How would you approach life if you knew you only had two years to live?
Author Kate Bowler faced that question firsthand six years ago when she was told by doctors that she only had about two years left following a diagnosis of stage 4 colon cancer.
Bowler was 35 at the time, married to her high school sweetheart with a baby son and working as a professor of Christianity at Duke University.
"It showed me right away what I love, what I couldn’t possibly live without," Bowler told Hoda Kotb on TODAY Wednesday.
"Fear is a flashlight. It’s showing you exactly what your heart wants and needs. So that has really stayed with me."
Today, her prognosis is good after an immunotherapy drug given to her in a clinical trial shrunk her tumor to the point where it disappeared, but the treatments are so cutting edge that even her doctors don't know what comes next.
She is sharing her insights on how to live when faced with death in her new book, "No Cure for Being Human," which follows her 2018 New York Times bestseller, “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.”
Bowler described how she frantically tried to make up for all she would miss after first getting her diagnosis.
"I tried to build everyone’s life," she told Hoda. "Not just paperwork, but I started sort of Marie Kondo-ing everything.
"I was like, 'I should give this away. These are all my things.' You’re kind of putting everything in its place but without me. It was such a loving impulse, but it wasn’t the right one to keep living."
She also takes aim in her new book at certain self-help books she encountered at the time.
"Just let me point out the books that actively blame people for their own diseases," she said while reading from her book.
Bowler recalled going to the bookstore at her hospital after waking up from surgery and being told she had a 14% chance of living.
"I had to practice the walking up and down the hallways, and then I found this hospital bookstore," she said. "The hospital bookstore had an enormous display especially of Joel Osteen books with his 'Best Life Now.'
"I walked in with my little IV pole and just started helpfully removing the books from the shelf that I thought other people like me shouldn’t read. The poor hospital bookstore manager came out and was like, 'Ma’am,' and I was like, 'You can’t sell these books, which blame sick people for their own illness. You can’t sell this to me.' At this point, I have dismantled most of what was a lovely display."
Bowler felt the books implied that if she only had the right attitude, she could beat stage 4 cancer.
"If there is a formula, I want it," she laughed. "If it’s just learning to be present and then I’m a wonderful person and then I get to live in perpetuity, I accept."
Counting on God's plan did not offer comfort even to someone who is a professor of the history of Christianity.
"I just had to stop imagining that faith would even be a guarantee that my life would work out," she said. "We can believe that we are part of a story about love and a day in which there will be no more suffering, no more tears.
"I believe in a future that will include that story, but it might not be right now. And so I just want to teach myself to be someone who is a person of courage and a person of hope."
She shares in her new book the approaches that worked for her and those that did not.
"I realized maybe the first thing to put down was that bucket list feeling, feeling that I would be able to check off parts of my life," she said.
What turned out to be most important to her was not taking trips to see the wonders of the world but simple moments with her husband, Toban, and her son, Zach.
"The most beautiful things (in the world), none of those things would really make the list," she said. "At night when I walk in and I see that my son has somehow managed to hold 20 stuffed animals as he falls asleep, as if one will be neglected in the snuggling process, and just marveling at the love that we’re given. I was like, 'That would never be on a list.'"
While her prognosis is good today, Bowler does not allow herself to think too far ahead.
"I think a lot of the future is gone," she said. "The confidence in it. But when I look the people that I love, all I can see is loving them forever.
"So I try not to be too prescriptive about how it has to turn out. I just want to pour everything I am into this big, beautiful foundation. And maybe I’ll get to build the building. I hope so."