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8 Lessons from a Terminally Ill Superhero

Dov Siporin / Hearts of Goodness

Dov Siporin changed the way thousands of people think about death.

When a celebrity dies, hordes of people feel the loss even if they haven’t met the star in person. But no matter how deep their admiration, they rarely feel the type of grief reserved for mentors, best friends, personal heroes. On Mar. 26 2015, a minor celebrity named Dov Siporin died, and things were different; people who’d never met him in person felt gutted, as if the death was in their own family.

That’s because unlike other celebrities, Dov wasn’t famous for playing a role onscreen or singing on stage. Instead, he was known for turning expectations upside-down when he was faced with a diagnosis of terminal colon cancer. Despite relentless pain and thousands of hours spent in chemotherapy, he refused to stop loving life. If anything, he began to enjoy each moment exponentially more deeply.

He was known, too, for lifting other cancer patients’ spirits. His optimism was infectious, his antics hilarious; a natural comedian, he loved to pull stunts like organizing other terminal patients to run a marathon as “Team Tumor” (another friend followed behind, decked out in a grim reaper costume). He never minded the strange looks or pointing fingers in those situations; the only thing that mattered was making the people he loved smile.

Before Dov passed away, he was kind enough to talk with Legacy about what he learned from years of living with a terminal illness. His words touched us deeply at the time and today, they’re more precious than ever (and his wisdom is just as applicable to those of us still living). As Dov’s brother Lev would say, “[His] story isn’t about death, it’s about life, it’s about seizing the day. Dov really is a hero without a cape, because heroes are made.”

We invite you to donate to help Dov's family with medical bills and to share condolences in Dov's Guest Book.

Legacy: Do you have a bucket list? If so, what’s on it?

Dov: “My ideal bucket list would have ‘living for another 20 years’ on it… that would be the big thing. I’ve done some of the cliché things... I jumped out of a plane, which was really fun, shortly after I was diagnosed.”

Legacy: How has your perspective changed since you were diagnosed?

Dov: “I think most of us go through our days looking down at the path in front of us, focused on getting through the day. Every once in a while we try to look up and look around. I look around a hell of a lot more often since getting diagnosed. This moment is all we have. I can enjoy it or I can waste it.”

Legacy: Are there certain things you’ve stopped caring about?

Dov: “I was never too worried about what others thought, but I’ve become a lot less worried. I could be dead in a couple of weeks... It’ll be rough. It’ll be quick and painful. With that thought, worrying about being embarrassed is not there at all. And little annoyances, like traffic or waiting in lines, I can let go of a lot easier.”

Legacy: What things have become more important to you?

Dov: “My kids are pretty huge to me... I love to see them as they change. I love to laugh, to tell stories. I love writing and when I can get the right words in a row, when it clicks, that’s a beautiful feeling.” Click to read one of Dov’s poems about living with cancer.

Legacy: How have you and your wife dealt with telling your young children about your diagnosis?

Dov: “We’ve taken the approach of being really honest and forthright. They’ve dealt with it differently as they’ve grown. My son’s 10 now and he has more of a grasp of what death is. My daughter, who’s 7 now, is going through fear a lot more. But I constantly remind them that I’ll always be there in their hearts and their minds. I see it as my job to create a lot of memories they can keep and also to let them know, deep down, that they’ll always have my love. That’s the lucky thing about having cancer… you have time to tell those around you that you care for them.”

Legacy: It seems like humor has been a comfort to you.

Dov: “There’s enough pain you have to go through. I don’t think cancer deserves any more seriousness – If you get a chance to laugh at it, that’s good. I joke about the [Team Tumor] races and everything else, but doing that stuff is one of the few times that I really felt like I was saying ‘f*** you’ to cancer. Because I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to be able to be doing. I was saying to the cancer, ‘I know you’re going to take everything from me, but you can’t have this moment.’”

Legacy: Do you think there should be more conversations about death in general?

Dov: “As someone who is facing it pretty damn soon, it's amazing to realize just how uncomfortable most people are with discussing something that happens to every single one of us. Something that affects every single one of us during our lives. If you’re terminal, you’ll find there are some people who just can’t talk to you, who won’t be part of your life anymore. It frustrated me at the beginning, but then I realized it’s OK. There are a lot of people afraid of death. No one knows what to say around it. A lot of people project their fears or worries about it onto the terminally ill.”

Legacy: What advice would you give to someone who's trying to comfort a terminally ill friend?

Dov: "I would say you’re never going to be able to say the perfect thing, because what someone needs to hear changes on a minute-by-minute basis. What is important, I think, for both you and the dying person, is that you say those things that are important: ‘I love you. I wish I could stop this.’"

Please share condolences in Dov's Guest Book.


Halley Burns is a writer and editor based in Chicago. Connect with her on Twitter at @halley_rosetta.