Series About Terminally Ill Focuses on Living Rather Than Dying

‘My Last Days’ examines the lives of those with fatal cancers and genetic disorders.

Producer Justin Baldoni takes a selfie with Claire Wineland, Kendrick David Evans, Jess Oldwyn, Kat Lazo, Darth Vader, and (in front) Isabel Bueso at a screening of ‘My Last Days’ at The London in West Hollywood, California, on Aug. 16. (Photo: Todd Williamson/Getty Images)

Aug 20, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Claire Wineland is a 19-year-old Californian who loves Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, playing piano, and posting videos on YouTube. She also has cystic fibrosis, and doctors say she has less than a year to live.

“So I’m dying,” Wineland explains in one of her YouTube videos. She takes a long, exaggerated sip of her drink before laughing and adding, “faster than everyone else.”

Wineland is one of six individuals with a terminal illness profiled in the docuseries My Last Days, which premiered on The CW this week. Other subjects include a 35-year-old with brain cancer, a 20-year-old with the rare genetic disorder MPS VI, and a 25-year-old with a fatal form of sleep apnea.

Hosted by Jane the Virgin star Justin Baldoni, the series encourages viewers to live life to the fullest, regardless of their health status.

“The title—My Last Days—it’s very contradictory,” a 43-year-old man featured in the series who legally changed his name to Darth Vader said during a panel discussion in Los Angeles on Tuesday. “This is where it begins. These are the mortality aspects of our last days, but to plant the seed, to carry our legacy through our family, our friends, our children—these are far from our last days.”

Baldoni agreed: “It’s true, the whole point is you watch [the show], and it’s the opposite. I’m sorry.”

None of the participants are sure how much time they have left—they only know they have been given dire diagnoses. Vader has been battling leukemia for 14 years and has lived years beyond his doctor’s prediction. Jessica Oldwyn has terminal brain cancer; she celebrated her 35th birthday—an age doctors told her she would not reach—while shooting the documentary. Wineland too defied expectations, surviving a 17-day coma when she was 13.

My Last Days doesn’t shy away from the painful reality of living with a chronic illness, be it breathing treatments for Wineland or anxious trips to the hospital awaiting test results for Oldwyn. Yet accepting the finality of their illnesses has allowed each to approach life with joy and gratitude.

Because the participants’ time left is limited, the show provided them with unusual experiences, such as a surprise tattoo session and private cooking lessons. Wineland, who wants to change the world through public speaking, was asked to make a speech at Las Vegas festival Life Is Beautiful in 2015.

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“I am genuinely proud of my life. I’m not saying that I don’t feel pain. I’m not saying that I don’t feel sadness and suffering and loneliness, because that’s what it means to be a human being,” Wineland said. “Death is inevitable, but living a life that we are proud of—that is something we can actually control.” The audience greeted her with tearful applause.

For Wineland, the show serves as something of an ethical will. Unlike a traditional will in which a person bequeaths his or her material wealth to family members and loved ones, an ethical will is more of a moral guide, containing values and hopes for those left behind.

“This [show] isn’t for us. This is for all of the other people who are going through similar things and who don’t have stories like these that they see every day,” Wineland said during the panel discussion. “They don’t turn on the TV and see things like this. They don’t see how beautiful and complicated human life is, whether you’re healthy or you’re sick.”