Peruse the health section of any well-stocked bookstore and you'll find a number of inspirational stories penned by patients who have transformed their lives after being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.

These stories are not unique. They're shared by millions of patients across this country; ordinary people who tap into an extraordinary human ability to convert misfortune into an opportunity to see and live life differently — often even better than before.

Choosing Hope

When dealt a devastating blow such as a poor medical prognosis, you essentially have two choices, says Barry Bittman, M.D., a neurologist who has helped hundreds of cancer patients at his Mind-Body Wellness Center (http://www.mind-body.org) in western Pennsylvania. You can choose hopelessness, or hope. The hopeless proceed to get "things" in order, he says. "They go through the five stages of grief defined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). They revamp their wills, tidy up their safe deposit boxes, lie down and die — often on cue."

The hopeful gain strength from adversity. They decide to get their "lives" in order. Their fighting spirit gives way to "planting gardens, teaching Sunday school, playing with grandchildren, volunteering time for others, and expressing their love," says Bittman. And guess what? These folks usually do not die on schedule.

Illness Is Life-Changing

Nothing has the power to change your life like a life-threatening illness. Sharon says her cancer quickly crowded out the unimportant and made room for what had been missing. "I'm putting myself and the things that are important to me first," she says.

Before being diagnosed in 1996, Sharon was the classic "superwoman" — bent on doing everything — and pleasing everyone. She was not unlike Valerie S., a 52-year-old self-sufficient homemaker who was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995. Because her cancer had been caught early, Valerie felt lucky and in control. She went about her business as usual, racing to and from errands after doctors' appointments. "I didn't have time for cancer," she says.

But four years later when the cancer returned, Valerie's attitude changed. "The first time, I didn't tell my mother too much about my condition and treatment because I didn't want to cause her worry," she explains. After the recurrence, Valerie asked her mother to accompany her to nearly every appointment with her oncologist and surgeon.

Putting Yourself First

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to coping with a life-threatening disease, but survivors do have something in common: They make themselves the center of their healing. They do research, ask questions, attend classes and make lifestyle changes to support their body and spirit.

"I think the most important thing I learned from my breast cancer experience is how to put myself first when needed," says Nancy L., 54 and a nine-year breast cancer survivor. "When I was diagnosed, it took every ounce of energy I had to get well, and I could not focus on the needs of anyone else. It was something I had never done before."