Sunday, 12 June 2011

Cancer as a Chronic Disease...

Before my trip to Spain, I found myself contemplating which books to bring with me. It's been a lifelong habit of mine to ambitiously take along at least two or three hefty classic tomes when travelling. Apart from weighing me down and taking up valuable space in my suitcase, I rarely get beyond the first book. Distracted by the sights, sounds and smells of being in a new country, reading the work of some deceased but cherished author usually ends up being the furthest thing from my fickle mind.

I'm usually a sucker for a good yarn but I recently discovered that when it comes to fiction, I've hit a wall. While I've been away from work, I haven't been aspiring to catch up on my Jane Austens or James Baldwins. Perhaps this is because I haven't found it necessary to lose myself in the world of someone else when my own life has been so filled with drama. But with a diagnosis of cancer always annoyingly worming its way to the forefront of my mind, I find myself lurching from wanting to escape from the medical world of tests and scans to desperately searching the net for more and more information about my illness. And this is why at the moment, it's non-fiction all the way for me.

I've just finished David Servan-Schreiber's excellent book called Anti-Cancer. Schreiber, a psychiatrist, discovered his own tumour while conducting an experiment on himself for a completely unrelated test. After a recurrence a year later, rather than following the advice of his oncologist (which was to do nothing) he embarked on intensive research into diet, exercise and lifestyle to see if there was a way in which he might be able to influence his health. Seven years later he's still alive with no recurrences. The book is well-researched, searingly honest (he talks in detail about the breakdown of his marriage during this time) and has none of the new-age, anti-conventional medicine bullshit that you often get with other complementary health books. If I hadn't read it so intensely and enthusiastically the first time round, this would have been my number one choice for Spain.

But when it comes to fiction, the appearance of the big 'C' is always an ominous one. There are few stories on screen or in novels where someone is diagnosed with cancer and bounces back to work after a few months of chemo. Cancer is often the tool that ruins relationships, gets rid of the dutiful wife, kills off the only child and gives grandma or grandpa a few months left to reassess their life.

What I'd really like to read is a tale about a women who gets cancer, beats the nasty disease into submission, eats super healthily and then falls in love with her oncologist on the way. She then starts to grow her own herbs, finds a cure for cancer in one of the seeds which she combines with chemo (with the help of oncologist husband) to kick cancer's butt to oblivion. Everyone is cured, a national holiday is declared in her name and er, that's it. We all live happily ever after.

The End.

Okay. Maybe I'm never going to win the Pulitzer prize with a dodgy plot line like that and I doubt whether Mr Spielberg is going to be knocking on my door with a six-figure offer of a film deal, but... in all serious, in would be great to find a work of fiction or non-fiction about cancer that is both flippant and honest at the same time. The closest that I ever got to this was Marisa Ococella Marchetto's funny graphic novel about her 'it-girl' life in New York before the big 'C' knocked on her door.

I can't really think of any others. There seems to be nowhere in the world of fiction where cancer is treated like a chronic disease. But I guess this lacks drama and conflict and let's face it, how many great works of literature are there where the protagonist has diabetes or high blood pressure that they just learn to live with ? Not many. Before I go, I'll leave you with this great comment piece that I discovered recently written by a young lady who has metastatic breast cancer. She echoes my sentiments entirely.


  1. Fantastic post! "Anti-Cancer" has been an inspiration to my wife and I as she 'rebounds' through the chemo process. It's so well written and the science behind it appears to be very strong. Since reading it I've been making massive organic juices every day for Laura. Also, a huge thanks for the Guardian commentary. At the grocery store today Laura received two or three "pity stares" as we shopped. With one chemo treatment left, breast cancer has just become part of our lives and the 'pity stares' of strangers have grown quite tiresome.

  2. thanks for your comment Jim and glad you enjoyed the post. And I understand completely about those 'pity' stares - I get them on a fairly regular basis ! Sounds like you're a great support to your wife. And fantastic news that she's come to the end of her chemo. Make sure you plan something nice to do. I went out for a slap-up meal with friends which was really lovely.