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Planning My Priorities After a Cancer Diagnosis


After being diagnosed with cancer and taking a look at all the stuff I accumulated, I began to think about my priorities in life.

cartoon drawing of male breast cancer survivor and contributor, Khevin Barnes

I found out that I had male breast cancer on a sunny day in May of 2014. “Now what?” I said to myself. Even after four years of experience as a caregiver for my first wife, who had died 14 years earlier of ovarian cancer, I was ill prepared for that news. I felt like an infant in the world of cancer — alone with my own rare form of the disease, perplexed and unnerved.

After the initial shock receded, it seemed to me that surviving my new cancer experience required taking a long, deep breath, consulting with the experts (I’m not only talking about medical practitioners here, but other people with cancer like mine in their lives) and assembling a plan of action after considering what my personal priorities were.

Most importantly, perhaps, was the belief that whatever route I was about to choose, it would offer the best choice to give me hope, along with a firm foundation on which to balance my now-unsteady life. I wanted a plan of action that felt promising.

There were practical matters that had to be addressed. My spouse and I had been living in Hawaii for a year, renting a home, while all our personal possessions and household furniture were in storage in California, 2,400 miles away. We had always assumed that we would have plenty of time to choose a new location and purchase a house on the mainland once our extended Hawaii visit had ended. So, in addition to the unknown outcome of my cancer prognosis, the two of us were living a lovely, but unstable life. Our families were still in California, and my regular physicians were there too.

It was time to get my priorities straight, keep a level head and make some quick but urgent choices.

Having no children, my first consideration after waking up after my mastectomy surgery in Honolulu was in finding a permanent home for my wife and myself — a base from which I could begin my pursuit of health and healing with some feeling of stability in our lives. That was the thought that brought me the most comfort: knowing that she would have “a place” in the event that cancer shortened my life.

Secondly, I began to reflect on the amount of “stuff” I had accumulated over the years in my career as a stage magician: apparatus, collectibles, equipment and props that would be as mysterious and unfamiliar to my wife as they had been to my audiences. All of this was packed into two large storage units in California. She would have little chance of dispersing, selling or understanding most of this.

I needed to catalog my lifetime of possessions and downsize the years of junk I had collected, and I had a fierce impulse to do it as quickly as possible. And all the while, there in the foreground stood my breast cancer, making its own choices about how I would spend the next months or years of my life.

Perhaps, most surprising to me, was the realization that it took a life-threatening disease to bring about these ideas and push me into action. It made me wonder how many of us get stuck in this same quagmire of “short-time-to-live-versus-long-history-of-hoarding” spin cycle.

Back in mainland America, I found a couple of oncologists I resonated with. We bought a home in Arizona. I liquidated 40 years of work-related equipment, and I began to connect with fellow cancer survivors around the nation and indeed, around the world.

Today, despite the relative order I see in my life as an ongoing cancer survivor, I maintain a list of priorities to remind myself of what’s truly important. I know all too well that cancer can be lurking in my future, and I suppose the great gift I’ve received in all of this is just in knowing that should I need to put my energy into surviving cancer one more time in the future; I won’t have to dilute my energy by boxing up a lifetime of stuff or searching for a new zip code to live in.

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