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Stronger Together

Meredith Vieira and Richard M. Cohen thrive as parents and partners while managing his chronic disease

In his cream-walled studio overlooking the Hudson River, Cohen writes books and columns on chronic illness, including a column for AARP The Magazine's website. His potential audience is vast and growing. An estimated 133 million Americans have at least one chronic illness, defined as a long-term disease that is usually incurable. And that number will surely climb as the population ages. "This isn't about 'them,' "Cohen says. "It's about 'us.' "

Cohen's own health history includes not only MS but two bouts with colon cancer, in 1999 and 2000, which required invasive, lifesaving surgery. But he says the emotional experience of living with a long-term condition is much the same for anyone who has one, whether it's heart disease, diabetes, or another ongoing ailment. "There are so many different diseases, and they do different things to your body," he says. "But the coping issues that go with these illnesses are remarkably similar." Via personal stories and interviews with other patient-advocates, Cohen writes about how a chronic disease can challenge one's faith in the future as well as one's sense of self-worth. He writes about how to keep pain and frustration from poisoning relationships. "People don't want me to tell them to take this cream or that pill," he says. "People want to know, 'How did you do it?' "

Cohen says his favorite coping mechanism was always denial — not necessarily of his present condition but of his future. "I hear stories about people who want to go out and buy caskets. They dig their graves prematurely," he says. But there's no point in losing a good today over the chance of a bad tomorrow. "I deny the certainty of possible outcomes," he says. "It really frees you up." Accordingly, friends say, Cohen has a hair-raising habit of crossing the street by forging straight into traffic.

But that bravado has sometimes had a downside for Cohen's family, especially early on, he admits. Their eldest child, son Ben, is now 22, but once when he was 3 years old, Cohen's creeping lack of coordination led to a terrifying moment when he accidentally bumped Ben into the gap between a standing commuter train and the station platform, sending the boy tumbling onto the tracks. Though Cohen was able to rescue the child, the chill of fear stayed with him, he wrote in Blindsided: "I do not travel anywhere in the city with a youngster in tow without replaying the videotape of that moment."

Next: Talking to the kids about chronic illness. >>

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