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.