“The thing you need to know about me is that I am George Corrigan’s daughter…” So begins this dual-cancer narrative by Kelly Corrigan, a professional writer amd a breast cancer survivor. In the book she will intertwine the stories of her own cancer as well as her father’s concurrent battle with late-stage cancer. In reflecting upon cancer memoirs, it is always interesting to note whether the survivor is a writer professionally. Cancer effects everyone regardless of occupation. So it bounds to strike writers periodically. And for someone who engages with the world via writing, writing about cancer is a natural outlet. I have found that cancer memoirs written by writers are marked by a certain easy eloquence with language. Expressions are quotable. Emotions are captured with a certain lightness and precision.
Corrigan sets out to write her tale in the very specific context of being the only daughter of her bigger-then-life father. In order to do that she chooses to constantly weave the present tale of her battle with cancer with past tales of growing up in the Corrigan household. While this does much to elucidate how one’s bringing up influences our response to cancer, some readers, anxious to proceed with the cancer part of the narrative, will find these discursions an interruption to the flow of the story.
As we have seen in a number of other cancer books, setting the current battle with cancer in some family context is not uncommon. In Corrigan’s case her ongoing relationship with her father overshadows her cancer story. In other narratives family history is just part of the setting. George Corrigan is a natural salesman, a more fulfilled version of Willy Loman (Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman). People gravitate to him. He dominates the room. He assigns nicknames not only to his family and friends, but to everyone he daily encounters – waitresses, clerks, and gas station attendants.
“He defined me, as parents do. Those early characterizations can become the shimmering self-image we embrace or the limited, stifling perception we rail against for a lifetime. In my case he sees me as I would like to be seen. In fact, I’m not even sure what’s true about me, since I have always chosen to believe his version.”
The discovery of her lump is casual, as it must be for many breast cancer survivors. The initial confirmation by a physician and the follow-up guided needle biopsy are also familiar territory. What doesn’t always get mentioned is the “perverse” wish for a cancer diagnosis, if only to affirm our hypochondria in seeking medical attention. Equally familiar is the immediate impulse “to take back my perverse thoughts and promise whoever may have heard them that no matter what flashes of curiosity I may have had, I definitely, definitely, don’t want cancer.”
When she first tells her father of her diagnosis, he responds in an affirmative way, “I’m just saying you can do this, Lovet. You’re special. I’ve always said it. You’re a very special girl, that’s all.”
At a recent cancer book club I attend, some members thought that Edward, Kelly’s husband was neglected in the telling of this tale. The occasional attention he does receive in the narrative is positive. In a shower scene after Kelly has gone through the public ritual of cutting her hair before it falls out, he tells her “I’m serious … you can do this … you have such a pretty face.” She reples, “You’re such a good husband, and that is such an important thing to be.”
Next Reading Assignment” Chapters 15-28, to page 187.
Discussion Questions: Continue to focus on relationships. What are your thoughts on how Kelly responds to her father’s cancer situation?