Wendy Schlessel Harpham, MD, has a new book out this month, Happiness in a Storm—Facing Illness and Embracing Life as a Healthy Survivor (WW Norton), and in an interview in August she was feeling something of a loss that day—her middle child, Jessica, 18, had just left to start college two days earlier, and as a mother she was experiencing pangs of virtual empty-nestedness.
Although her oldest daughter, Rebecca, 20, had a few more weeks before returning to school, and her son, William, 16, still technically lived at home, Dr. Harpham was feeling a sense of loss that her babies were no longer around or dependent upon her. She could use a “feeling-ectomy,” she said.
Yes, a sense of loss, but also a sense of great relief—because Wendy Harpham, who thought she'd never see her kids grow up, had beaten cancer several times, and went on to share her wisdom about dealing with the disease on multiple levels in several books published during more than a decade.
Dr. Harpham, now very proud to be 50 years of age, hadn't thought she'd turn 40 when first diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1990. She was then a general internist in solo practice, with a very supportive political science professor husband, Ted, and their three small children, ages one, three, and five.
As she wrote in the prologue of her first book, Diagnosis: Cancer—Your Guide to the First Months of Healthy Survivorship, “Two surgeries revealed a Stage 3 indolent non-Hodgkin's lymphoma—a type of cancer with no known cure—and yanked me across the great divide from physician to patient. In all my years of doctoring I'd never felt as if my white coat protected me in some magical way, yet being told I had cancer was shocking.”
It was very difficult to write that prologue, she said in the interview.
“As a doctor, I was a facilitator of patient care. I didn't discuss personal things when speaking with my patients. I had always been a very private person, and sacrificing privacy by revealing things about myself was not easy and had to be a conscious effort.”
That book started as a pamphlet to help guide patients through the cancer experience. Two days after she'd submitted the manuscript to W.W. Norton & Co., it was accepted for publication, and is now in its third edition.
“When I wrote the first draft of Diagnosis: Cancer, there was no prologue, no personal information. But I knew I had to write about myself if I wanted others to read the book and care,” she continued.
“When I was undergoing treatment the first time, I wasn't looking for something to do, but I really felt I had something to give. I was like an undercover agent, living the other side of my patients. I had insights I thought could be useful to other patients. I wanted to be a doctor, but couldn't be a doctor [in clinical practice], so I found through writing that I could still be a doctor without wearing a white coat.”
Now with a total of six books under her belt (the other four: After Cancer: A Guide to Your New Life; When a Parent Has Cancer: A Guide to Caring for Your Children, with its companion illustrated children's book, Becky and the Worry Cup; and The Hope Tree: Kids Talk about Breast Cancer, coauthored with Laura Numeroff), Dr. Harpham says she's got four more cancer-related projects in mind, including a further exploration of survivorship and recovery.
She continues to explore and explain the cancer experience from various perspectives, and there is a progression in her writing over the years from providing straightforward, excellent, and practical advice and information to a more personal, nuanced, and philosophical account of making the very best of a less-than-perfect situation—i.e., finding happiness in a storm.
The Why Behind the Advice of the Other Books
Dr. Harpham started this most recent book in 1997. It was the first she wrote while not going through treatment for various remissions and recurrences, and it was to be the “why” behind the advice of her other books. She had her last course of therapy in 1998.
“All my previous writing led up to this book,” she explained. “The earlier works were the scaffolding. This could have been a nice inspirational and hopeful book, but I would have shirked my responsibility as a physician and as an advocate for patients if I didn't also explain about the difficulties of being a modern patient.”
She said she had wanted to keep it short, but felt compelled to add chapters dealing with the problems with health care in America today, including clinical trials, the Food and Drug Administration, and pharmaceutical companies.
She added that even though people have to deal with a very imperfect medical system, she wants to help them do the best they can under those circumstances by dealing with the medical system unemotionally, and not allowing bad past experiences to deter them from finding the best care.
“I've always wanted to help people, and I've always been a problem-solver. When I was forced to give up practicing medicine because of my lack of stamina, I turned to writing to help others deal with their cancer and survivorship, raise their kids and explain things to them, and get on with their ‘new normal’ as a ‘healthy survivor,’” she said, referring to two terms she coined that resound throughout her books.
Coming: A Review of Happiness in a Storm
Look for a review of Dr. Harpham's newest book in a future issue of OT
The key to healthy survivorship, she writes, is obtaining sound knowledge, finding and nourishing hope, and acting effectively.
She still seems to be struggling somewhat with her identity as a doctor, and it is obvious she very much misses patient care. She said the identity issue was most pronounced from 1996 through 1999, and credits receiving the Texas Governor's Award for Health in 2000, as the recognition that finally convinced her that she was still a real doctor.
“Although I really didn't feel like a doctor anymore, the acknowledgment made me see I had only shifted to another part of the healing circle, in a location where there are very few doctors. The Governor's Award really made me feel that I was still a doctor helping patients,” she said.
With her children grown, she is beginning to feel relief from not having to worry about whether she would still be alive to serve as their mother—one of her major priorities.
‘The Power of Purpose’
The once reticent writer has turned even more philosophical and introspective, as evidenced in an unpublished essay written last year. Titled “The Power of Purpose: Reflections of a Physician Turned Writer,” it was the result of a challenge to explain her purpose in life.
The 3,500-word document begins with, “What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What is my purpose on earth?”
It concludes with this final thought: “I can't imagine living without purpose. It would be like hugging air. For today, I believe my purpose is to consciously love and teach my children, to write and speak about cancer survivorship, and to pay attention and respond to the unexpected everyday opportunities to lend a hand, offer comfort, assuage conflict, create joy, and nourish love.”
“I hope and pray that whatever I choose to do with my time and energy in the circumstances presented to me, I let goodness flow through me. Tomorrow, I will begin anew.”
And by beginning anew each tomorrow, Wendy Schlessel Harpham, MD, continues benefiting countless others by advising them not only how to cope with diseases like cancer, but with life itself.