Shannon Churchill came face to face with a fullgrown lion a couple of days after he had been told by his oncologist he had two to three months left to live.
He’s had an affinity for felines his entire life, an uncanny connection with cats. He insists he’s never met one that didn’t take a liking to him, and vice-versa.
Churchill knew what was in store for him weeks before his oncologist appointment early last month. He’s since coined the occasion terminal day. The last resort treatment he’d been enduring was making him deathly ill and wasn’t working. He didn’t need a doctor to tell him the obvious: His three-and-a-half-year battle with colon cancer was coming to an end.
He didn’t want the appointment to be a drawn-out affair. He wanted to get on with the business of living life on his terms.
He and Melissa, his wife of 12 years (and best friend), had more adventures to look forward to. With that in mind, they invited a few friends over to their Cole Harbour home that evening and
plans were soon hatched for a visit to the Oaklawn Farm Zoo in Aylesford.
“If you have an opportunity to do something, seize it,” said Churchill. “If you can, just grab on and enjoy life. Sometimes it doesn’t work; we don’t all get to do what we want to do. But I’ve lived my life to collect experiences, knowing I may never get the chance to go back and do it again.”
He’s lived by this philosophy full-tilt for the last decade. Admittedly, he was spurred by the 2007 film Bucket List, in which two terminally ill characters (played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman) head off on a road trip with a wish list of to-dos before they die.
Call them bucket list items, but Churchill prefers the term adventures. He’s amassed about a hundred of them over the years. The cancer diagnoses, the death sentence, has not softened his resolve.
Some have been a little riskier (dangling off the top of the CN Tower, purchasing a motorcycle) than others (an all-inclusive tour of Ireland, or seizing the opportunity to eat lunch on the steps of the New York Stock Exchange alongside a bunch of share traders.) His lion encounter (which was arranged with the zoo owners) ranks high on the list.
“It kind of made me a little sad because I should have been a big cat expert or a biologist. But it was a dream come true moment.
“I remember everything about it. Just the connection between that animal that essentially could have killed me. I was very calm. He was calm. I stroked his mane a little bit and he sat down. I kind of got down to his level and just started talking to him softly, rubbing him all over. He was chilling out and I was chilling out. The whole thing lasted about four minutes.
“The physical act of walking from the car through the zoo, I was pretty exhausted. But it definitely did take me out of my suffering. Part of it had something to do with reincarnation. I believe I was a cat in my former life because I get along with cats so much. I wasn’t emotional, just happy, just content that day.”
The truth is, Churchill has never been afraid of dying.
“The day I was diagnosed the nurse was wheeling me down the hall saying, ‘I’m so sorry.’ My response was, ‘I don’t care about that; I need a cookie or a sandwich or something. I haven’t eaten in 24 hours. Colon cancer is a tomorrow problem.’ “I think a lot of people, when they get cancer, they become people who are trying to live their life with cancer. I’ve always lived my life in spite of my cancer.
“I’ll joke about it but I don’t even think about it. It’s going to kill me at some point, probably
sooner than later, but I don’t care about it. I made peace with it.”
So it’s no surprise that after his lion encounter, Churchill was soon onto his next adventure.
Being a former race car driver, he wanted to take a rip in a Lamborghini. His wife’s work colleague offered him the next best option, cruising around Hammonds Plains in a $400,000 Ferrari.
At first, he turned down the owner’s offer to get behind the wheel. Contending with bouts of dizziness and damaged feet from 30 or so rounds of chemotherapy, he figured it wasn’t a good idea. But sure enough, half an hour later he was in the driver’s seat.
“He eventually pulled over and said, ‘Your turn,’ recalled Churchill. “I said, ‘Uhhh?’ He wasn’t giving me the option, so I drove for 20 to 25 minutes . . . I look over, he’s taking pictures and videos of me. When we got back to where we started, people were all freaking out. The first thing he did was look at Melissa and say, ‘Yeah, he can drive.’ It was a bit of a validation, that after everything I could still do what I love to do.”
Yes, Churchill is ready to go, but not without some reservation. He is not thinking of himself,rather about his family and friends who have been with him every step of the way, particularly Melissa.
It is only this topic, the notion of leaving so many of his loved ones behind, that moves Churchill to tears.
“My proudest accomplishment is the relationship I’ve built with Melissa. She’s my best friend and I don’t exist without her.”
Melissa has watched her husband overcome the wreckage that comes with 31 rounds of chemotherapy, the disappointment of discovering his cancer had returned full force after being in remission for a full year. But despite this, she insists his essential qualities — his sense of humour, intelligence and insatiable curiosity — have not been diminished.
“We have a unique relationship and it’s hard for me to explain,” said Melissa. “A few years ago I would have reacted differently but there’s such an acceptance of the reality with what’s happening. As difficult as I know it’s going to be, there’s a lot of beauty that comes with it, too.
“How he’s handled this, it’s taken our love to another level. I can’t measure how much I admire him. He’s just remarkable.”
Not to be forgotten are his oncology nurses at the Victoria General Hospital. The whole oncology unit, in fact, has been relentlessly devoted to Churchill.
“Really, the nurses on the 11th floor aren’tnurses to me, they’re family. Everyone on that floor is super exceptional. The whole cancer ward.”
A few of those nurses showed up for one of his bucket list items recently: a private IMAX movie showing that likened to a lifelike tour of the Grand Canyon. Spearheaded by his mom, it drew about 100 of his closest supporters. Churchill had always wanted to take a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon; this was the next best thing. One of his nurses had time just to pop by for a moment.
“She came just to talk to me and to tell me what an inspiration I’d been over the past three-anda- half years,” he recalled. “I was weeping like a baby because I couldn’t believe I had that kind of an impact on anyone.”
The Churchills have a few bucket list items yet to attend to. He’s hoping to hop aboard a pilot boat in the Halifax Harbour and guide a container ship to port. He regrets not having a chance to visit Japan and to explore its bamboo forests. But the plan is for Melissa to take on that adventure, along with a few others. It’s one of the ways they’ll remain connected.
Till then, they have to follow through on some plans, like spending Christmas with Shannon’s two nieces.
Shannon has no regrets.
“I’m just content and happy with everything in my life. I don’t think there’s any one moment or anything I’m super proud of. I went to the Canada Games for archery, I’ve done so many things. I’m just really, really happy with the way my life turned out.
“Even if there was a reset button I could push that would let me start over and not get cancer at 40, I’m still not 100 per cent sure I’d hit it.”
-The Chronicle Herald