Please forgive the personal nature of this month’s writing. I don’t know how to communicate my thoughts this month without tapping into an experience from which my wife, Laurie, and I are just now emerging.
We were devastated. It seemed that we progressed through the Kubler-Ross grief cycle of shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance several times per minute. It was even difficult for me to say the words “Laurie” and “cancer” in the same sentence. Early in our attempts to deal with this turn in our road, my wife looked at me and said, “OK, Mr. Positive Psychology, do your stuff.” I was grasping, desperate to find something to help; some theory, some book, some research. Nothing seemed immediately comparable to the diagnosis we were facing.
Within days we were dealing with tests, surgeries, and the beginning of chemo. We were introduced to an oncologist, a plastic surgeon, counselors, “survivors,” and even wig shops – in short, we were introduced into a whole new world. As Laurie said, “We were forced to join a club full of wonderful people – none of whom wanted to be members.” We gained a new appreciation of the sobering statistics of breast cancer. Every three seconds a women gets a phone call like our Sunday afternoon call – every three seconds…
We quickly learned that life is fragile and that things happen that are completely beyond our control. After many disappointments, dashed hopes, and more bad news, I stopped praying and hoping for a cure. I started hoping and praying for the strength to respond well.
This notion of responding well caught my attention and my thinking. While we couldn’t control what was happening to us, we could control how we responded. As we came to grips with the reality of what we were facing, Laurie and I vowed that we would not allow this “cancer thing” to destroy our relationship or our family. In addition, we vowed that we would use this “cancer thing” to bind us together even more closely. As has always been the case in our marriage, Laurie led the way. Her bravery and commitment and good humor paved the way for me and our daughters to respond well.
We all got involved. I managed the medications including administering the 32 Neupogen® injections! Annie made a chemo-treatment-count-down poster. Sara kept the family routines going. Laurie and I went to every doctor appointment and chemo treatment together. We all celebrated the milestones along the way.
I must add here that we were not alone. We were joined by our wonderfully supportive extended family. The phone trees were active and hot on both sides of the family with updates traveling faster than lightening. In addition, our neighbors, friends, work colleagues, school colleagues and church friends all rallied around.One friend planted flowers along the path to our front door so Laurie would see them and feel happy returning from her treatments. Another group of friends brought beach related gifts to us after each chemo treatment to encourage us to follow through on our goal of going on a celebration vacation after completing all the treatments. (We booked a trip to the Caribbean in April!) And the food… more than we could eat! My work sent a huge catered Italian dinner that took us several days to eat. I got a shoebox to keep the cards we started receiving. Soon we graduated to a big file box and now we are looking for an even larger box.
Responding Well – How do we do that? What does it mean? What good does it do?
Here’s what I learned: responding well is a choice. When faced with the reality of what life throws your way, you have a choice to make. It seems to me that this initial choice is pivotal and sets the direction of all that follows. Our choice to respond well led us in a natural and almost intuitive way to what Positive Psychologists call Positive Interventions.
Our box of cards became our “Positive Portfolio” where we would go to savor the love and support that was manifest all around us. Some of the cards were hilarious and some of them were deeply spiritual. All were full of hope. Savoring these expressions of support lifted our hearts and spirits and helped us to respond well.
I clearly remember a conversation when Laurie and I were lamenting our situation – a down time. Almost with resignation we acknowledged that we should be grateful that we were talking about months of chemo remaining rather than months of life remaining. This changed our thinking and we began to count the blessings we were reaping in the midst of the day to day challenges of the chemo treatments. This version of the “Three Blessings Exercise” helped us to respond well.
When our friends brought us the beach-related items we started looking at possible trips as a post chemo celebration. We talked about it a lot. We explored various options – St. John, St. Thomas, Hawaii, The Bahamas, The Dominican Republic. We asked friends for recommendations. We searched the web. We talked about how Laurie would look and feel after the chemo treatments were complete. Now that our trip is actually less than a month away, it feels like a dream come true. This version of the “Best Future Self Exercise” helped us to respond well.
In my January writing I discussed the power of explanatory style. We tried to be conscious of how we talked about this whole cancer challenge. We chose to see it as a temporary and narrowly focused event in our lives – NOT permanent and pervasive. While some of the effects will undoubtedly linger for months or years, the shock, fear, and worry are passing. Adopting a “Positive Explanatory Style” helped us to respond well.
In the end, responding well to any challenge means getting real about what is happening and then choosing to adopt the strength and perspective that comes through positive interventions like the ones discussed here.
By the way, Laurie is doing great and we are happy. We renewed our daughters’ passports. We are packing our bags and breaking out the sunscreen – lots of sunscreen. Its time to celebrate!
Flowers along the path courtesy of KevinReese
A huge hurray for both you and Laurie. I have found that there is real beauty in life’s challenges, once we recognize it we can then open ourselves up to a more joyful life irregardless of circumstance. That is not to say that finding that positives is easy.
I was my Mom’s primary go to gal when she was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, I had just turned 22. For the next four years, enduring countless bio-chemo treatments, surgeries, radiation etc., Mom and I chose to choose joy. When in a short remission, she and I reflected on our experiences and realized that we had built a framework for living well, living more joyfully and actively engaging in her care. Shortly there after, we started Choosing Joy – an organization that assists people with chronic illness in recognizing the uplifting, motivating triumph in being alive. We help them better make sense of their physical health, their care (how to develop a support team) and connect with the emotional aspects of illness.
My Mom passed away in November of 2003 but, her mission and legacy lives on. Our website and offerings will be launched in the next month. If you are interested, come and check us out. http://www.choosingjoy.com
When people share their stories it gives strength, hope and inspiration to others who are going through difficult times. Thank you for your candid writing, I look forward to reading more of your articles!
Your story was moving and I think it reflects the fragility of interventions and also their promise. I wonder if responding well could be applied to a very special population. Let me explain.
When I was 20, I joined the military to have health insurance for myself and my family and a stable career. I’m not ashamed to say there really was nothing patriotic about it.
Unfortunately I came to know what the term military-industrial complex meant. Without going into detail, I saw some heinous acts done by our finest. I guess putting people under extreme stress is not a recipe for success. My mission was counterdrug and every night I’d go to bed with a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. I just hated seeing poor people going to jail for years because they were between a rock (drug lords threatening their families) and a hard place (International authorities).
To get to the point, I saw a lot of depression in the service. A lot of the nasty side of human nature. So I am wondering, what kind of intervention or strategy would be broadly applicable to reducing the suffering and bolstering the good side? What can we give to our troops so that they prevent PTSD and suicide? I counted my blessings and followed Authentic Happiness to the letter, but with an unflinching bureaucracy of hostile leaders I found myself depressed.
What can we do to help our troops who are in a Vietnam in the sand?
I just received your article and found it deeply moving and inspiring. Thank you for writing it. I was especially taken by your use of explanatory style in this context– ingenious!
Best wishes for your family vacation,
Christine (MAPP 2)
Doug – no need to “forgive the personal nature” of this article. You wrote from the heart and it stirred such emotion in me — not sadness for Laurie’s cancer, but admiration for her strength and yours and all the wonderful friends & family you have in your life. I am honored to know you. Here’s one more PP exercise: Practice “savoring” on your celebratory trip. Sending you a BIG HUG, Margaret
Hi Doug, I got goosebumps reading this. You are so amazing and this was so well written…I loved your touches of humor and willingness to share…What a wonderful way to incorporate all we’ve learned about positive psychology into a situation that thousands of people have to face every day.
Jen: Thanks for your nice comments. We just arrived from our Celebration trip. We went to the Casa de Campo resort in the Dominican Republic and had a blast! You should plan a trip there immediately. Beautiful weather there everyday, but we arrived home tonight to 45 degrees here in Washington, DC! All the best, Doug
Your wife published a remarkable article in the Washington Post about this experience. I wanted to post a link here in tribute.
One Woman Out of Nine, Starting Again At the Finish Line
By Laurie Snow Turner
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, July 23, 2007; Page C08
I knew Doug personally for several months before learning about his wife’s illness. Even before learning about the trials in his life I was amazed with his positive attitude and willingness to help anyone with whatever problem they were facing. After learning about his challenges I couldn’t help thinking what an amazing man he must be to handle his problems, his demanding position at his company and manage a congregation of 400 people. I’m grateful to have someone as strong as Doug as an example to lean on when I have trials in my own life.
Hi, again, Doug. I just asked you for your advice re hospice patients through another article. Then, I encountered this one and Laurie’s Wash. Post article. You and Laurie have personal experience, and I would be honored to hear about it. Blessings, Ann