The Adventures of Cancer Bitch – a review

Mondays are book days.  Most of the time we feature the Being Cancer Book Club.  I am experimenting with a three-week instead of a four-week format.  But my other task is expanding the Reviews section. Thus today’s offering.  I chose this book because I am adding a Books By Bloggers section to our Book List feature.

The Adventures of Cancer Bitch by Sandi Wisenberg

A person’s response to cancer reflects that person’s personality, their upbringing, and their culture as well as their biology.  These differences are what we find interesting about their stories although it may be the universality of the cancer experience that we hope to discover and, in doing so, find affirmation of our own.  Cancer blogger, Sandi Wisenberg, happens to be a professional writer.  Not all cancer writers are.  She demonstrates her talents easily with phrases like – “It’s the subtlety of it, as cruel as a mean girl’s gossip, almost not there but there.“

Her “Cancer Bitch” reads like someone who has thrown herself open to the experience, emotionally and intellectually buffeted by the currents, recording everything just as it washes over her.  She takes us through the drama of her diagnosis of breast cancer, her mastectomy and aftercare, fussing with drainage tubes and specialty apparel.

“The Adventures of Cancer Bitch” took an atypical route for cancer memoirs.  The tone is very straightforward, cynical at times, whimsical at others.  It is largely an unsentimental telling.  The author does not appeal so directly to our emotions.  Nor does the success of the book depend upon humor.  Indeed the prominent variations found in books about cancer experiences fall into either the “cancer profoundly changed my life for the better” camp or the “I had to laugh so I wouldn’t cry” school.

The author’s strong political convictions prompt her to question the purity of motive of big corporations acting as sponsors for cancer fundraising events, the well-publicized, media-blanketed events that allow everyone to feel good about the ’cause’.  Where do the dollars go?  research into more effective drugs with ever-higher profit margins? or prevention and early detection efforts? or solving the even more politically treacherous questions about what factors of modern life (shampoos, deodorants, food additives) contribute to cancer risk in the first place.  Still…they are raising money to combat the cancer lurking so threateningly in her body. Her political reaction is conflicted.

Later she deals with the issue of pain. “The topic for today is pain and pain – pain that causes weeping and pain that comes from weeping, and how difficult it is to tell the difference between the two.”  And the pain of depression, “soul corroding depression.  The kind of depression where the world seems like a vast desert and there nothing to connect to, to hold onto, that every human in the universe is just a little desperate bucket of misery just going after distraction.  And you carry on a conversation in the midst of this depression, but the conversation is going on in a parallel, pretend world, what’s real is the feeling underneath you can’t shake, that nothing matters.  And you can’t stand it.”

Her anxiety sets in motion a confluence of both suffering and depression.  “Underneath the suffering was psychic pain, which is an entity, but I can deal with an entity, it is better than the erosion created by depression, which is more absent than absence, depression is the oxygen-gulping aridness of the world…So there is no part of you left that can slither its way around and get its interest quickened by an idea or person or mind or glazed Moroccan tiles.  There is no room for beauty … There is only the ash that’s left after a fire, after a long, long rain.”

Everyone deals with cancer in their own way.  The way we respond to the experience of cancer is very much mediated by our character, personality, upbringing, and other important life experiences.  The author has found an original voice to tell her tale.  The author’s unique persona is exemplified by the section near the end of the book titled “An Accounting”.  Many cancer accounts include a “what I have learned” section and “Cancer Bitch” is no exception here.  But even here she avoids sentimentality, hilarity, and “tired inspirational quotes”.  There is real, honest, hard-earned advice here.

“Some people don’t know how to react to a cancer diagnosis and will disappear”  Many fellow travelers have confirmed this to me. “Don’t think about people who died (of cancer)”  Your friends will avoid this topic like the plague, and instead will only remind you of all the people who did well.  “That you can switch oncologists” is advice that some of us could have, should have taken but for our fear.

“That the person with whom you were friendly, who was there when you received the cancer phone call, will be decidedly unempathetic and in the course of a year, will never ask how you are doing.”  This may sound cynical, even anger, but honest it is.  Too often we do not talk about the anger we are feeling because of the cancer.

When I asked her about her “Cancer Bitch” tag, the author told me in an email “it has allowed me to be more arch and sarcastic in my writing, while at the same time being self-critical. This is especially so when I write about Cancer Bitch in the third person.”

“That you prefer medical care by women.” It is certainly easy to imagine that, especially for breast, gynecological, and even prostate cancers, the sex of the practitioner might be relevant in how comfortable we feel.

Though Wisenberg does not try to make humor a theme in her writing, she doesn’t lack a sense of irony.  “That in hospitals they still wake you up to see how you are doing.”  “That you sister will call you after every chemo” suggest both irony and understated gratitude.

The author ends the book with an account of participating in a cancer march.  She suggest that the sponsoring institution might well have a double agenda – not only to honor the survivors but also to advertise its role in combating cancer.  Is this cynical?  Maybe, but having been on the corporate aide of healthcare, I can attest that visibility at such public events is essential to the public relations concerns of healthcare systems.

In her closing paragraph Wisenberg, again in the third person, refers to herself as “a cynical Cancer Bitch.”  She resents the fact that no one at her treating hospital “had done anything to commemorate my last round of chemo.”  But then she imagines that at next year’s march, she might bring all her “chemo escorts” to march beside her.  “It might be meaningful.  It might be festive.”                                        Order from Amazon: The Adventures of Cancer Bitch

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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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