In today’s Dallas Morning News — behind paywall, alas — I have an essay about how Ruthie’s unfailing faith and hope in the face of her terminal cancer diagnosis likely helped her live far longer than most patients with her type of cancer — and how her diseased and dying body paradoxically brought forth healing and life of a different sort. Excerpts:
Ruthie not only had hope that she would be cured, but she also had hope in a deeper sense: the confidence that her suffering, even if it took her life, would be redeemed. That whatever happened, good would come out of it, if only she and those around her would allow it.
Ruthie’s condition was so grave when the cancer was found that Gerard Miletello, her oncologist, estimated that she had six to eight weeks to live. She astonished everyone by living for 19 months — a feat Miletello attributes in large part to Ruthie’s attitude. That’s a conclusion supported not by sentimentality but by sound science.
Beyond Ruthie’s physiological resilience, what I saw over the 19 months my sister struggled with cancer was the vindication of her faith that life remained a blessing despite it all and that her pain and suffering would not be for nothing. The way Ruthie died offered evidence that we contemporary Americans have a philosophically impoverished sense of health, thinking of it as merely the absence of disease.
Sometimes, Ruthie taught me, healing can be hidden, except to those with eyes to see.
And, it turns out that by simply being Ruthie, she likely extended her life, and her quality of life, in at least four ways:
Over the past 20 years or so, medical science has built an impressive body of evidence detailing the connections between a patient’s outlook, including her mental and emotional state, and her body’s response to treatment.
Dr. Esther Sternberg, a rheumatologist and leading mind-body researcher at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine in Tucson, says that contrary to the biases of Western medicine, certain interventions “which seem a little magical really do have an impact on the body.”
Over the past two decades, medical science has shown that the mind-body connection can have a profound effect on the healing process, chiefly through the brain’s action on the immune system. Generally speaking, stress weakens the body’s ability to fight disease. Ruthie based her own cancer fight on instinct and conviction, not medical advice. Yet after her death, I was astonished to learn from reading the scientific literature that from a mind-body viewpoint, Ruthie had been the ideal patient in at least four ways:
She prayed and had active faith. Ruthie’s Christianity was uncomplicated but deep. She prayed often during her illness, especially during long, sleepless nights, and read her Bible. It kept her calm and confident.
“If you’re a devout believer, you should pray. If you’re not a believer in a particular religion, you can meditate,” says Sternberg. “If you can get your brain into that relaxation state, there are a lot of brain chemicals and hormones that change the body’s immune response in a positive way.”
She retreated into nature. Ruthie grew up fishing on our father’s pond and regarded it all her life as a place to get away from daily stress. After her diagnosis, she went to the pond as often as she was physically able. In Sternberg’s 2010 book Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being, she explores how modern science has begun to vindicate the ancient Greek belief that resting in a place of natural beauty can help our bodies resist disease and rebuild after sickness.
She had a strong social support network. Ruthie and her husband, Mike, her partner of more than 20 years, were intensely close. Oncologist Miletello says Mike was an unusually supportive spouse. “It almost makes you envious,” he says. “Not many people get that kind of relationship.”
What’s more, hundreds of people in Ruthie’s small town, St. Francisville, rallied to her family’s aid during the crisis. Ruthie had spent her entire life in this town, half of it teaching the town’s children in public school. The social bonds Ruthie built over the years helped hold her and her family together through cancer.
Scientists have documented that patients embedded in a strong network of emotional support thrive much better than others. Sternberg observes: “They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it takes a village to take care of a sick person.”
She found meaning in adversity. Ruthie believed firmly that God had a plan for her life. She looked for opportunities to be grateful, despite her suffering, and to help others. “Just think of all the wonderful people I’ve met because I have cancer,” Ruthie once told me. The nurses in Baton Rouge General’s chemotherapy unit often watched Ruthie, rail-thin and pitifully weak, comforting other chemo patients with a smile and a laugh.
Studies show that people who have a positive outlook, behave altruistically and have confidence that there is ultimate meaning in their experience prove more resilient than those who don’t. University of Texas at Austin psychologist James Pennebaker, for example, has found that people who write about a traumatic experience with the goal of finding meaning in their suffering stayed healthier than those in control groups.
“People shouldn’t feel bad if they can’t find meaning on their own,” Sternberg cautions. “It’s important to seek help from experienced professionals.”
And yet, she still died — but Dr. Sternberg explained that a more holistic understanding of what health means — that is, that it’s not simply the absence of disease — shows us that it is possible to die healed. I’m reminded of a story a Greek Orthodox priest and theologian tells about a woman diagnosed with terminal cancer and six months to live called for him, though she was an atheist. She felt she needed to talk to a priest. He kept seeing her over those six months, and became a believer. He said the last time he saw her, she was skin and bones, but her eyes were luminous — and she gave thanks for her cancer, because she said she never would have found God without it. For this Greek Orthodox priest, this is what it means to die healed.
The DMN also ran a lovely review of Little Way today, which appears outside the online paywall. Excerpt:
His excellent book cannot be read without tears for Ruthie Leming, her husband, children, parents and brother — and the lost moments in life when you know you could have done more to bring peace to a family situation or mustered the courage to say “I forgive you” or “I love you” when it desperately mattered.
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming also cannot be read without warm feelings for the people of Starhill, St. Francisville and West Feliciana Parish, who rallied to the family’s side. It also cannot be read without wondering whether you could be as serene, loving, forgiving and concerned for others as Ruthie Dreher Leming was, even as death overtook her.
I’ll be coming to Dallas this week to talk about The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming and to sign books. I’ll be at the Barnes & Noble by Northpark Mall on Tuesday night at 7. I’ll also be on Krys Boyd’s terrific public radio show Think from 1 to 2 on Tuesday; if you aren’t in station KERA’s listening area, you can stream it online.
But first, if you live in or around Athens, Georgia, today (Sunday), please come out and meet me at the Avid Bookshop from 4 to 5. I’ll be talking about Ruthie, and signing some books.