8/14/2007 *New York Times* includes an article: “Thriving After Life’s Bum Rap” by Jane Brody.
Here’s the artticle:
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.”
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.”