A Galvanizing Journey
A review of Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Cancer Book
It can strike at any age. It can be an inexorable sentence of death, and it will affect nearly half of American men and a third of women at some time in their lives.
It is cancer. Beginning with an aberrant cell that goes amok, multiplying into millions of progeny that invade the normal tissue around them and sometimes spread through the body to destroy distant tissues and organs, cancer is a formidable enemy. And as a medical verdict it brings its burden, physically and emotionally, to all it affects and those who care about them.
A half century of research and new technology have made prodigious gains against cancer, pushing it back along a broad front and providing longer lives and cures for many of those it afflicts. But cancer continues to win many of its onslaughts, and confronting it on a daily basis can be a test of human endurance. Its treatment can seem unbearable. And it can force heartrending decisions on those it affects and those who treat them.
Chicken Soup for the Soul—The Cancer Book presents a panoply of the experiences and views of patients, family members, physicians, nurses, and others involved in the meshwork of cancer. Each of their stories reveals courage in its varied forms. And many are stories of transformation: of finding unsuspected strength, love, forgiveness, gratitude, humor, interests, and talents that might have otherwise gone unrealized.
What if one were to stop viewing cancer as something that victimizes and instead find in it a source of inspiration? As a gift toward a deeper and more meaningful life instead of an all-consuming struggle? “My mom has no breasts, no uterus, and no hair, and my dad still loves her. That’s the kind of love I want,” a cancer patient’s daughter tells her boyfriend. And a former patient tells us that “now, with great pleasure, I still have a nose,” relating how, after discovering a nosebleed that turns out to be a malignant tumor and seeing doctors who offer radiation, chemotherapy, and removal of his nose followed by facial reconstruction surgery, he finds a surgeon in a small-town hospital who completely removes his tumor without leaving any mark.
Bravery is recurrent in the stories told in The Cancer Book. Telling how she and her husband “believed that our dues had been paid in the bad luck lottery” through having already lost a young daughter to cancer, the mother of a fourteen-year-old son who has battled acute lymphoblastic leukemia for eight years relates that despite this, he “goes to school, has friends, and lives with laughter.” And courage inspired by love is also recurrent, as shown in the story of a man who has battled cancer of the head and neck revealed by a lump he discovered while shaving. “Not great news for a forty-year-old with a wife, five-year-old twins…and a load of bills to pay,” he recalls, as he faces a half-neck dissection followed by radiation and chemotherapy. Explaining that “If my children only remembered me for not giving up, it would have been enough,” he concludes that although he has a permanently stiff neck and chronic pain three years after the end of his treatment, “The tests I’ve been given have made my life more fulfilling.”
And as a test of the soul, cancer elicits the full scale of emotion. When a wife doubts her ability to continue having radiation therapy for breast cancer, her husband, in an act of frustration, picks up a sledgehammer and tears apart their front porch, which had been invaded by wood rot. “I couldn’t tear the cancer out of you,” he tells her, “so I tore down the front porch instead.”
“Thanks, honey,” she replies, “by tearing down the porch you let the light shine in, and not just into our bedroom.” As he looks around the sunlit room he realizes that “the light that filled the space was the light of hope.”
But acceptance is also among the reactions evoked by cancer.
“There is a certain amount of freedom in accepting what you cannot control,” says a patient who has had an adrenal gland removed to eliminate a malignant tumor. And describing a situation not uncommon in some families, she relates how members of her family do not mention the word “cancer” and do not ask her how she feels because they may be afraid of what she will say. Despite her situation, she concludes that “I feel more alive than ever,” and that “I am going to live the rest of my life as a more loving, giving, and thankful person.”
Acceptance is likewise related by an oncologist describing a patient with incurable ovarian cancer who, after eleven years, can endure no more chemotherapy. Having “an inner sense of tranquility,” he recounts, she “had an unspoken faith and never questioned why she’d been stricken” with the disease. Her life reiterated “that in addition to being a pathology…cancer was also a way of being.”
The same oncologist also sheds light on physicians’ feelings about cancer, telling us that in delivering his diagnosis to this woman, “I felt my professional shield take its place.” Describing this shield as a “neutral position that could almost be interpreted as indifference,” he explains it as something physicians sometimes need to save them from “being blown away” by their own emotion.
But Chicken Soup for the Soul—The Cancer Book also shows us that their emotions also benefit those who treat cancer. An oncologist describes his joy when, years after having stopped a rare cancer in a teenage girl who had a newborn baby, he encounters her once again. She is now a professional nurse, with her baby a grown daughter at her side. Citing her as an example of the patients in whose lives “I had made a difference,” he tells us that such successes “made it possible for me to go on, day by day, trying to elbow death out of the way.”
Ultimately, the experience of cancer can motivate patients and their loved ones to help others at the community and even the nationwide level. When his wife loses a four-year battle with ovarian cancer, her husband establishes Lotsa Helping Hands, a web-based service now working throughout the United States by which members of a community can provide meals, transport, child care, and other services for local cancer patients and their families. The mother of a nineteen-year-old girl who succumbs to cancer keeps a promise to her daughter to “do something to make a difference” and establishes Melissa’s Living Legacy Teen Cancer Foundation to help other youngsters stricken by the disease.
And noting that cancer develops in approximately 68,000 young adults each year, a man who thirteen years earlier won a battle against brain cancer establishes the now global organization named I’m Too Young For This! Cancer Foundation to help such young people. Writing that “I’m now married, an author, a radio talk show host…and big mouth rabble-rouser in the cancer universe,” he concludes that “I couldn’t ask for a better life.”
In its transforming purpose, Chicken Soup for the Soul—The Cancer Book also offers readers and their loved ones some personal guidance for dealing with cancer. It begins this when a patient asks us: What if cancer happened for you instead of to you? Taking it in this way, she continues, propels us away from the role of being its victim, toward self-realization and empowerment, which, she adds “nobody can do…except you.” Advising us that cancer is also “a time to claim authority and speak up,” she reminds us that we have the power of choice about the doctors who treat us, the treatments they provide and how they will affect us, and our long-term prospects. And pointing out that cancer “is just a word,” she reminds us that we can decide how we will respond to it, and that we are free “to move through all it brings with gratitude and love.”
--Kenneth W. Lane
Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Cancer Book
101 Stories of Courage, Support, and Love
A support group you can hold in your hands, these intimate stories by cancer patients and their loved ones, medical professionals, clergy and friends, are a must-read for anyone affected by cancer. Writers share all their experiences — from the initial diagnosis, to breaking the news to loved ones, to discussing the effect on home, school, and work. Stories also cover securing a medical team, living through an ever-changing self-image, the embarrassment of losing hair, and discovering a new spirituality. A bonus book — a no-holds-barred memoir by cancer patient Elizabeth Bayer — is bound into this volume, after the full-length Chicken Soup for the Soul book.
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