Cancer Survivor Shares Tips For Starting 2012 Right

Many people are looking for a fresh start after a year filled with challenges. Best-selling author Bruce Feiler remade his life after a devastating cancer diagnosis in 2008. He talks with host Michel Martin about his advice for overcoming adversity and getting the right start for 2012.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Happy New Year. I sure hope it will be a good one. And what better time to look for ways to improve your life than the beginning of a new year? In a minute, we'll hear from a woman who says one way to get a fresh perspective on a lot of things is to get out from under the extra stuff that may be cluttering your home and your life. And she says it really isn't that hard to get started.

Her name is Gail Blanke, and you may have seen her on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," among other places. Her new book is called, "Throw Out Fifty Things." We'll have that conversation in a few minutes. But first, we want to get some tips for making a fresh start from someone who has had to re-create his own life after a serious health crisis. In 2008, Bruce Feiler was a best-selling author with a fulfilling family life and every reason to expect a long and happy future ahead.

That was until doctors discovered a 7-inch tumor in his leg, and told him that he might not survive the cancer. Feiler searched for a positive response to this devastating news. Eventually, he reached out to several male friends, asking them to provide guidance for his young, twin daughters should he not survive. He eventually turned that experience into a book, "The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me." We actually spoke with him about it in 2010.

Today, Bruce Feiler is cancer-free, and we thought this was a good time to check in with him again to offer his thoughts on overcoming hard times, whether it's health issues or not. Bruce Feiler, thank you so much for joining us.

BRUCE FEILER: My pleasure. Happy New Year.

MARTIN: Well, you know, we said you're cancer-free. But I'm still thinking that a lot of people would like to hear how you're doing. So just how are you doing...

FEILER: I'm cancer- ...

MARTIN: ...in the broadest sense of that word?

FEILER: I'm doing well. And I - in fact, this holiday season, we've been visiting with the Council of Dads in various places. We brought our girls down to D.C. to stay with one member; to Santa Fe, to visit with another. And so I'm cancer-free. And even better than that, I would say - or maybe not better than that - I'm walking much better. It was three years ago last week that I had my 15-hour surgery to rebuild my left leg. I was on crutches for a year and a half. I was on a cane for a year. And now, after 500 hours of physical therapy, I walked into this studio with a slight limp, but walking forward.

MARTIN: Oh, that's great. That is so great to hear. You know, as we said, one of the reasons we called you is that your surgery was three years ago last week. And I was wondering, you know, before this crisis hit - and I'm thinking about people who may be experiencing any number of crises, whether it's job loss, prolonged unemployment, personal crises or - before this hit, did you listen to other people who had crises and think, well, I got the right stuff; I have what it takes.

I guess what I'm really wondering is, is there a way in which your response to this crisis was different from what you thought it would be, if you ever imagined yourself in such a position?

FEILER: So when my wife gave birth to twins back in 2005, we thought OK, we've got twins; it would be all hands on deck. All of our friends would rally around, and we would make this a kind of a team effort. Instead, everybody ran the other way. And then when I got cancer, I thought everybody would run the other way. Instead, the opposite happened. People rallied around. And I think that is one of, of course, the powerful things that happens when people go through difficult times - is, it tends to bring people together.

And we know, actually - there have been a lot of studies about happiness, and we know that one of the things that makes people the happiest is close social interaction: lots of friends, being with family - even though those can be problematic. We know that that, actually, is the response, sometimes, to crisis; that is the balm to the wound, if you will. I think that maybe the number one thing that I learned is, you know, there's something in our culture right now that conspires against friendship.

We have our family, and we have our work, but our friends keep getting pushed aside. And that's not something that's really talked about a lot. And so one of the things that this Council of Dads did was, it built a bridge and allowed us to invite our friends into the middle of the thing most important in our lives - and that's our kids.

So, you know, as we're looking forward - people are in difficult situations; they're looking for - kind of - things to do in the New Year - one of the things that I would say is, sit down with your close friends and tell them what they mean to you. It's incredibly rare, but it can transform all of your lives.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things you were also really honest about in your book is that you weren't always happy with the way you responded to the stress of the situation; that there were times when you, you know, you lost your temper with the people that you love the most. I was wondering how you moved from those low points to the point at which you started to see something positive that you could do in response to your situation.

FEILER: Well, I think that the desire to reach out to these friends came very early. I mean, I was diagnosed on a Wednesday, and I had this idea to form the Council of Dads that weekend. But it was actually the following week, when I first sat down to write a letter to friends and family, explaining to them what happened. I said, look. No one aspires to be a hero in this kind of situation. And I think there is a kind of pressure we put on ourselves to be the model patient, the model person who's having hardship, the model person dealing with an aging parent.

And, you know, I think that there is a generational shift that's gone on. If I look at my parents and that generation, how they often handled crisis was to go inward and to retreat, and to not share with people. My own father has - experiencing a difficult disease in recent years and for a long time, they kept it private. He felt, you know what? I was a member of the community.

And he didn't want that out there. I think that the next generation - and certainly, the generation even younger than I am - between Facebook and Twitter and the culture of sharing that we have, I think people are more open today to letting people in. And so I definitely think that that is - that's a positive transformation, which is that people can choose. If they want to let people in, they can. If they don't want to, they don't have to.

MARTIN: We're speaking with best-selling author Bruce Feiler. We're talking about starting the new year with a new lease on life. And Bruce Feiler is a cancer survivor; the author of many, many books including "The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me." Best-selling author doesn't really capture fully who you are, but among those books are books that deal with faith, including "Walking the Bible" and "Where God Was Born."

You know, for people who have a faith tradition, that often is a foundation. But many people in this culture don't, or they just - it just isn't part of their lives, or they're just actively skeptical about it. I'm just wondering if you have some thoughts about people who feel like, you know what? The universe is random and cruel. This just stinks, whatever is happening to me.

Is there a way you can kind of tap into something larger to give you strength, if you don't believe in the traditional religions that many people do rely on?

FEILER: I think that one of the things I've learned in all the years I've been writing about religion - and you mentioned "Walking the Bible" and "Abraham" and "Where God Was Born." I think that I always believed that God was this star, like that old star that Johnny Carson would stand on, on the "Tonight Show" stage - right there. There was a place, and you were either on that star, or you were not on that star. And what I have come to see, by moving beyond my sort of childhood perceptions of religion, is that there is a whole conversation that the people are undergoing.

You know, the word Israel in the Bible, it actually means one who wrestles with God. I mean, that is the idea, almost like the model of a relationship between people and God - in the Bible, at least - is one of give and take. I have found that a lot of people are engaged in that, even if they're frustrated with organized religion. And I have found, in the 15 years that I have been doing this almost around the clock, that if anybody is prepared to have a conversation, I can have a conversation; that it's - there is a small number of people who believe they have all the answers, and they want to preach it to you. And in my experience, some of those are believers, and an equal number of those are non-believers.

But for most people in the middle, they're struggling. They have questions, and they have doubt. And so I would say, again, is we're - if we're trying to frame what we're talking about here in terms of thinking about the new year, the good news is in today's culture, it is acceptable to have struggles and questions.

The reality is, it's a lot more work. But I think that's what people have the opportunity to do now, roll up their sleeves, realize they don't have to believe what their parents believed or their preachers tell them to believe - or their rabbis, or whomever it might be. They have to do the work. They get to do the work, but it does come with a burden.

MARTIN: You know, I think a lot of Americans, whether they're struggling with a health or a financial - or family issues, know that they need a fresh start, but they don't know how to begin, you know. When you're struggling with something like cancer, there's kind of a course of action. You know, I'm going to do this. I'm going to do that.

FEILER: Yeah.

MARTIN: I'm going to do this. If it isn't that clear-cut, do you have some thoughts or some wisdom that you gleaned from your experience, in how to make a fresh start even if the path isn't so clear-cut?

FEILER: Well, to me, so much in life comes back to the dining room table. It comes back to sitting around and opening yourself up to the people around you and saying, OK, let's start. Let's start with a conversation. Let's start with telling ourselves a story.

I'm actually working on this book, called "All Happy Families," about the secrets of successful families. And what I have found is that the conversations you have at dinner - you can tell yourself stories. You can emphasize positive things. You can design questions, and you can design quests to go on.

And so I - to me, if you want a new start, I would go and sit at the dining room table equally with everybody in the room, and begin to say OK, what do you want to do this New Year? What stories do you want to tell? What dreams do you want to try to make possible?

And if we open ourselves up to a wider group of people - don't think you have to be the hero, but that's a step forward.

MARTIN: Well, that's great. I love that. So before we let you go - and you know I'm going to ask, and you know it's terrible, but I'm going to ask you, anyway - you have any New Year's resolutions?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEILER: I knew you were going to ask me, and I was like, I'd better come up with an answer before I come in. And I have to tell you...

MARTIN: And don't say, buy a new pair of pants - or something like that - because that's not going to cut it.

FEILER: You mean, answer the emails that are sitting in my box right now? You know what I thought of - and I did kind of think you were going to ask me that question. I thought of - you mentioned that three years ago last week, this wonderful surgeon named John Healey had his hands inside of my leg. And I went to see him six months after that operation. And I said, if my daughters ever come to see you and say, what lesson should they learn from - our daddy's story, what would you tell them?

And this man's a pauser. Ooh, he paused as long as anyone I ever heard. And he said, I would tell your daughters what I know, and that is: Everybody dies, but not everybody lives. I want you to live.

And at its simplest, corest level, I would say: Every year - I don't live every day like it's my last, but I live every year as if it might be my last. And my goal every year is to live. And to me, that means go on an adventure; ask a question; begin some process that I can look back and say whatever has happened - good, bad or indifferent - I will have lived my life on my toes, and not on my heels.

MARTIN: Bruce Feiler is the author of many best-selling books, including "Walking the Bible," "Where God was Born" and "The Council of Dads." He joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California.

Bruce, thank you. Happy New Year. and good luck with everything.

FEILER: Thank you so much. Happy New Year to you.

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