For patients with life-altering illnesses or anyone just getting older, it helps to roll with the punches and make the best of the here and now.
Just when I needed it most, I learned a valuable life lesson from Lynda Wolters, who has a cancer that is currently incurable, diagnosed just after her 49th birthday. As an Idaho farm girl used to hard work, Ms. Wolters led a healthy life, enjoying ballroom dancing, horseback riding, rafting and hiking when not at work at a law firm. Then, as she wrote in her recently published book, “Voices of Cancer”:
“Everything changes with cancer — everything. Life will never be the same again, even on the smallest of levels, something will be forever different. There is no going back to who you once were, so embrace it and grow from it and with it. Find the new you in your new space and make it wonderful.”
I’ve long been a stubbornly independent do-it-yourself person who rails against any infirmity that gets in the way of my usual activities. For jobs I think I should be able to do myself, I typically resist asking for help. But in reading this book, I finally understand the importance of accepting and adjusting to a “new normal” now that my aging, arthritic body rebels against activities I once did with ease. Like sweeping and bagging the leaves around my house, tending my garden, preparing a meal for company, hosting house guests, walking several miles, even visiting a museum for more than an hour.
I now fully understand that a successful life is not necessarily the perfect one I had imagined it would be as I got older. Rather, it’s a life that rolls with the punches, adapts to changing circumstances, and makes the best of the here and now. It’s a lesson I should have learned decades ago. I should not be measuring myself against some ideal or what might have been.
Instead, I must learn to accept my limitations, ask for help when I need it, and pursue only those activities I can handle with little or no pain. I must learn to say “no” when I know in my heart that “yes” would be a miserable mistake. Pride, I’m beginning to understand, really does go before a fall. (Of course, I realize that accepting the chronic limitations of arthritis, however debilitating, is not the same as facing a deadly disease.)
It’s not as if I never knew people who had to reinvent themselves when a serious health problem threw a monkey wrench into their life plans. I had interviewed Dr. Wendy S. Harpham in 2003 when her first book, “Diagnosis: Cancer,” was published. Dr. Harpham was 36 years old, a mother of three very young children with a private practice in internal medicine — a career she loved — when she learned she had a life-threatening lymphoma with no established cure. Repeated recurrences and their debilitating treatments forced her to close her practice, then prompted her to start a second career writing books to help people and their loved ones cope with cancer as best as their disease allowed.
“When my cancer came back and my prognosis worsened, I chose to deal with the uncertainty by doing the best I could today, each day, living as fully as possible within the limits of my survival,” said Dr. Harpham, who is now 65 and beyond thrilled to be a much engaged grandmother of five. “I had to learn to accept my limits. But first I had to grieve what I lost — my practice, my stamina, my ability to multitask — before I could move on and embrace what remained.”
In a column she wrote for Oncology Times, Dr. Harpham suggested that patients aim to create “a new normal for now” to help them deal with unwanted changes in healthy and hopeful ways. That means establishing routines that enable them to get through the day, tailoring their expectations in ways that minimize anxiety and unpleasant surprises.
Truth to tell, with or without cancer or some other life-changing ailment, we would all be happier if we focused more on what is physically, emotionally and socially possible now instead of lamenting what once was and may never be again. As we grow older or, at any age, develop life-limiting ailments or disabilities or lose loved ones, our routines and relationships may never be the same. But the new rules, routines, friendships and skills we develop can make life better, Dr. Harpham says.
This approach to life explains why so many elderly people interviewed by Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist and director of the Cornell Legacy Project, for his book “30 Lessons for Living” for which I wrote the preface, expressed greater contentment in their old age despite coping with disabilities none of us would wish for. Lesson No. 1, Dr. Pillemer concluded, is “happiness is your responsibility.”
Dr. Harpham suggests we ask ourselves, “What do I want my life to look like?” and base our answers on realistic possibilities, not wishful thinking. As Dr. Harpham described adapting to her own very disruptive life challenge, “Cancer had splashed ugly streaks across the canvas of my life. It was up to me to fill in the rest. The idea of a ‘new normal’ motivated me to find the best ways to deal with unwanted changes.”
She went on: “information about aftereffects (including those facts that initially upset me) helped me manage my expectations.” As Dr. Harpham subsequently discovered, you never know when a silver lining may appear. “Unexpectedly, a beautiful thing happened,” she wrote in her column. “The obtrusiveness of unwanted changes faded, overshadowed by the vibrancy of life lessons learned through illness.” But focusing on the current limitations and might-have-beens can keep you from recognizing and enjoying those silver linings.
Ms. Wolters also has an important message for friends and relatives: “The phrase ‘Now that you are back to normal …’ is like a knife to the heart. We cannot compare our current state to where we were prior to diagnosis. As patients, we must recognize and accept where we are now or we will go mad.”
Then, as Dr. Harpham has found, she quickly added, “Yet having a new normal is not always bad. I have been surprised and impressed that every cancer patient I have talked to has, in at least one way, appreciated their new normal more than their pre-diagnosis normal.”
Likewise, I must try harder to put Dr. Harpham’s advice into practice: “Create your best new normal for now, with hope of making life the best it can be today, tomorrow and every day.”
I’ve already adopted a few small yet uplifting gestures. I try at least once a day to do a good deed and say something nice to an acquaintance or total stranger. And I say hello and smile at all the children I meet at the Y or on the street while walking my dog.
Published By: Bellaland | New York Times | Jane E. Brody
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