Breast cancer books: Even those who disagree are on the same page
Ever since former First Lady Betty Ford publicly uttered the words of “breast cancer,” causing newspaper editors to dive for their thesauruses, more and more women have come forward to tell their stories of survival and loss. And more and more scientists and medical professionals have produced manuals and resources for the lay person. No matter what memoir or personal health manual you consult, you will discover therein the tensions and controversy surrounding the screening and treatment for this disease, which afflicts about 200,000 and kills about 40,000 women each year in the United States alone. Is breast self-exam efficacious? How early and how often should women have a mammogram? Are second opinions, repeat biopsies or adjuvant therapies cost effective? These issues are hotly debated: no-brainers for some, and worthy of probing for others. What’s the takeaway? Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, says it best in “Promise Me,” her just-published memoir: “There are sharp – sometimes vehement – differences of opinion, but we’re all on the same side. We all want the same thing, which is, bluntly, fewer dead women.” Here is a sampling of recently published books on breast cancer, written in memory of loved ones, in the hope of helping others and in the spirit of saving more lives.
“The Middle Place,” by Kelly Corrigan (Voice/Hyperion, paperback, $14.99).
The author of this readable, companionable memoir is the happily married mother of two when she gets her breast-cancer diagnosis. Her mammography film reveals “an explosion” of a tumor – “a white stringy area ... that looks like a comet with tails.” In addition to modern medical science, Corrigan has a lot on her side: an abiding husband, a guardian Mom and an impossibly ebullient Dad. Cancer doesn’t give Corrigan a pass. The chemo/surgery/radiation regimen is demanding, the kids still need to get to school, there are the usual marital spats, and other beloved family members face their own encounters with mortality. At one point, while in her chemo stanchion, Corrigan gets a taste of what is to come from a more “experienced” patient: mouth sores, cramping, diarrhea, numbness, foot pain, hair loss, forgetfulness. “It’s like she’s reaching into a basket and tossing out snakes,” Corrigan writes. Lucky for us, when Corrigan reaches into her own basket, she tosses out the best of what she got from both her parents. Related web site: http://www.circusofcancer.org/.
“Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book,” by Susan M. Love, M.D., with Karen Lindsey (Da Capo, fifth-edition paperback, $22).
Dr. Love, a UCLA professor of surgery, begins her 734-page “bible for women with breast cancer” with an approachable, easy-to-understand primer on molecular biology and the roles that DNA, RNA and protein play in mutating cells. Her real interest, however, lies not so much in how abnormal cells develop, but in what causes the cell to mutate in the first place and the “neighborhood” in which it mutates. A detailed understanding of the “cross-talk” and “delicate dance” that occurs between cells, she says, offers us the greatest hope of moving past early detection toward something resembling a cure (or cures). Along with basic science, Dr. Love provides detailed information on risk factors, screening and treatment. More questions are raised than answered, with example after example of the many double-binds and conundrums women face in making their choices. Dr. Love is a vociferous champion of knowing your own body, of trusting your instincts, of challenging authority. “If the doctor argues with you, argue back,” she says. She urges women to arm themselves with as much information as possible, to fully explore their options and become partners in their own care. Dr. Love serves up her strong opinions and advice with equal shares of passion and compassion: “The more information you have, the less scared you will be,” she says. Related web site: http://www.dslrf.org/.
“After Breast Cancer: A Common-Sense Guide to Life After Treatment,” by Hester Hill Schnipper (Bantam, paperback, $16).
This book is like a cool hand on a fevered forehead. Without false hope and without robbing women of hope, Schnipper brings forward the difficult physical, social and psychological issues breast-cancer patients face once their treatment is done and they are “thrust back into the land of the well”: changing relationships, family challenges, problems with sexuality, self image, workplace expectations, and, most of all, fear of recurrence. Her knowing tone and empathic skills are hard-earned: Schnipper, a licensed social worker, had been a cancer-patient therapist for many years before she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer – not once but twice. This book will serve women even if their treatment is years behind them, if only to have their experiences validated. And it will deepen the understanding of partners, friends, neighbors, employers – anyone who loves someone with breast cancer. “You are not the person you were,” she says wisely and matter-of-factly, “and you are still working your way toward the woman you will become.” Web sites recommended by the author: http://www.celebratinglife.org/ (for African American women), http://www.lbbc.org/ (for all women affected by breast cancer), http://www.fertilehope.org/ (for those at risk of losing fertility), http://www.youngsurvival.org/ (for young women).
“Promise Me: How a Sister’s Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer,” by Nancy Brinker, with Joni Rodgers (Crown Archetype, $25.99).
Nancy Brinker and her now world-famous sister, Susan (Suzy) G. Komen, were raised by a mother who “embodied the idea of tzedaka,” a Hebrew word for righteousness, fairness or justice. For the sisters, this meant an almost daily call to arms. “When you see someone in need, you give,” their Depression-era mother once admonished during a scolding. “When you see something wrong, you fix it.” The doctrine held fast no matter how mean the giver’s circumstances. So it’s no surprise that Suzy, even in her last days as a breast-cancer patient, could be found visiting children in the cancer ward. And it’s no surprise that Nancy, blind with grief and fueled by her mother’s righteousness, began a nonprofit that since 1982 has invested $1.5 billion in breast-cancer research, screening, treatment and education. To do this, Brinker (who also was diagnosed with breast cancer) ignored every naysayer: those who told her that a breast-cancer-specific nonprofit would not be viable, those who told her that talking about breast cancer would offend delicate sensibilities, and those who told her that the color pink was “trivializing.” Her nonprofit’s giant pink embrace now extends from the United States to Egypt, Tanzania and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In her high-energy memoir, Brinker blends a vivid history of breast cancer (complete with wince-inducing surgery scenes), with memories of childhood, and stories of other women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Most poignant are the memories of her sister. “Promise ... you’ll make it change,” Suzy begged at the end of her life. Brinker has heeded that call to arms ever since. Related web site: http://www.komen.org/.
Reviewed by Sarah T. Williams, public relations director, Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota.