When Faced With Death, Live Life to the Fullest, Says a Cancer Survivor


“I had to choose one of two paths, to become the victim and let the disease control me or take control of the disease and fight for my life. The moment I chose to fight was the moment life opened all of its beauty,” writes a lymphoma survivor.

It’s not every day someone gives you a percentage of survival or a certain amount of time left in your life. Those conversations are unusual, they feel demoralizing and confusing, it can make you spin into despair.

But sometimes, and I would argue, most times, it brings you into a state of fully living. This conversation puts life into perspective as fast as just about any life-event could do.

When I was diagnosed at the age of 24 with stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma, I was given a 66% chance of survival. Two-thirds of people with my diagnosis live … but all I could think about is 33% that didn’t survive. These are the statistics the doctor shared with me. He didn’t give me the statistics of a 24-year-old athlete, who exercised every day, ate well, and had the strongest self-will compared to most of her counterparts. Those stats did not reflect Nina Luker’s life, and yet they were still given to me — slapped across my face like I had misbehaved in school.

I remember the day vividly. I got this statistic right after my first PET scan results came back. The doctor shared my cancer was stage 4, spreading into my lungs, liver, lymph nodes, knees, etc. I was sitting in our family room, with my mom, dad and golden retriever by my side.

The words were echoing out of the phone as if the doctor was talking to the wrong patient. None of us spoke. I had my hands covering my face. I could feel my heart rate rapidly increasing, the burning sensation in my chest, the subtle shake in my hands and feet. The call ended and we all collapsed. Keeling over the couch with our bodies tightly compressed. The world stopped.

It’s in this moment, you are forced to stand face to face with death. This is the moment in time when life shifts. You are forced into a vortex of competing priorities. Who are you going to call, how are you going to spend your days, how are you going to find joy, how do you wake-up each day and find the silver linings? These are not easy topics to come to terms with, but you have no other choice. Until you are faced with death, these topics rarely come into question.

Choosing One of Two Paths

It’s crazy to write this, and even crazier to share this statement with an entire community of people who have some connection to cancer, but that day, my life shifted in the most positive way. I had to choose one of two paths, to become the victim and let the disease control me or take control of the disease and fight for my life. The moment I chose to fight was the moment life opened all its beauty.

Those days following the news, I would wake up and look out my window to find the sun shining through the trees, wildflowers popping through the earth, the sweetness of a home-grown vegetable, the feeling of cold water running through my toes, the sounds of birds chirping as if I was living in their amphitheater. Life started to slow-down and my mind became more focused on the good. The little moments each day that put a smile on my face, the small wins that began to build on one-another. The sound of a loved one’s voice through the phone, the small gestures of kindness from strangers, the soft back scratch from a parent, a calming melody echoing through the doors, or even a laughter from an immature joke. These were the moments to live for.

Making a Promise

I made a promise to myself when I was first diagnoses that I would do two things: No. 1 journal every night and No. 2 get outside to walk or lay beneath the trees. Those two non-negotiables changed the trajectory of my treatment. It let my mind and my physical body escape into a different dimension. These two parts of my day made it so I could tackle the unknown. I could sit with my thoughts and find a space to contemplate the priorities. I was able to put myself first and really tap into whatever was needed at that moment. My world slowed, my mind began to become clear, and I started to believe that no matter the percentage I was given, that number did not stand a chance with my strength and pursuit in recovery.

Sometimes it takes something tragic to get to this point, but I wonder, what if we all started living with the understanding that we are all going to die. We understood that life is short and that we must keep things slow, find spaces of calmness and reset priorities. Now that might just be the best gift you could ever give yourself.

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