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How Do I Want to Be Remembered?

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Leroy Sievers dropped by the office the other day. He's a television news producer. He's a big guy with a sharp sense of humor. Looks healthy; doesn't give you any hint that he's been fighting cancer. We might not even know, except that Sievers shares his story month-by-month with MORNING EDITION listeners.

He learned a few weeks ago that his latest chemotherapy was not very effective, so he's trying a new treatment. And while the doctors are optimistic, certain things stay on Leroy Sievers's mind.

Mr. LEROY SIEVERS (Cancer Patient): I think it's safe to say we've all thought about it: where it would be, who should speak, what songs to play, how many people would show up. It would be embarrassing to have too many empty seats. I'm talking, of course, about our own funerals. For cancer patients, death hovers over everything. It feels sometimes that death is sitting in the corner looking at his watch.

The decisions we make are all about postponing our deaths, trying to buy more time, or when the time comes, managing the process. We worry about the effects on our loved ones, but when we think about our funerals, there's really one major issue. How do we want to be remembered?

I was watching the TV show "House" the other night. An old man - he had cancer, by the way - had come to the hospital to die. At one point he said to his doctor, I want to know that something is different because I was here. I didn't hear the next couple of lines because those words just grabbed me. Isn't that all any of us really want - to somehow know or hope that the world is different - better - because we passed this way?

I'm not talking about some Earth-shaking action; you don't have to win the Nobel Prize or write the great American novel, though whoever out there is going to find the cure for cancer, we hope you might just hurry up a little. I'm talking about the little things that make this a better world: an act of kindness to a friend or stranger; a hand on a shoulder at just the right time; taking a stand when others dare not. It's in those ways that I think we really make our mark.

I've said I'm at peace with my cancer and where it will most likely lead. Sometimes I think it makes people crazy when they hear that. It doesn't mean I've given up - that I have looked at death and nodded, it's time - far from it. But I'm at peace because I think I've done my best to make a difference. I haven't always succeeded, but that's what I hope people would say at that funeral in my imagination: He did the best he could.

When you get a disease like cancer, you don't stop caring. You don't stop trying, as tempting as that can be at times. Each day we have left gives us another opportunity. Something is different because I was here. I hope when the real time comes, someone says that about each of us. And in my imaginary funeral, when people are done saying nice things, I hope all my friends get roaring drunk and tell funny stories at my expense. I don't think they'll let me down on that either, when the time comes.

INSKEEP: Leroy Sievers blogs and Podcasts about his experiences with cancer on our Web site. To follow his story and share your own, go to npr.org/mycancer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leroy Sievers
Editor's Note: Leroy Sievers passed away on August 15, 2008, at the age of 53.
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