A Primer on Life and Death, But Mostly Life

Cancer psychologist Mindy Greenstein, Ph.D., as doctor and patient

Posted Oct 01, 2014

Mindy Greenstein has a lot to say about life and death, and she says it well. Her books, including The House on Crash Corner, are life-affirming and wise. Her work as a cancer psychologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering has a lot do with this. But, more than that, she’s a cancer survivor herself. Here is a glimpse of her latest book, Lighter As We Go, co-authored with Jimmie Holland, M.D.

What led you to write this particular book?

After I finished chemotherapy in 2007, when I was in my early 40s, I began doing research with Jimmie’s new geriatric group in the psychiatry department at Sloan Kettering. Jimmie was in her late 70s. Between meetings, we would share personal and professional perspectives about aging. We really enjoyed those bi-generational discussions, which turned into a weekly meeting, which then turned into Lighter As We Go. It’s been incredibly fun.

Is it hard to be so honest in your writing?

Mindy Greenstein, Ph.D.

It was harder when I first started writing personal essays, particularly the issue of self-disclosure. But now, I actually find it easier to be honest. It’s a liberating feeling to stop worrying about how my writing makes me look.

How do you imagine yourself at old age?

Having had cancer twice, I think of old age as an achievement in itself, and that the rest is gravy. Writing, playing with grandchildren, making new friends, and lots of KenKen puzzles. I’m sure I’ll be complaining about various ailments, since I already do that. But I’ll try to keep what our support group calls “the organ recitals” to a minimum.

Has your view of yourself changed over time?

I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I used to be. And it’s easier to credit myself for achievements, and to admit when I make mistakes, which makes it easier to learn from them.

When have you been your most content with life?

I feel most content when I’m “in the zone” during writing. In general, though, contentment is one of those things I aspire to. I feel like now I’m investing in future contentment by trying to navigate my sandwich life as well as I can.

And when have you felt most alive?

Between crying spells, during breast cancer treatment eight years ago. That was when I was most aware that being alive was a gift. I also treated my cancer as my continued education as a psycho-oncologist, and, oh, so much material for a writer!

Who is the ambassador of humanity in your life?

My co-author, Jimmie Holland, who is also the founder of my field. She sincerely seems happiest when helping other people. And her generosity is infectious.

What is the most surprising thing you discovered while writing this?

How important it is to have friends in all age groups, no matter your age. Feeling like each person has something to teach the other all make life nicer for everyone. And younger people can choose which images of aging they’d like to aspire to.

Who would most benefit by reading Lighter?

Our book is really meant for all adult-age groups. In a way, younger adults might benefit most because better attitudes toward aging when younger are associated with better health when we’re older. People my age, 51, sometimes fear that if the sandwich years are this challenging, it must all be downhill from here. But, as Lighter As We Go shows, it’s often just the opposite. The knowledge that things can actually get better in life puts less pressure on middle agers, which might make middle age look less unappealing to younger adults. It’s like a cascading effect of the fears of aging. That’s what we’d like to change.

What gets in your way when writing? What do you fear?

For me, it’s easier to get from page 1 to page 100, than from 0 to 1. I start with a chaotic jumble of ideas. Finding the structure feels very daunting. I have to have faith that I’ll figure it out along the way.

What is the most profound thing you’ve learned about yourself through writing?

That I have a lot to learn, and will always have a lot to learn. And that knowledge isn’t a negative, but an invitation to engage with life more fully.

If you had one piece of advice, what would it be?

If you find those aspects of the future you can look forward to, you might find that the present moment feels better, too.

Cover Image: Shutterstock

For more on Mindy Greenstein, click here and here.