Called Back – Book Club

Days behind again.  Hospitalization taking longer to recover from than I optimistically anticipated.  And our selection, Called Back – My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life,  took longer to read and digest than most other cancer narratives we have covered.  This is, we observe in her on-line interview, part of what author, Mary Cappello, intended.  In that interview she talks about the more typical form of cancer narrative as being “culturally prescribed”.  She notes a certain sameness being offered up whether as a breast cancer blog, self-help advice, or traditional text.  She likened these messages as to narrative Muzak, a restive background mix of moralizing and sentimentality.  Cappello set out to offer readers a different “set of tones.”

Two factors seem to guide Cappello’s story.  One, she is an academic and part of a feminist/intellectual tradition.  Second, her sexual identify as a lesbian has informed her cancer experience.  Although she is a professor of English and Creative Writing, she places her line of thinking under the broader category of semiotics, “the study of sign processes (semiosis), or signification and communication, signs and symbols…”

It is this focus which slows her narrative down into a kind of deconstruction that stops to analyze the various rituals and texts that codify entrance into the world of cancer and its treatment.  And it is this approach to her experience that makes Cappello’s narrative stand out from others, offering, as mentioned, “a different set of tones.”

“That I have cancer is not new, but it’s news to me….It’s been with me for years, but now it is announcing itself.  What’s new is that it’s readable.  My cancer has become legible.  But evidently it’s been happening, in its own way, silently residing for a long, long time.”

This is a woman who takes Proust (Swann’s Way) to treatment with her and weaves his various ideas about the “anesthetizing influence of habit” into her own approaching encounter with breast cancer surgery, breaking up her own story with periodic Proustian quotations.

“There is no verb in the English language for how a body is forced to comply inside an MRI machine.  “Lolling’ doesn’t convey anxiety’s mutations there, though it does begin to broach the ridiculous suspension of two breasts displayed downward in holes cut in the table.  You lie on your stomach attached to everything and nothing, to the whoosh of air, to a lit tunnel, dark on either endyou hang onto the movement of your own breathing, knowing if you continue to breathe too fast you’ll dissolve.”

Later she reflects that her surgeon, who had placed her own gloved hands so intimately inside the author’s body in order to gain a palpable sense of diseased nodes, will later rarely even offer the most casual brush of her hand.  Cappello continues to dissect the minutia of her experience, much like her Proust.

I will be interested in hearing you reactions to this interesting book.  The author has hinted that she may join the discussion.  Please read the third chapter, on chemotherapy, for next week.


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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