As Good as It Gets

Some time in 1995, I recall seeing an article in the Dallas Morning News about a woman who had some kind of cancer. She was a physician and a mother of young children.

I looked at the headlines and photos, then moved on. I was 45, busy and driven, the mother of two kids of my own. I didn’t read sad-sack inspirational stories about cancer or other dire diseases. Who needed that kind of downer experience? Not me.

Well, you know how it goes. Everything your mother told you about how pride goeth before a fall is true. A few short months after reading — or not reading, rather — that article, I was diagnosed with cancer myself. One of the many people who got in touch with me was that same woman featured in the article. She wrote me a long letter. During the next few years, as I struggled with surgery, chemo, and radiation, then their aftermath, this woman became a significant presence in my life — listening to me, advising me, giving me hope and a sliver of sanity.

Her name is Wendy Harpham. She was only 36, with an active practice as a Dallas internist, when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1990. She and her husband had three children, the youngest still in diapers. The median survival time for her diagnosis was only seven years.

What’s incredible to me about Wendy Harpham’s story isn’t just her survival 23 years later — even though that’s an astonishing story of breakthroughs in medicine, excellent medical care, her own grit and tenacity and stubborn optimism, and sheer good luck. What’s incredible to me is the quality of life she’s fashioned under the most difficult of circumstances.

Here’s a woman whose greatest dream was to practice medicine, who had promised her patients she would care for them till she retired on her 80th birthday. That life ended when her illness forced her to retire at a young age.

So she began a new life — focusing on her own survival. She also created a new career of patient caretaking by becoming an author of five books about living as well as possible with cancer. Living as completely and joyously as you can, no matter how your biopsy reports read, is what she calls “healthy survivorship.”

Wendy Harpham’s books, like their author, are smart, straightforward, and compassionate, but unflinching. They insist on seeking out and finding hope in the most difficult of circumstances — which is compelling to readers who know the author has been there herself. I particularly recommend When a Parent Has Cancer, a book I consider to be one of the best parenting books around, period, whether you have cancer or not. But then, as my friend Kathy La Tour has said, Wendy Harpham is the best mother she knows, the mother we would all like to be.

I emailed Wendy recently (we now live in different citiees) because I wanted to write about her and because I had been so touched to see that her daughter, Jessica Harpham Volt, had just earned her own M.D. I learned that Wendy’s daughter Becky works in marketing and her son Will is an art teacher. Wendy’s husband Ted is now the associate provost and director of the Honors College at the University of Texas at Dallas.

And Wendy herself? She’s slowed down, she says, owing to the aftereffects of her many years of treatment that have greatly diminished her stamina.

But Wendy Harpham’s version of slowing down and stamina loss are different from yours and mine. She’s just polishing off another book — this one on affirmations for healthy survivorship. She also writes a column for Oncology Times called View From the Other Side of the Microscope, maintains a blog about healthy survivorship, and speaks at patient and medical conferences and gatherings across the country. (She’s also taken up the violin again in her spare time.)

I know, I know. I’m making her sound like too much of a combo saint and superwoman. But, dammit, I’m just reporting the facts.

As I emailed back and forth with Wendy, she answered all my questions quickly and completely and sent me links to her work and bio. Then, she wanted to know if I had enough to work with, sending some more references. A few hours later, she asked if she could read what I’d written about her before I posted it. I refused, she said she hoped I wasn’t offended, I said no, she was incapable of offending me.

It was striking, though, to see that flash of steel and will on her part: You don’t survive what she’s lived through without being one tough woman who goes after what she wants. All of which makes me realize that women like Mother Teresa were pretty flinty examples themselves — or they would never accomplished what they did and we would never have heard of them. You probably don’t make it to sainthood without being a control freak.

But what do I know? I never ran into Mother Teresa. I only had the great good fortune to meet and get to know Wendy Harpham, who still inspires me even though she’ll never be much of a candidate for sainthood, since she’s Jewish, not Catholic.

She will also probably be in touch with me soon, since I forgot to say one thing or another, which she would have caught if I’d just emailed a draft to her like she asked — but, no, I wouldn’t do it. In the meantime, thanks for being there, darlin’, and pushing us and prodding us and giving us hope.

(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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14 comments… add one
  • Ruth,
    As the Law of Attraction would tell us, it takes a woman of true grit and tenacity herself to attract other such amazing women into her life. You inspire just has you’ve been inspired! Thank you for being unbendingly you!


  • I almost cried at the beginning. Very moving. I worried that this post was going to be about you learning that she was no longer in this world. I’m happy that’s not the case. I love her example of strength.

  • It’s wonderful that she gave you the strength and insight you needed at that difficult time, and wonderful that she’s still providing it to other women.

  • I agree with Lois, we attract what we need in our own lives, as well as the reflections of ourselves. You both are amazing women!

  • What a remarkable woman (BOTH of you). It shows you how so many people can give in to a disease while others triumph in a very big way.

  • I suspect her ideas on quality of life would apply to all of our lives — cancer or not.

  • I wish every survivor would get on the prevention bandwagon and push Congress to enact laws that will protect us from toxic chemicals. The EPA wanted to label BPA as a “chemical of concern” – it is a toxic chemical we encounter every day in, say, canned food, and which Breast Cancer Action has indicated we should avoid whenever possible – and the White House blocked this measure. I tell everyone I know because I am so flabbergasted. Can’t you please write a post about BPA, Ruth?

  • B Link

    beautifully written. She is my superwoman/saint and so many others… the incredible thing, too, is that her love, care, thoughtfulness and compassion is completely authentic… she lives to care for others.

  • Such an inspiring story, and a truly remarkable woman!

  • Thanks for introducing me to this accomplished and inspiring woman. Looking forward to reading her books and passing them on to my mother, an ovarian and breast cancer survivor.

  • Susan Link

    My path first crossed Wendy’s just after she’d written “Happiness in a Storm,” so I suppose you could call me an “after” friend. I can vouch, however, for the truthfulness of everything you wrote about her. Although I am not a cancer survivor, I have personally witnessed how her books, lectures and one-on-one encounters have had a positive impact on many who have faced a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment. And I appreciate how healthcare professionals also respond positively to her messages about Healthy Survivorship. Count me among the many who are grateful that she shares so unselfishly of her wisdom, time and energy.

  • merr Link

    “I’m just reporting the fact.” Love it. Inspiring.

  • That’s a very powerful story. I’m so glad that you and Wendy connected.

  • What an inspiration and amazing story. True grit runs in pairs…you and Wendy.

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