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Geraldine Ferraro and the Psychology of Living With Cancer: A Model for Our Times

Updated on March 13, 2017
Natalie Frank profile image

Natalie Frank, a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, publishes on multiple topics in health, behavioral science, and other fields.

Geraldine Anne Ferraro (August 26, 1935 – March 26, 2011) was an American attorney, politician in the Democratic Party, and respected member of the United States House of Representatives. In 1984, she made history by being the first female vice presidential candidate representing a major American political party. In 1998 Ferraro was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable form of blood cancer. She successfully beat back two relapses with experimental treatment and new treatments not in existence when she had first been diagnosed.

With all that she accomplished in her 75 years, her most important public role, she felt, was to give hope to others with cancer—and encourage them to never give up. One of her greatest contributions to the public was modeling a positive way of living with cancer that was at the same time realistic. She viewed cancer as something that was a part of her that she needed to fight off, but not as something that defined her entire life.

She never stopped working for causes that were important to her, enjoying time with friends and family and pursuing hobbies and other interests that rounded out her life. In a number of interviews and articles, she discussed her strategies for maintaining a positive outlook. She described how she retained control over her life, preventing the illness from taking over everything that gave her happiness and satisfaction.

Initially told that she had three to five years to live, Ferraro survived for more than 12 years, long enough to witness the historic candidacies of two other women in 2008: Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady and secretary of state who ran against Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination; and Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor who was Republican Sen. John McCain's running mate.

Ferraro was eulogized by former Vice President Walter Mondale, who summed up Ferraro’s accomplishments and approach to life, stating that she was "a pioneer in our country for justice and a more open society. She broke a lot of molds, and it's a better country for what she did" (Weichselbaum & Alpert, 2011).

Geraldine Ferraro at a press conference, August 21,1984.
Geraldine Ferraro at a press conference, August 21,1984. | Source

Ferraro Weathers Attacks with Poise and Resiliency

Geraldine Ferraro’s political career spanning almost 15 years, was plagued by attacks on both her personal and professional actions and characteristics. These assaults often seemingly came out of the blue striking like lightening. Yet she never lost her poise, even at times fighting back firmly and without backing down. When she and her husband were attacked over allegations of improper financial conduct, she calmly fielded questions from 250 reporters for close to two hours. The response to this marathon press conference was overwhelmingly positive, emphasizing her unwavering composure under fire.

Not long after this occurred, Ferraro made a controversial commercial during which she clarified her personal opinion about her roles in life. She stated that she felt that being a wife and mother was far more important than being a politician. She was subsequently harassed by feminists who claimed such statements would hold back women’s rights, reversing years of progress (Woo, 2011).

Ferraro was the first female candidate for U.S. Vice President.
Ferraro was the first female candidate for U.S. Vice President. | Source

Demonstrating Her True Values Through Action

Following this unfounded criticism, Ferraro went on to defy this accusation, inspiring women of all ages across the country. She motivated women to take on challenges and to shatter the stereotypes that existed of what women were capable of becoming. She became a powerful activist, advocating for justice for women in the workplace and other important arenas. Then Ferraro reached the pinnacle by being nominated for a position for which no women had ever been nominated before: Vice President of the United States (Chew, 2011).

After losing that race she remained in politics, running for Senate in 1998. After a long campaign, Ferraro lost the primary and found herself feeling fatigued and run down. Having put off her annual checkup, she made an appointment with her physician. Once he’d examined her and reviewed her blood results over the previous several years, he concluded there was a problem.

Meeting with Ferraro and her husband, he informed them Ferraro had multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. Her prognosis – 3 years (Dana Farber Cancer Institute, 2003). She was begun on a varied regimen of treatments including taking the controversial drug, thalidomide. This controversial medication had been prescribed for nausea in pregnant women in the 1950’s which resulted in multiple birth defects in their babies including short flipper like limbs (MedicineNet.com)

Multiple Myeloma

Most people are familiar with some form of blood cancer. Yet while most people have heard of Leukemia or Lymphoma few have heard of Multiple Myeloma, a third type of blood cancer. Multiple Myeloma results from the abnormal growth of plasma cells in the bone marrow hindering the production of normal plasma cells. This causes the immune system to weaken until it is unable to fight off infections or even minor illnesses. When the immune system is compromised in this way it can be deadly.

In addition, these abnormal plasma cells begin to form and multiply at a rate too fast for normal antibodies to fight off. As these abnormal cells proliferate they destroy the bone and lead to such symptoms as kidney damage, bone pain, brittle and broken bones, back pain, fatigue, confusion, nausea, loss of appetite, weakness, a compromised immune system, anemia, infections, headaches, bruising, hazy vision, and nose bleeds. (American Cancer Society, 2017).

Finding Strength

Ferraro stated during treatment at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in 2003 that she gained strength to cope with her cancer from her husband and three children, her health care team, and her religion and religious support network. She kept letters and cards from individuals praying for her and took comfort knowing so many people all over were thinking of her, feeling their support even though she didn’t know them. Her husband and daughter insisted on attending treatments sessions with her, and she spoke of how wonderful the physicians, nurses and volunteers were, lifting her spirits.

“I think that makes the difference,” Ferraro said. “If you think somebody cares about you and believes your life is worth saving, how can you give up?” She refused to think of herself as a survivor, reserving that term for someone who’d been through something traumatic such as 911. She felt she was simply a fortunate person living with cancer (Dana Farber Caner Institute, 2003). She went on to live over 12 years from the time she was diagnosed, significantly longer than her original prognosis indicated was possible.

The Mind-Body Connection

Ferraro first publicly disclosed her illness when speaking before a senate panel regarding her experiences and views related to having multiple myeloma. She spoke about how the disease can destroy you emotionally and psychologically adding that she was blessed to have a family that was always there and never failed to lift her spirits. (AP Archived Audio, 2001). Yet, her view of the cancer that she had kept her fighting and was believed to help keep the cancer in check. She rarely saw something as an obstacle since that would imply she couldn’t move past it. She felt if you kept getting up and moving forward you would be able to find a means of moving past whatever was in your way.

Profiled by the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in 2003 her optimism regarding her future was impossible to ignore. Her doctors credited this optimism with her repeated remissions. While many would feel unable to keep fighting after a remission, according to her doctors this was something Ferraro never considered. In fact, they said she never even slowed down. Ferraro believed at the time that a cure would come in the near future as a result of the ongoing research. She was excited to be part of the cutting edge research that was then taking place. This also helped her maintain a positive outlook and optimistic view of the future.

Today it is accepted that the mind and body are not separate entities but that they interact in complex ways to increase both risk and resiliency in regards to physical and emotional functioning. Medicine now focuses on how our thoughts, emotions, body, social functioning, spirituality and behavioral factors work together to influence disease outcomes (The Natural Health Perspective).

These beliefs are backed by a large body of cancer research which also supports Ferraro’s statement emphasizing the importance of maintaining psychological health and a positive mood when coping with such a serious illness. Evidence demonstrates the beneficial effects of emotional well being in terms of its influence on the functioning of the immune system. Individuals who suffer from a negative psychological state, such as depression or anxiety, have been shown to have poorer immunological functioning and to experience a worse disease course and poorer disease outcomes, than those who display a positive psychological frame of mind. (Ray, 2004). Optimism has also been associated with positive coping styles and a better quality of life in individuals with chronic illnesses including cancer (Scheier, M. F., 1989).

How the Mind and Body Interact to Effect Health

Social Support, Emotional Adjustment and Physical Health in Cancer Patients

Other factors Ferraro mentioned as contributing to her quality of life have also been shown to be related to emotional and physical well being in individuals with cancer. These include her religious support network, health care team, friends, and family. All of these support systems have been shown to be important in helping someone with cancer keep a positive outlook, as well as resulting in better emotional and physical functioning.

Various types of social support have proven to be strong predictors of overall adaptation in numerous cancer research outcome studies. Religion, prayer, and religious support networks have been shown to predict better emotional well-being, ability to cope with the disease, physical health, overall quality of life and fewer disease symptoms (Peterman, et al., 2002). In addition, health care providers have been reported to be particularly important sources of emotional support (Dunkel-Schetter, April 14, 2010).

Measures of social resources have shown that satisfaction with social support provided by friends is positively associated with mental and physical health (Helgeson, Snyder, & Seltman, January, 2004). However, the majority of cancer research studies on social support have shown that family support is the strongest single predictor of positive functioning in terms of better mental health, social health, general health, and self-esteem, as well as lower levels of anxiety, and depression. (Parkerson, Broadhead and Tse, Nov. 1992)

An Example to Live By

While no one can say with certainty, based on the body of cancer research and more importantly Ferraro’s own words, it is quite possible that her optimism, spirituality and the value she placed on various types of social support, contributed to her ability to survive the disease far longer than anyone had predicted. The contributions of her psychological and emotional strength, positive outlook, and the support of her family, friends and religious community were likely a large part of maintaining her mental and physical wellbeing.

Even through her most difficult days, Ferraro again proved her ability to sustain the strength to continue creating a life worth living even when forced to fight an unbeatable opponent, a skill demonstrated repeatedly during her tumultuous political career.

She did not do this alone however, as heroes constantly stood at her side encouraging her and increasing her willingness to continue the fight, to try anything that might help her live longer. These heroes consisted of her family, friends, medical team, and religious community. In addition, maintaining positive thoughts such as considering herself to be a person living with cancer instead of a survivor, hopefulness regarding the development of a cure in her lifetime, and general optimistic outlook all boosted her psychological and emotional well being. This in turn may have lead to improvements in her immune system functioning and physical resiliency.

Taken all together these factors likely interacted in a manner which contributed to her ability to resist the effects of the disease until it simply wasn’t possible anymore. This moment didn’t arrive when predicted however. She survived over 9 years longer than was thought possible, time during which she was able to enjoy a positive quality of life surrounded by those she cared about most.

A Message Worth Hearing

Geraldine Ferraro once said she hoped she lived long enough to attend the inauguration of the first woman president of the United States (AP Archived Audio, 2001). While that hope unfortunately wasn’t fulfilled, how many of us became convinced we could live out our dreams after seeing the first women nominated for the Vice Presidency of the United States?

In 2016, it’s estimated that 30,330 people were diagnosed with multiple myeloma while 12,650 failed to survive the disease (The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, 2017). In 2011, someone who will always be remembered for shattering the long established boundaries for women became one of them. But before she died she left us with an important message: Find those critical life pieces that will help you stay strong psychologically and emotionally when things are easy, so they become natural ways of responding before things get tough. Most importantly, surround yourselves with people who truly care about you as these are the ones who will encourage you to keep moving forward through bright days and dark. It is this support that will increase your ability to deal with all types of stress, allowing you to find ways to cope and remain strong in the face of even the most difficult ordeal.

Signs and Symptoms of Multiple Myeloma: Be Informed

The first symptom of myeloma is often bone pain which results from the effects that myeloma cells are having on the bone marrow. Fractures can occur as a result of the bones becoming brittle. Anemia, or a deficiency of red blood cells can cause fatigue and malaise. Compromised bone marrow can lead to recurrent infections. Peripheral neuropathy or numbness or pain in the hands and/or feet may also be early signs of the disease. People with myeloma may also have no symptoms, or common symptoms they right off as normal variations in health such as feeling weak, aches and pains or becoming tired more easily (Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, 2017).

If you have any of these symptoms it is important to see your health care provider immediately as early diagnosis leads to early treatment and an increased likelihood of sustained remission. Since the death of Geraldine Ferraro, there have been new treatments and options for care that have become available. These improvements in treatments coupled with a positive life outlook and utilizing what we can learn from Ferraro’s response to her condition mean the increased likelihood of a prolonged life.

Improve Your Physical Health by Improving Your Emotional Health

Sources

American Cancer Society, (2017). What Is Multiple Myeloma? Retrieved March 9, 2017.

Associated Press, (2011). Geraldine Ferraro eulogized as trailblazer. New Haven Register News. Retrieved March 7, 2017.

Chew, Christina, (2011, March 28), Geraldine Ferraro, First Woman on a Major Party Ticket, Dies at 75 (includes video clips). Care2make a difference. Retrieved April 10,2016.

Dana Farber Cancer Institute. (2003). Waging a campaign against cancer. Retrieved April 11, 2016.

Dunkel-Schetter, C. (2010), Social Support and Cancer: Findings Based on Patient Interviews and Their Implications. Journal of Social Issues, 40, 77–98. Retrieved April 10, 2016..

Ferrarro, G. (2001). Archived audio of speech to a Senate committee about dealing with her blood cancer. AP Audio. Retrieved April 7, 2016.

Helgeson, V. S., Snyder, P., and Seltman, H., (2004, January). Psychological and Physical Adjustment to Breast Cancer Over 4 Years: Identifying Distinct Trajectories of Change. Health Psychology, Vol 23, 3-15. Retrieved April 10, 2016.

MedicineNet.com. (n.d.). Definition of Thalidomide Baby. Retrieved April 8, 2016.

Parkerson, Jr., G. R., Broadhead, W. E., and Tse, C. K. J., (2004, February). Quality of life and functional health of primary care patients. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 45, 1303-1313. Retrieved April 11, 2016.

Peterman, A. H., Fitchett, G., Brady, M. J., Hernandez, L and Cella, D. (2002). Measuring spiritual well-being in people with cancer: The functional assessment of chronic illness therapy—spiritual well-being scale (FACIT-Sp). Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 24, pp. 49-58.

Ray O. (2004). How the mind hurts and heals the body. American Psychologist, 59(1), 29-40.

Scheier, M. F., Matthews, K. A., Owens, J. F., Magovern, G. J., Lefebvre, R. C., Abbott, R. A., Carver, C. S. (Dec. 1989). Dispositional optimism and recovery from coronary artery bypass surgery: The beneficial effects on physical and psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 1024-1040.

The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. (2017). Fighting blood cancers, someday is today. Facts and Figures 2015-2016. Retrieved April 7, 2016.

The Natural Health Perspective. (2010). The mind body connection. Retrieved April 6, 2016.

Weichselbaum, S. and Alpert, L. I., (2011). Family, friends and political allies say farewell Geraldine Ferraro at funeral. New York Daily News. Retrieved March 10, 2017.

Woo, E. (2011, March 26). Geraldine Ferraro, who shattered barrier for women as vice presidential nominee, dies at 75. Kansas City Star Online. Retrieved April 10, 2016.

© 2017 Natalie Frank

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      Greta 7 months ago

      Great article. It provides a lot of useful and interesting information. Thanks for writing this.