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Merry Hearts As Medicine

Carol Orsborn, a woman living with breast cancer, shared with CBS News This Morning, insights from her new approach to the disease found in the book Speak the Language of Healing.

She and the three other co-authors, Karen Stroup, Susan Kuner and Linda Quigley, view cancer a matter of the heart, not of strength and will, so it is not about winning or losing a war. They are cancer patients, not victims, and a diagnosis is like an initiation.

Because October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, they also have launched a contest,The Stupidest Thing That Someone Ever Said to Me About My Cancer, in which participants are invited to submit entries.

Orsborn, 51, describes herself as a mother of two, a businesswoman, and author. She normally writes books that focus on business and is working toward a master's degree in theological studies.

Three years ago, after a routine mammogram, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. When she shared the news with seven friends at her divinity school, she found that all of them had been affected by the disease, either personally or through an immediate family member.

At that point, she says, she stopped asking "Why me?" and changed it to "Why not me?" as she realized that breast cancer strikes many people in many ways.

Stroup, 42, describes herself first and foremost as "a woman that is living with and dying from cancer." She is also a pastor, therapist, writer and professor and scholar of theological studies.

She lives in low-income housing, where she regularly counsels children on a variety of topics. Last year, she retired from her ministry and lives on disability, because regularly she was not feeling well and she was working more than 80 hours a week. She wanted to slow down and enjoy her remaining days.

Stroup is in Stage IV of her cancer, the last stage. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 1994, and by December 1994, it had spread to her lungs. She was listed as terminal and given an 18-month diagnosis.

Now, almost five years later, she looks at every day as a gift. She lives in two worlds: a realistic world, where she has made her funeral arrangements and her last will and testament; and a hopeful world, that keeps her going.

Stroup and Orsborn met for the first time at a treatment center infusion room, where they were both being given therapy. Both were attending Vanderbilt University for Theological Studies. They didn't immediately become friends, but they had an immediate bond and support for one another.

It was Orsborn's idea to write the book. Each of the four woman was at a different stage in her cancer, and from a different religious background, but Orsborn found that each had helped her at a critical juncture, when she was feeling low and about to lose hope.

According to the authors, it is the job of each initiate to pass on the secrets to each new initiate - dealing with chemotherpy, finding support, and dealing with family and friends.

"Once you have been diagnosed with cancer," explains Stroup, "you have been changed forever.Â…It can be for the better or the worse. It is a spiritual and emotional decision. A terminal patient that has died, but brought love and joy to herself and others is a winner. It is all relative."

"The other side of cancer is the awareness that life can be exquisite," she continues. "When my hair grew back in [after chemotherapy], I was sitting one day on campus, just looking up at the sky."

"A professor came by and asked me what I was doing," she adds. "I told him I was feeling the wind blow through my hair. He looked at me strangely and just walked away. I realized I had been given the gift to appreciate the simplest things."

When talking to a cancer initiate:

  • Never talk in the past tense.
  • Don't ask probing questions: "How did this happen? What did you eat? Was there a psychological cause?" Nobody knows how this happened.
  • Don't ask "How are you," emphasizing the "are." Instead, just say something like, "It's good to see you."
  • Don't say, "You'll be fine," because no one knows if that is true. Instead try saying, "I hope it goes well for you."
  • Don't ask, "Did they get it all?" Instead, say, "I hope it went well."
  • Don't ask, "Is there something can do for you?" specific in an offer: "Can I pick up your groceries? Can I help with the kids?"
The authors say they know that people mean to be kind, and cancer patients usually are happy to answer questions. But, most importantly, "the best gift you can give is to listen."

The Stupidest Thing That Someone Ever Said to Me About My Cancer contest arose from Stroup's sense of humor.

"When people say hurtful or stupid things, you can either laugh or cry," she says. "Often, when cancer patients gather, it turns to stories of other people's stupidity, and by sharing, we always felt better."

The authors realize that people are afraid to talk about cancer, because it reminds us of our mortality.

"We all have to realize that we will die some day," says Stroup. "There is no way to avoid it."

Adds Orsborn: "Death scares the heck out of people.Â…We try and believe, 'If we live the right way, we will continue to live.' Death is the bottom line, a fear of losing control. It's the American way to feel like you won't die."

The contest has received about 300 entries so far, and the organizers hope to receive as many as 1,000 by the Oct. 20 deadline.

For more information about the book and the contest, visit the Web site at

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