photo by Matt Born

photo by Matt Born

Published: Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 2:55 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 2:55 a.m.

WINDY POINT | These days, Robert West enjoys sitting in the sun at his cottage across the Intracoastal Waterway from Holden Beach. He watches finches at the bird feeder, delights in spotting deer in the marshes across the channel, and monitors boat traffic buzzing past his porch and dock. A passing barge makes a day especially notable.

Once a week, a nurse from the Brunswick County office of Lower Cape Fear Hospice & LifeCareCenter comes by to check on him.

It’s a quieter life than he spent during the 12 years he was building the Wilmington nonprofit Working Films into an internationally recognized force for change, using documentaries about social issues to support and encourage activist movements.

It was early August when West found himself momentarily at a loss for words. It happened again, and then again. His doctor said to come in immediately.

After an operation in September, he received the diagnosis: He had GBM.

West spent a weekend researching Glioblastoma Multiforme, an aggressive form of brain cancer.

What he found was not encouraging.

“It’s pretty clear this is a fatal cancer,” he said.

But West refused to give in to despondency or despair.

“This is the truth, and you have to live with what is true,” he said.

Eighty percent of people with GBM die within 12 to 15 months, he said.

“But the quality of life is actually quite good,” he said. “You’re walking, talking. You’re not bedridden.”

He feels lucky. His form of cancer will allow him several months, maybe a year or more, of good-quality life before it sets in. The end, when it arrives, will come in a matter of weeks.

West appears healthy. He’s off many of the medicines he had been taking.

He goes shopping and drives into town. He takes walks around the shady neighborhood off Boone’s Neck Road where he has settled in. The cottage is owned by a friend. It’s a place he has visited for years.

Friends come by for visits.

West laughs often. His eyes twinkle with good humor, as they always have in the years I’ve known him.

“This is not a journey toward death. This is a celebration of life,” he said.

It’s hard for people to talk about death and dying. But West welcomes the dialogue.

“I’m OK with it, and I’ve had a level of acceptance of what this journey is going to be like,” he said a few weeks ago as we set up the interview.

Accepting his fate made him feel healthier.

“You have a better quality of life if you’re not in some fight you’re not going to win,” he said then. “Having that clarity is very reassuring.”

He feels lucky in other ways. He doesn’t have children who need explanations.

He has no regrets about how he has lived. He has spent his time with “smart people,” the staff at Working Films and filmmakers who appreciate how new audiences can give their work greater meaning.

“I made a difference,” he said.

He has shed a lot of the things that cause us stress: “How am I going to live when I’m 70?” He smiled as he said that.

West has a strong living will and has made his funeral arrangements.

He knows death. He has sat at deathbeds.

“I have no huge fear of death,” he said. “I’m feeling very positive about the journey. It’s new for me.”

The south-facing cottage lets him bask in the sunshine from dawn to dusk. He keeps a log of daily happenings, noting changes in the weather or geese flying overhead.

He has started making drawings on an easel on the porch.

“My priorities of life have changed. I’m living life one day at a time,” he said. “My days are rich.”

He has been keeping a journal since the surgery that revealed his cancer. You can read it and perhaps leave a comment at

Column idea? Contact Si Cantwell at 343-2364 or, or follow him on @SiCantwell.

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