Choosing Cancer Books



I made a quick trip to the downtown library to choose a book off the cancer shelves for this month’s book club selection.  Before I left home I grabbed all the spare change I could find.  Pulling up to the curb, I thrust three dimes and two nickels into the meter – enough for 32 minutes.  I passed the meter guy writing tickets. I walked the block to the library entrance, climbed the stairs thru to the old building, then across the wide atrium of the new building and took the escalators to the third floor.  I went to the wrong end of the building before finally finding four sections of floor to ceiling shelves constituting the cancer section – 616.994 of the Dewey Decimal System.

So the scene is set.  I have already used up ten minutes and would need five minutes to beat the meter guy back to my truck.  Barely fifteen minutes to pick the perfect book for August.  Standing there looking at those hundreds of books, I began thinking about my selection criteria.  What was I looking for?  What would the blog’s readers find interesting?

Books that are very specifically and very factually about one cancer are out.  The blog readership is too broad for a comprehensive look at breast or prostate cancer.  I am not comfortable with books on alternative treatments though complimentary approaches could be fine.  I have imagined that purely narrative works can be the most compelling and the most literary.

But then I see on the display case “The Secret History of the War a on Cancer” by Devra Davis, proposing that “for much of its history, the cancer war has been fighting the wrong battles, with the wrong weapons, against the wrong enemies.”  This author argues that too little effort has been focused on the causes of cancer in modern life and on efforts to prevent cancer in the first place.  I have sensed a political and social sensitivity in my readers.  So this book might have an appeal.

And if I am correct about that then surely the army of breast cancer bloggers would find “The Breast Cancer Wars” compelling reading.  Written by Barron H. Lerner, MD, the book is subtitled “Hope, Fear, and the Pursuit of Cure in Twentieth-Century America.”  The current awareness and visibility of the breast cancer community is a direct result of the history of activism set forth in this book, as is the collection over over 120 breast cancer bloggers found in “Cancer Blog Links”.

An unconventional book called “Lisa’s Story: the other shoe” also caught my eye.  Readers of the nationally syndicated comic strip “Funky Winkerbean” will be familiar with this serialised story of a young woman’s fight with breast cancer.  She achieves remission, finishes her law degree, has a child, and then relapses.  And all of this is captured in a comic strip style.  Written and illustrated by Tom Batiuk.

One book on a wholistic approach to cancer might meet my criteria.  “Return to Wholeness: Embracing Body, Mind, and Spirit in the Face of Cancer” is written by David Simon, MD, the medical director of Deepak Chopra’s Center for Well-being.  It features a complimentary approach highlighting nutrition, complimentary vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and herbs, and incorporating meditation, creative visualization, and aroma therapy.  The book also offers specific advice on breast, prostate and colon cancers.

“Time on Fire” by Evan Handler is one of the books as I hoping to find.  A member of my local transplant support group had highly recommended it last year.  Handler is a well-recognized actor with roles on Lost, The West Wing, Ransom, and Taps but is most well-known for his work on Sex and the City as Charlotte’s husband, Harry.  Subtitled “A Comedy of Terrors” this first book chronicles his fight with acute leukemia “shot through with anger, humor, and piercing eloquence.”  My friend promised that his second book “It’s Only Temporary: The Good News and Bad News of Being Alive” is equally as good.

I grabbed each of these books from the shelves, secured the stack under my chin, and shuttled quickly to my truck.  Pink parking tickets under the windshield wipers of the first two  cars in my row, but none on my truck.  The meter showed just one minute left.

August Book Club Selection

August Book Club Selection

Once home I spread the books out on my desk and looked at them more closely.  This past week I have stumbled onto a cache of ovarian cancer blogs.  They seem to have a strong inner community.  So perhaps it is appropriate that my selection for August is “The Light Within: the Extraordinary Friendship of a Doctor and Patient Brought Together by Cancer”When young gynecologic oncology fellow Lois Ramondetta was first summoned to the room of a new patient, neither she nor the forty-nine-year-old professor of religion she encountered named Deborah Sills thought they had much in common. They certainly had no idea that they were about to embark on a transcendent odyssey that would become a soul-deep friendship. Now their heartfelt story, The Light Within, follows these two women through a decade of friendship and “big lives”—husbands, children, friends, and careers—ultimately crossing the country and traveling to foreign lands, where they spoke and wrote together about the intersection of doctors, patients, and spirituality. Both women searched together and openly for answers with honesty and intimacy until Deborah passed away in the spring of 2006.

One reviewer wrote “This book is an extraordinary account of a deep friendship between a terminal cancer patient and a surgeon – the sort of thing that “is not supposed to happen.” The physician allows her empathy for the dying patient to blossom into a full-blown, outside-of-the-hospital friendship including international travel together, and culminating in the writing of this book. The patient, a professor of comparative religion, maintains her zest for life and outgoing personality until the disease gets the best of her. The physician, having an undergraduate degree in comparative religion, is taken in by deep conversations and the importance of living in the present insisted on by the patient. The two form a poignant picture of caring friends, interrupted only by the disease itself. Quite a story! One of those “can’t put it down” books.” (Samuel Epstein)

We have all had more or less intimate relationships with our oncologist or transplant physician.  So I thought that this extraordinary relationship, especially with its focus on spiritual issues, would give this cancer community some reading satisfaction.  The first reading assignment will be given out on our regular Monday Book Club post.  So check out your local library or bookstore.  Or else order from Amazon.  I will try to get my software to accept an ad from Amazon so you can order it direct from this site.


About Dennis Pyritz

Dennis W. Pyritz, RN, BA, BSN, has been a cancer nurse since 1987 and a cancer and bone marrow transplant survivor since 2004. In December 2001 he was diagnosed with t-cell prolymphocytic leukemia (T-PLL), a rare aggressive form of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Dennis was treated with the then new monoclonal antibody, alemtuzumab (Campath) as this disease has a median survival of 7.5 months. He achieved a 26 month remission but relapsed in February 2004. He was retreated with Campath and went into a second remission. In August 2004 he underwent an allogeneic peripheral blood stem cell transplant with his brother, Mark, as donor. Dennis has remained in remission since - a near miracle. Throughout his career as cancer nurse and patient, Dennis has had the opportunity to speal to both lay and professional groups. Dennis has spoken on cancer topics and survival issues across the country as well as in the United Kingdom, Norway, Austria, Portugal, Honduras, Panama, Guatemala, Trinidad, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Cyrpus, Israel, and India.

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