Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Coping with Cancer Article in Today's NY Times

I am not sure if I fully subscribe to the premise in the following article, which appears in the Science section of today's New York Times, but there are definitely elements that resonate. If you have a moment, this is certainly a worthwhile read.

Published: August 14, 2007
Can getting cancer make you happy? For Betty Rollin, survivor of two breast cancers, there’s no question about it. In her newest book, “Here’s the Bright Side,” Ms. Rollin recounts:

“I woke up one morning and realized I was happy. This struck me as weird. Not that I didn’t have all kinds of things to be happy about — love, work, good health, enough money, the usual happy-making stuff. The weird part is, I realized that the source of my happiness was, of all things, cancer — that cancer had everything to do with how good the good parts of my life were.”

Her realization is hardly unique. I have met and read about countless people who, having faced life-threatening illness, end up happier, better able to appreciate the good things and people in their lives, more willing to take the time to smell the roses.

As Ms. Rollin put it: “It turns out there is often — it seems very often — an astonishingly bright side within darkness. People more than survive bum raps: they often thrive on them; they wind up stronger, livelier, happier; they wake up to new insights and new people and do better with the people around them who are not new. In short, they often wind up ahead.”

This is not to suggest that battling cancer is pleasurable. Frustration, anger and grief are natural reactions. Cancer forces people to put their lives on hold. It can cause considerable physical and emotional pain and lasting disfigurement. It may even end in death.

But for many people who make it through, and even for some who do not, the experience gives them a new perspective on life and the people in it. It is as if their antennas become more finely tuned by having faced a mortal threat.

As a woman with incurable ovarian cancer recounted this spring in The New York Times: “I treat every day as an adventure, and I refuse to let anything make me sad, angry or worried. I live for the day, which is something I never did before. Believe it or not, I’m happier now than I was before I was diagnosed.”

Sometimes such changes happen to those who live through the cancer experiences of others. My mother died at age 49 of ovarian cancer, and I went off to college thinking that every moment was precious, to be used productively both for personal betterment and for what I could offer to the world. At 18 I wrote a speech on preparing one’s own epitaph — about being able to say that however long your life, you lived it fully and made it count for something meaningful.

Now, 48 years later, as people I know succumb to intractable illness or sudden death, I am even more attuned to the need to savor every moment and do whatever I can to make the world a better place and nurture relationships with friends and family.

Michael Feuerstein, a clinical psychologist and author with Patricia Findley of “The Cancer Survivor’s Guide,” was 52 when he was told he had an inoperable brain tumor and was given a year to live. But Dr. Feuerstein didn’t die — he survived extensive debilitating treatment and gained a new outlook.

He wrote: “I now realize that I am fortunate. Now, after the cancer, I find I can more easily put life in perspective. I re-evaluated my workload, opting to spend more time at home. I take more time for what matters to me most: my wife and my children and grandchild. I also allocate time to better understand cancer survivorship from a scientific point of view, so I can help others in my situation translate this work into useful answers to the question, ‘now what?’ I am optimistic about the future and excited to leave my unique mark on the world.”

‘A Second Life’

When it comes to leaving a mark on the world, Lance Armstrong takes first prize. After surviving treatment for testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain, Mr. Armstrong went on to win the Tour de France a record seven consecutive times.

“There are two Lance Armstrongs, precancer and post,” he recounted in his 2001 memoir, “It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back To Life.” “In a way, the old me did die, and I was given a second life.” He created a foundation to inspire and empower people affected by cancer, helping them live life on their own terms.

“Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “I don’t know why I got the illness, but it did wonders for me, and I wouldn’t want to walk away from it.”

Likewise, Fran Lenzo wrote in the magazine Coping: “Breast cancer has given me a new life. Breast cancer was something I needed to experience to open my eyes to the joy of living. I now see more of the world than I was choosing to see before I had cancer. The things that once seemed so important, like keeping a clean home, are less important. My priorities now are to enjoy everything around me to the utmost. Breast cancer leaves me no time for personality conflicts, arguments, debates or controversy. Breast cancer has taught me to love in the purest sense.”

Finding Happiness

There’s no question that cancer, whether curable or ultimately fatal, changes lives. It forces some people to give up careers and may jeopardize their ability to earn a living. It leaves some people disabled and unable to pursue athletic or other ambitions requiring physical prowess. It leaves some people unable to bear or father children. Yet, time after time, even people who have lost so much find new and often better sources of fulfillment.

Recurring cancer and the extensive treatment it required forced Dr. Wendy Schlessel Harpham of Dallas to give up her beloved medical practice. So she turned her sights to writing, producing book after book that can help people with cancer achieve the best that medicine and life can offer them.

Dr. Harpham is a 16-year survivor of recurrent chronic lymphoma. In her latest book, “Happiness in a Storm: Facing Illness and Embracing Life as a Healthy Survivor,” she states: “Without a doubt, illness is bad, yet survivorship — from the time of diagnosis and for the balance of life — can include times of great joy among the hardships. You can find happiness. Chances are the opportunities for happiness are right in front of you.”

She suggests creating a “personal happiness list” to help you remember favorite pastimes and reintroduce former delights into your life. Or perhaps you might want to explore activities that in your precancer life, you thought you had no time for, like studying a foreign language, traveling for pleasure or spending more time with friends.

“You might need to explore different ways of seeing yourself and the world around you,” Dr. Harpham writes. “In doing so, you discover new types of happiness waiting to be tapped, such as the happiness of sharing invigorating ideas and nascent hopes with new friends, or the happiness of knowing love in a whole new way.

“Happiness in a storm,” she concludes, “is never about enjoying your illness but embracing your life within the limits of your illness, and figuring out how to feel happy whenever possible.”


Crazymamaof6 said...

wow! this is true is so many ways.i believe i have grown from my experience with cancer. and i have changed. i have learned to let alot of things go, like the guilt of having a dirty house or perfectly dressed kids when i am hypo. and i have learned to embrace the time i have that i feel pretty ok and don't sleep all day. i feel like i make up for the crappy times when i can. not sure it is always for the better but I've learned to let that go too. i don't feel guilt about taking a nap. or taking some time for myself. but i still worry about other stuff, money yeah, my kids i worry about them too, but it isn't all consuming worry. and i have totally learned i don't need crappy friends. that i can't please everyone and that what i do get done, is enough. i can do what i do, no guilt! which is big for me. and i share that attitude with friends that feel like what they do isn't enough. i still have issues , but thyroid cancer, for me isn't glamorous. or even high risk. i say that but sometimes it is a big deal. i worry about it when I'm in the middle of it, the rest of the time i avoid thinking about it. and i am glad i can. you have me thinking about this , and i may have to post on my blog about it. i hate to be cancer girl though, and everyone already thinks i am so inspiring with 6 kids 8 and under, i hate to bring up having cancer all the time too! ok totally kidding about being inspiring. but when my friends whine about their lives I find it hard to be completely sympathetic. do i suck for saying that? and i don't care if i do! no guilt, no regrets!

HowardSOl said...

I am right there with you 100 percent CrazyMama. By the way -- you rule.

Best Mother-in-law said...

So glad the trip to Lake George was a good one. Full of fun swimming. kayacking and the best was for all the family to be together. Now it is so quiet here. Time to start the six weeks of radiation therapy. We miss you already. Have agreat fall.