Diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer in 2005, my first reaction was to learn my father's story. If anything bad should happen to me, I figured, my husband could tell our young sons about their mother. But only I could tell my sons about their grandfather, who passed away nine years earlier.
My cancer would change my life — and my career.
The surgery and treatment were an ordeal, but nothing like what my dad experienced with his liver cancer. And my life, I learned, was nothing like his: raised during the Depression, expelled from home to work for food, forced to quit school, soldier in the Pacific and massive postwar change.
"We had it good," he used to tell my sister and me when we were growing up in Australia. "I feel sorry for you kids." It made me smile to remember that.
I spent a lot of the six months after my diagnosis reminiscing — about my life and my father's. With the help of my husband, who was pleased I had a hobby (if not hair), I made a documentary about dad's life.
He would not be a stranger to his grandsons.
Up to that point, I had been an attorney. Now I glimpsed a new calling as a video biographer.
My first real client was Anne King. Anne also had cancer. When I arrived at her home in Glendale, she was gray and diminished, with barely a voice. But as the day progressed and the camera rolled, she bloomed. Her best years, she said, were during World War II. "We all had the same purpose", she recalled.
My husband and I both cried when we got a call one week later from Anne's daughter, who told us her mother had died.
I have learned since that there is a branch of elder care called "reminiscence therapy." Talking about old times has been shown to improve mood, well being, communication and even memory. A study published last year in the Journal of Psychology and Aging found that these benefits were enhanced when the reminiscing occurred with others.
Since Anne King, I have interviewed hundreds of people — most of them in their 70s and older. While I can't be sure that I have added any days to those lives, I am certain that, for my subjects and their families, helping tell their stories has saved their lives by creating a little piece of immortality.
I do know that telling my dad's story helped preserve his life and gave new meaning to my own.
Thanks, cancer. I also have it good.
Jane Lehmann-Shafron is the owner of Your Story Here and a member of the Assn. of Personal Historians. She lives in Mission Viejo and has been cancer-free for five years. email@example.com.
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