Sarah Paul, MSW, LCSW, is the Child, Adolescent, and Young Adult Program Manager at CancerCare, a nonprofit organization that offers support services to people who are affected by cancer. She provides counseling to families coping with cancer and people who have lost a loved one. She specializes in working with children, teenagers, and young adults.
Young adults with advanced cancer often feel that their life is being cut short and that they do not have the same opportunity to leave a legacy compared to their healthy counterparts. Those coping with a terminal illness may feel a sense of urgency to complete life milestones associated with young adulthood. Others may feel symptoms of depression, anxiety, and anticipatory grief as they are faced with their mortality.
Anticipatory grief is the feeling of losing something before it is gone. If you are a young adult with an advanced cancer diagnosis, you may grieve the loss of a future with your loved ones. You may fear the uncertainty of the future or the idea of being forgotten. Or, you might feel anxious about condensing your life into a short amount of time. Often, fully acknowledging your anticipatory grief is the first step to moving through it.
Research shows that people who think that they have lived a successful life may be less likely to feel anxious as they approach death. One way to do this is by building a legacy. Legacy building is the effort to create memories and leave behind something that others can remember you by.
Some young adults shy away from making a legacy because they do not want to focus on death and dying. But the beautiful thing about building a legacy is that it is not about dying. It is about living.
A legacy can take whatever form you feel comfortable with. It can be used as a way for you and your loved ones to cope. It can also provide an opportunity to reflect on your life and those who have impacted you in a positive way. Or it can give your loved ones something to hold on to in the future. A legacy reminds people of you and how you shaped the world.
Building a legacy may seem like an overwhelming task, but remember there are no rules. Even the simplest projects can be meaningful. Here are 4 activities that can help you build a legacy:
1. Start a blog
Young adults who keep a blog to document their cancer experience may find it a useful way to cope with their end-of-life experience. A blog can be used as a tool to talk about your treatment, document personal growth, discuss fears, and connect with others in the cancer community.
2. Write letters
Some young adults choose to connect with loved ones by writing letters. If you cannot decide where to begin or what to write about, think about when your loved one may want to read a letter from you. It may also be helpful to make a list of holidays or future milestones. For example, what might you want your child to hear on the day of their high school graduation.
3. Keep a scrapbook
As we move deeper into the age of social media, physical scrapbooks are becoming less common. However, it can be a great opportunity to share important memories in a tangible way. You may create a scrapbook by yourself or with a loved one.
4. Create a video montage
Consider recording a video for your loved ones. This might include advice for the future, stories from your childhood, or some of your favorite memories.
If you are looking for additional help or resources, consider talking with a licensed professional who is familiar with the challenges and concerns facing people affected by a cancer diagnosis. Call CancerCare’s Hopeline at 800-813-HOPE (4673) to speak with one of their oncology social workers for more support.