What almost dying taught me about really living

My name is Josh Martin, and this is Badge of Awesome.

It was January 2008, and I was 27 years old. An annoying blurriness in my left eye finally convinced me to see an optometrist. It turned out that the insides of my eyeballs were bleeding. That can’t be good, I thought to myself.

Turns out I was right.

A blood test at my family doctor the following week revealed some
startling information. The normal amount of white blood cells in a healthy
adult male ranges between 4 and 11. Mine? 584.

Nope. Not good at all.

I had cancer. Chronic mylogenous leukemia to be exact. The doctors
gave me a 40 to 50 percent chance of surviving. Later I found out the odds
were more like 20 percent.


That March, I spent a month in Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, Ontario, getting the crap kicked out of me by heavy-duty chemo. It sucked. But I was determined to do whatever was necessary to beat my cancer.

It started with a list.

At the top of a new page in the journal my friend Rachael had given me, I wrote the words “Reasons to Fight.” Then, while a fresh batch of chemicals poured into me through the IV in my chest, I proceeded to write. I listed anything and everything that came to mind about what makes life so awesome. The idea was to create something to keep me motivated during my treatment when things got tough.

Before the last drop of chemo emptied into my bloodstream, I had a list that was 118 items long. The items of the list ranged from the obvious like:

  • #4: My Mom
  • and #107: My friends

It also included a lot of life’s simple pleasures like:

  • #40: Gin and tonics
  • #92: Stepping into A/C from the heat
  • and #58: A good fart

What didn’t make the cut was eye-opening as well. Nowhere on my list were things like TV, my car, clothes, working overtime or spending hours creeping people on Facebook.

Lying on what could very well have been my deathbed, I wasn’t wishing I had more time to sit on the couch or put in longer days at the office. I wanted to live so I could spend more time doing the things I love with the people I love.

The list burst at the seams with experiences, not material stuff. Things like:

  • #19: Hiking in the Fall
  • #22: Tobogganing
  • #34: Backpacking
  • #35: Building a fire
  • #46: Slow-dancing
  • #62: Finishing an adventure race
  • #66: Writing
  • #77: Beach sunsets
  • #79: Skinny-dipping
  • #82: Summer parties
  • #90: Good conversation
  • #101: Giving a girl flowers
  • #102: Watching shooting stars
  • and #110: Wedding receptions

After a LOT of chemo, radiation and a bone marrow transplant, I’m thrilled to say that I’m now 100 per cent cancer-free. I learned a lot from my experience: about pursuing memories over material things; about living life to the fullest since nobody knows how much time they’ve got; and about how many awesome things there are to do in this world. It was also a reminder that we learn way more from tripping over our own feet than we ever possibly could from a textbook or classroom.

And that’s what Badge of Awesome is all about. It’s about life’s adventures and the lessons we can learn from them.

what’s on your list?

Inspired by my list, I’ve launched The Simple Pleasures Project on Badge of Awesome. We’re building a kick-ass collection of life’s amazing simple pleasures and experiential riches. Check them out and add your own items on the Simple Pleasures Project page!

11 thoughts on “What almost dying taught me about really living

  1. Cynthia says:

    Greetings, Josh.

    Thanks for visiting my Waltzing Australia blog — and for leading me to your blog. Sorry you had to go through chemo, but it certainly sounds as though you’ve come through it with a most important lesson — you have to be intentional about really living. I hope you get to enjoy many years of pursuing that truth. May you enjoy much awesomeness.

  2. Helen Lammers-Helps says:

    I’m a fellow PWAC member — in Waterloo. Sorry to hear about your cancer but glad to hear you came through. Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s a great reminder for everyone about what’s important in life. I had my own battle with severe chronic illness but now that it’s been about six years I find I can forget what’s really important and get hung up on the small stuff sometimes. Looking forward to your future posts!

    • BoA says:

      Thanks Helen! It is easy to slip back into “same old, same old” and forget the bigger bicture. I constantly need to remind myself how lucky I am.

  3. Sue says:

    Glad I found your inspiring blog and that you beat the big C. My friend’s little girl was diagnosed with leukaemia last year so still in the middle of her fight.

    • Josh says:

      Thanks Sue! Sorry to hear about your friend’s daughter. I’m sending her some positive thoughts and best wishes for a full and speedy recovery!

  4. Nicole says:

    It’s surprising to see something like #58 on your list, but it did surely made me laugh out loud. That’s probably among a lot of children’s most simplest of pleasures as well.

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