it down and….voila!

        A very happy holiday to you, your family, and loved ones.

  • Class of 1980

    The whole “living for today” thing requires such a fine balance between providing security for the future and having a life in the present.

    Sometimes life wakes you up, and sometimes it’s a gradual realization that you need to invest in the present more.

    • Maddie


  • Kat

    oh good gravy I’m a sobbing mess. Thanks for reminding me that my G and our relationship with each other and our love for each other is THE most important thing in the whole wide world.

    We had a great reminder of this earlier this year when newly married (two months!) friends of ours were faced with a crazy life altering car accident, that they both could have prevented… that reminded us that no argument or fight is worth almost dying over.

    Life is too short, too precious and wasted on the healthy and the young.

  • Lydia

    So, sadly, I can relate to this. Just 10 weeks after my wedding a very dear friend passed away quite suddenly. The pictures of her celebrating our wedding have become cherished mementos for her family and I spent a lot of time feeling blessed that she’d been able to make it at all.

    While her death didn’t propel me to make any huge life changes, it did nudge me to make hundreds of small changes, that continue to this day two years later. Mostly that I cherish my friends in a way I couldn’t have understood before her passing. I say yes to outings and gatherings and events that before I might have balked at bc I was feeling lazy, tired or over committed. Now I go 95% of the time. I still say no sometimes, but overwhelming I am much more sensitive that these invites are what cement a friendship and that these memories are ones I would cling too.

    She died at 34 and had so much life left to live, but we all took comfort that her 34 years were really fantastic ones. I hope I can say that for every year I have left.

    Good luck on your travels and I am so sorry about your friend’s death.

    • AnotherCourtney

      Lydia, I feel the same way about my wedding photos that have this friend in them, and I am so thankful that she was able to be there.

      I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m glad you’re able to turn it into something positive!

  • It’s an admirable thing to live your life now. It’s something I’ve been thinking about more and more as my husband and I take our first steps of married life. Much luck & happines & joy to you & your husband on your journey!

  • I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. :(

    This year my husband and I went from putting down my dog, to the sudden death of his father, to having a miscarriage. Each of them had huge shifts in our perspectives about everything. We’ve stopped waiting and putting things off for the “right time” because life’s short and you never know what’s around the next bend. For us travel isn’t the adventure we’re working on first, but it’s certainly a similar motivation.

  • This post definitely speaks to me.

    I lost my best friend when she was 28. By the time I got the phone call she was already dead.

    The thing that it brought up for me was how much I wanted to have children. Something about losing her gave me a powerful drive to create new life.

    But three years later I’m still not in a place to make that dream happen. I want to throw caution to the wind, knowing how short life is, but I still can’t.

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  • Dianne Callahan

    This post really hit home for me, too. You see, a couple of months ago I celebrated my 4th anniversary to the most loving, caretaking, funny, and sweet man I have ever met. Two weeks before that we found out that my aggressive cancer had returned for the 3rd time in 5 years and I would have to fight for my life again. This time it is pretty much all or nothing. There’s no chemo left that is powerful enough to stop my aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma – only a donor stem cell transplant has a shot. But it is a good shot … 3 out of 4 people survive the procedure and more than half do so with no quality of life changing impacts. Without the transplant, my oncologist said I would have months, maybe a year, to live. So, just after the holidays I will go into City of Hope for 4-6 weeks that won’t be fun at all, but might save my life. We have lived with the specter of this cancer for our entire marriage – my husband actually proposed to me in the hospital the night we got the original diagnosis. Instead taking off on a 6-month adventure, we have tried to “live it up” in different ways. We spend as much time as possible together, we laugh, we love, we share our lives with our family and friends, he supports my work to find a cure with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. We are patient with each other and kind. We do not waste any time on petty disagreements. We hold hands and snuggle and say I love you (and the reasons why) every day. We are living a great life, even though there is no grand adventure on the horizon … I sure hope it continues …