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‘HAPPINESS IN A STORM: Facing Illness and Embracing Life as a Healthy Survivor’

Harpham, Wendy Schlessel MD

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000290958.51889.b9


Wendy Schlessel Harpham, MD, is a physician and long-time lymphoma survivor, whose earlier books have addressed the needs of newly diagnosed cancer patients, those who have completed their treatments, and parents who must worry about the impact of their illness on their children.

Each of her books is valuable to a specific subgroup of cancer patients, and this new book is for anyone living with life-threatening or serious chronic illness. Her basic thesis, that happiness and optimism are always possible in the face of illness, is presented in the context of learning to be a Healthy Survivor—regardless of the facts of one's particular health.

Dr. Harpham has been living with an indolent non-Hodgkin's lymphoma since 1990. When she was initially diagnosed, she was a solo practitioner of internal medicine and had three children, ages six, four, and almost 2. She took a 10-month hiatus from practice to contend with her first course of treatment. Only eight months later, her cancer recurred, and she made the difficult decision to leave clinical medicine.

She subsequently experienced multiple recurrences, but has now been blessedly well for several years, and has devoted herself to writing, speaking, and teaching countless other cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers how to live stronger, healthier, and more joyful lives.

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Knowledge-Hope-Action Approach

As outlined in this book, Healthy Survivorship is a perspective and a model for dealing with illness that is predicated on three clear steps:

  • Obtaining accurate information and knowledge.
  • Finding and nourishing hope.
  • Acting effectively on one's own behalf.

Dr. Harpham suggests that this knowledge-hope-action approach has helped her in every aspect of her own life and is likely to help her readers increase their odds of a good outcome and, simultaneously, live as well as possible.

It is possible to be a Healthy Survivor no matter how sick you are or how long you live, she says. The essence is “that while getting good medical care, you are living your life as fully as possible, today, tomorrow, and every single day.”

Dr. Harpham thoughtfully leads readers through the necessary steps and tasks of adapting to medical illness and changed lives. She describes how to choose a medical team, how to master necessary knowledge, how to choose the best treatments, how to use your emotions instead of being used by them, and how to nourish hope and take action.

Given her dual qualifications as both a physician and a veteran cancer patient, she is well positioned to offer a balanced, thoughtful, and wise view of necessary life choices.

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‘Harpham's Decision Tool’ for Seemingly Impossibly Decisions

She manages even the most difficult topics—such as evaluating alternative and supplementary therapies, changing doctors, or reframing hope to fit changing circumstances—with common sense and empathy.

“Harpham's Decision Tool,” a chart to help with those almost impossible decisions when none of the options seem desirable, is a good example of this approach. This practical grid, in addition to helping clarify the pluses and minuses of each choice, helps the user feel more in control, less a victim, and better able to contend with complicated medical situations.

  • Books, examples, and language can be powerful companions and roadmaps through cancer. Dr. Harpham skillfully describes and shares the most likely paths to happiness in spite of, and occasionally because of, illness, difficult treatments, setbacks, and even limited life expectancies.

Grounded in science, she speaks also to the spirit. She understands that the ultimate triumph is how life is lived, not how long.

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New Way of Categorizing Hope

Depending on one's circumstances and perspectives, different parts of this book will be the most valuable. Anyone who is living with illness will appreciate and learn from her comments on hope. She outlines a new way of categorizing hope—distinguishing between hope and optimism, and differentiating healthy hope, faithful hope, and realistic hope from blind, empty, or false hope.



Her suggestions of ways to surmount the many obstacles to healthy hope are paired with clear directions of how to recognize and do the right things to secure it. New patients likely will benefit from the thorough chapters regarding choosing doctors, finding other good caregivers, making initial treatment decisions, and understanding one's illness.

People who have completed initial treatments and are hoping to stay healthy will be interested in her discussion of the “new normal” that they must construct. More veteran patients, even those who expect to die from their disease, will find comfort in her conviction that happiness in a storm is always possible, and will benefit from her concrete suggestions of how to find it.

As a long-time oncology social worker and cancer survivor myself, I have often wished for just such a book to recommend to patients. Happiness In A Storm is a gift to patients and caregivers alike.

© 2005 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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