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More Than Surviving: Living with Serious Illness 

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A few months ago I met Melanie Williams by chance at a cafe we both frequent. Her buoyant energy caught my attention and we began to chat. I would never have guessed from her humor and optimism that she had recurrent cancer. I asked if she would share some thoughts with Chronogram’s readers about how she keeps so upbeat and enjoys living—not just coping—with illness. She has kindly done so, and I thank her, along with Debby, Puja, Richard, and Wendy, for sharing herein their insights.

Fun and the X Factor
Melanie Williams, a project manager for IBM, lives in Rhinebeck with her husband. She is a survivor of breast cancer with three metastatic recurrences. “My doctor has always said my attitude is what’s pulled me through,” says Melanie. “Attitude is everything—it really is. The doctors and treatments can only do so much. You are the ‘X factor’—the one who is going to make the difference.” Yes, she was stunned by the original diagnosis, and the news of recurrence. “I could feel myself slipping when I lost that attitude.” But now she knows recurrence is not uncommon over the years. Because stress may be partly to blame, she took her recurrence as a wake-up call. “I knew I needed to work on the life-and-work balance,” she says. “I’ve always been a goal person, so the future was always important in my planning and I wasn’t paying attention to the here and now. In my job I’d gone far too much into my logical, mathematical side, not keeping in touch with the more creative side.”

Williams realized she needed to go back to what made her happiest from years ago, even in her teens. “Everybody had a pre-sick moment,” she says. “You have to tap back into that. I draw, sing, play my guitar, go swimming—all those hobbies and the creative side I used to enjoy.” She writes poetry again, dances around the house to ’70s music, listens to opera and the stirring voice of Andrea Bocelli. “There were times when I put headphones on and listened to music that was going to make me cry.” She laughs. “Having emotions stirred in a positive way helps healing.” She praises the movement and exercise of dance, or of just going outdoors for a walk in the fresh air. “It releases stress—a major contributor to cancer—and you feel freer and more positive by getting your body moving, and the blood and the brain flowing.”

Williams exudes joviality, and says she finds humor in many things. “It’s very important—it raises your endorphins, which helps your immune system. Of course, I wasn’t always laughing, but there a lot of funny things happening if you have the right attitude, even in the chemo room,” Williams says, adding that it helps that she has always been optimistic. “I believe everything happens for a reason, and I still believe that. You’re there [with the illness] because there is something unraveling and you have to dig into that and figure it out. There is something to learn, and I focus on that.” She also knows that anyone can die at any moment, so there’s no reason to put off enjoyment until tomorrow. At the same time, she reads books about true, remarkable recoveries from traumas. “These books will show you that people can survive beyond all expectations,” she says. “So if you tap into that, and understand why they did, you can help incorporate that into your life. Often they had something they really wanted to live for.”

Spiritual Midwifery
Therapist Deborah (Debby) Franke Ogg of Shokan specializes in helping people transform life-threatening illness into positive growth and deepened self-awareness. Called by some a “spiritual midwife,” Debby knows the terrain: in 1984 she was diagnosed with end-stage, “incurable” lymphoma. With that dire news, she had the tumor biopsies evaluated by four medical facilities; they concurred on the prognosis, but the recommended treatment varied. When one suggested a wait-and-see approach (because it was unlikely that chemo and radiation would help at that point), Debby began what she calls “a long, sometimes terrifying pursuit of very specific information that would guide me to healing. I thought that if I got myself from dis-ease to disease, it was possible to reverse the disease by understanding what got me there.”

That launched her into a multifaceted exploration that drew on psychotherapy, massage, acupuncture, meditation, exercise, yoga, organic foods, and more. Meditation was especially helpful. “Meditation quiets the mind so you can access the information that, I believe, we all can have access to,” she says. “Much comes to you about what’s good for you and what isn’t. To me, it’s direct connection to spirit. It gave me very specific information as to what I needed to heal.” Today, Debby is in remission, and has been for many years without having had chemotherapy or radiation. She skipped those because doctors had no hope that such treatments would save her, but emphasizes, “I feel it’s very important that when there is something that medicine is offering, it needs to be taken.” Her story was the basis for the 1988 feature film Leap of Faith (also called A Question of Faith), directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal.

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  • Insights on dealing with life-threatening illness.

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