Narratives

A Burst of Light by Audre Lorde (Firebrand Books, 1988).

A collection of prose that focuses on the experiences and beliefs of Audre Lorde. “Living With Cancer,” the longest and most personal section of the book, consists of select passages from Lorde’s journal from the three years following her diagnosis with liver cancer. The passages highlight her efforts to live a normal life while dealing with the knowledge that cancer is invading her body. It is a look into her emotions and thoughts unadulterated by the politically charged issues of her essays. The book is not only a chronicle of Lorde’s experience with disease but a view of her sparring with injustice, whether the oppressors are the South African police, the American government, or malignant cells within her body.

After the Cure: The Untold Stories of Breast Cancer Survivors by Emily Abel and Saskia Subramanian (NYU Press, 2010).

A compelling read filled with portraits of more than seventy women living with the aftermath of breast cancer. Emily Abel is one of these women. She and her colleague, Saskia Subramanian, interview more than seventy breast cancer survivors who suffer from post-treatment symptoms. Having heard repeatedly that “the problems are all in your head,” many don’t know where to turn for help. Most narratives about surviving breast cancer end with the conclusion of chemotherapy and radiation, painting stereotypical portraits of triumphant survivors, women who not only survive but emerge better and stronger than before. Here, survivors step out of the shadows and speak, giving voice to the complicated, often painful realities of life after the “cure.” Read a Breast Cancer Consortium Review »

At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness by Arthur Frank (Houghton Mifflin, 1991).

In this deeply affecting memoir, Arthur W. Frank explores the events of illness from within: the transformation from person to patient, the pain, the wonder,and the ceremony of recovery. To illuminate what illness can teach us about life, Frank draws upon his own encounters with serious illness — a heart attack at age thirty-nine and, a year later, a diagnosis of cancer. In poignant and clear prose, he offers brilliant insights into what happens when our bodies and emotions are pushed to extremes. Ultimately, he examines what it means to be human. Arthur W. Frank received the Natalie Davis Spingarn Writer’s Award from the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship in 1996. Read a review from the New England Journal of Medicine »

Being Sarah: a true story about choice, control and breast cancer by Sarah Horton (Wordscapes 2010).

A life-affirming, honest, opinionated, humorous and thought-provoking read that follows Sarah Horton on her breast cancer odyssey, as she starts looking for a treatment plan that suits her, asking for choices, for second opinions, and answers to her questions. And there are so many questions: in a field where so little is certain, what’s best for me? Why do we concentrate on cure rather than prevention? Is our terror about breast cancer sanitised and diluted by the ‘pink’ movement? And will I die? And there aren’t always answers. From the minutiae of getting through each day to the wider feelings of rage, hope, sadness, fear, loss, joy and helplessness, Being Sarah is about life, death, questions, options and choices.  ‘Highly Commended’ by the British Medical Association’s 2011 Book Awards.

Examining Myself: One Woman’s Story of Breast Cancer Treatment and Recovery by Musa Mayer (Faber and Faber, 1993).

When Musa Mayer’s breast cancer was first diagnosed, none of the accounts she read fully addressed what, to her, was the most important aspect – the human, psychological dimensions of the illness and recovery. In this beautifully crafted memoir Musa Mayer chronicles her experience of several years with cancer, from biopsy and diagnosis to mastectomy, chemotherapy and reconstructive surgery. She describes fears of recurrence and death, evaluating treatment options, dealing effectively with the medical establishment, and seeking support. Amy Langer called Examining Myself “required reading for the woman who has taken the bold step of confronting her breast cancer head on and permitting it to reach her heart and soul.”

FoxBookCoverFrom Zero to Mastectomy: What I Learned and You Need to Know About Stage 0 Breast Cancer by Jackie Fox (Gretna, Nebraska: Honyocker Press, 2010).

From Zero to Mastectomy chronicles Jackie Fox’s journey through the unique challenges of stage 0 DCIS breast cancer. Although not life-threatening, DCIS can require the same treatment and cause the same stress as advanced cancers. When Fox’s oncologist tried to reassure her by saying her DCIS was not “real cancer,” she responded, “It’s close enough! Someone sign me up for the fake mastectomy!” Fox describes her journey with humor, candor and compassion. A Q&A chapter with Fox’s medical team addresses common questions. Library Journal named it one of the Best Consumer Health Books of 2010. Readers can gain important insights from this book, especially when it is understood within a wider view of breast cancer and the emerging consensus that DCIS may not be the big ‘C’ many once thought it to be. Read a Breast Cancer Consortium Review »

Intoxicated by my Illness and Other Writings On Life and Death by Anatole Broyard (Fawcett Columbine, 1992).

A writer, book critic, and editor of The New York Times Book Review, Anatole Broyard writes several powerfully funny and serious essays about his diagnosis with metastatic prostate cancer in 1989. He wrote them in the 14-month period before he died. Kirkus Reviews writes: “This is not Dylan Thomas’s raging against the night, but instead the consistent and steady application of the thinking mind against the awful austerities and urgencies of death. “Writing a book,” says Broyard,  “would be a counterpoint to my illness. It would force the cancer to go through my character before it can get to me.” Crisp and to the point, Broyard’s writing reflects his perspective. “I see everything with a summarizing eye. Nature is a terrific editor.”

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic Books, 2012).

Throughout his ordeal with esophageal cancer, Hitchens adamantly refused the solace of religion. Hitchens poignantly describes the torments of illness, discusses its taboos, and explores how disease transforms experience and changes our relationship to the world around us. By turns personal and philosophical, Hitchens embraces the full panoply of human emotions as cancer invades his body and compels him to grapple with the enigma of death. Mortality is the most meditative collection of writing Hitchens has  produced; at once an unsparingly honest account of the ravages of his disease, an examination of cancer etiquette, and the coda to a lifetime of fierce debate prose. In this eloquent confrontation with mortality, Hitchens returns a human face to a disease that has become a contemporary cipher of suffering.

Ordinary Life: A Memoir of Illness by Kathlyn Conway (W.H. Freeman Press, 1997). 

This book is a striking departure from the literature of illness and a remarkable literary work. The stories we typically hear about people with serious illness are set up as heroic tales that emphasize triumph over adversity or portray illness as a transformative event that makes the survivor “a better person.” In this compelling account written Conway gives a deeply honest description of her struggle with breast cancer and its many reverberations through her everyday life, bringing us to the heart of the experience of illness without preachiness or sentimentality. Conway did not experience breast cancer as a means for reevaluating her life, but as a terrible threat to her future and that of her family. In her willingness to share this story, Conway gives not only an unsettling portrait of our everyday mortality but a renewed appreciation of life itself.

The Cancer Culture Chronicles by Rachel Cheetham Moro (Blurb.com, 2012).

The collected writings of my friend Rachel Cheetham Moro, who died in February 2012, aged 41, of metastatic breast cancer. Rachel began blogging about her breast cancer experiences in June 2009 after her second breast cancer recurrence and continued writing until her death. This book is a compilation of her blog posts, fearlessly, ruthlessly and, at times, humorously looking at the world a terminal breast cancer patient endures. The constant and debilitating treatments and the constant and debilitating culture. Post after post, Rachel pointed her informed, articulate and opinionated pen at breast cancer charities and self-promoting activists who ‘race for the cure’ but put diminishing funding into research – and none at all into metastatic research; pretending everything will be all right if we “stay positive and think pink.” Read a Breast Cancer Consortium Review »

The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde (Aunt Lute Books, 1997).

Originally published in 1980, Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals offers a profoundly feminist analysis of her experience with breast cancer and a modified radical mastectomy. Moving between journal entry, memoir, and exposition, Lorde fuses the personal and political and refuses the silencing and invisibility that she experienced both as a woman facing her own death and as a woman coping with the loss of her breast. Lorde asks how her “experiences with cancer fit into the larger tapestry” of the history of women and her “work as a Black woman.” The book is a part of her lifelong attempt to write all her experiences, even when they do not fit in neat categories. After Lorde died in 1992, women from all over the U.S. and beyond paid tribute to her in essays and poems. Aunt Lute’s special edition of The Cancer Journals gathers together twelve such tributes.

The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness and Ethics by Arthur Frank (University of Chicago, 1995).

The Wounded Storyteller is a collective portrait of ill people who are more than victims of disease or patients of medicine; they are wounded storytellers. People tell stories to make sense of their suffering; when they turn their diseases into stories, they find healing. Drawing on the work of authors such as Oliver Sacks, Anatole Broyard, Norman Cousins, and Audre Lorde, as well as from people he met during the years he spent among different illness groups, Frank recounts a stirring collection of illness stories, ranging from the well-known—Gilda Radner’s battle with ovarian cancer—to the private testimonials of people with cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, and disabilties. Their stories are more than accounts of personal suffering: they abound with moral choices and point to a social ethic. Frank identifies three basic narratives of illness in restitution, chaos, and quest. Restitution narratives anticipate getting well again and give prominence to the technology of cure. In chaos narratives, illness seems to stretch on forever, with no respite or redeeming insights. Quest narratives are about finding that insight as illness is transformed into a means for the ill person to become someone new. Frank then helps us to see which of these types of stories are accepted in our culture, and therefore allowed to be told.



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