January 16th, 2012
Maintaining a sense of ourselves is one of the great unanticipated challenges of cancer treatment. When you have a brief illness or accident that lays you up for even a few weeks, it pales in comparison to the months or years of treatments we endure as cancer patients. Our bodies and capacities are compromised –– sometimes permanently altered. Friends and family disappoint or leave us. Our work goes undone.
Our changing selves may be less recognizable to those around us. Our appearance is altered, our habits changed. But staying recognizable to ourselves — that is what keeps the cancer from metastasizing to our identities.
Up until now, I have been so immersed in my own struggle, I haven’t had much room to take in other people’s stories beyond the blog posts I read. My friend Sarah sent me the book she wrote about her breast cancer and treatment, and I have finally had the capacity to take it in.
Sarah’s book is about many things, but in large part, it is about maintaining an identity across the years and trials of being a cancer patient.
Sarah is an artist, a gardener, a runner, a maker of beautiful things. Her book gives an account of her journey from diagnosis, treatment, and beyond that is unusually vivid and highly personal. It is an emotional story, told by somebody with a keen sensitivity to her own experiences and feelings.
As with so many of us, Sarah’s cancer upends her life. She immediately feels the intrusion on her identity:
My life is full-time breast cancer now. There is no space for anything else. Researching treatments, mainly, and thinking a lot. [...] Where did my life go? I feel down. How can I recover a sense of me, a sense of pleasure and things that aren’t cancer related?
As she adjusts to this new self, she articulates the discomfort so many of us feel:
It’s summer now and everywhere I look I see women with two breasts and I find it so depressing. I am only four months since diagnosis and have been through so much already. [...]
I have cried in joy at the pleasure of being alive. I have cried in pain over the loss of my breast. I have cried deep into the night, I have lain awake worrying about death, my death. I have felt isolated and alone, I have wept in hospital waiting rooms, I have nervously examined my own blood as it goes off to be tested, wondering if I could see anything wrong with it, how my own body has let me down like this.
The life of a patient leaves her feeling lost, like she is becoming somebody unrecognizable:
Spending the day in pyjamas. I didn’t even possess pyjamas before breast cancer. Why would I? I would never laze around for days on end. Ever. Am I turning into a slob?
Like so many of us, she notices others’ awkwardness in interacting with her:
I look so well, it seems to confuse people. I’ve been ignored by people, who walked straight past hoping I wouldn’t notice; and then there are those who pat my shoulder and look at me with a sort of pity that seems to imply that I might die soon. Is that what they think?
Even medical people struggle to bridge the divide between the healthy and the ill. In one episode, Sarah tries to be understanding of a consulting surgeon. He, like many of his colleagues, has no idea what she is experiencing.
I try to be nice to him, but I’m not getting through here. No, I think he has absolutely no idea what it feels like to get a cancer diagnosis, to lose a breast, to face treatment decisions that are weighted with life and death statistics, and the emotional impact of all that. To have this chemical and surgical menopauase. Just what it feels like, I can tell he has no idea.
The power of Sarah’s story is how she never stops being Sarah. She remains inquisitive, reflective, passionate, sensitive, taking classes in botany, sewing her own new beautiful bras, knitting, camping on the coast with her beloved Ronnie.
There is no time left for artifice, for superficial niceness, for anything that does not fill my heart with complete joy.
At the book’s end, Sarah makes it through her treatment. Even then, she frames her experience in her own terms, giving it her own meaning. She rejects the term survivor. As she says:
I don’t feel like a ‘survivor’, I don’t feel I want to be in a ‘special’ club, I don’t feel that I am in any way special because of the disease I happened to have had.
As I read Being Sarah, I found myself this book to be mandatory for all who work on oncology wards. We are lucky when we have medical people who are empathetic to our experiences, but in my own estimation, it is beyond the grasp of too many of the doctors and nurses we encounter.
I am not alone in my assessment of the value of this memoir. Sarah’s book won a commendation by the British Medical Association Medical Book Awards.
Sarah describes the emotional life of a cancer patient beautifully. I kept having those moments of recognition, of having my own experiences reflected back in a new light. Even where my experiences diverged from hers, I found her honesty gripping and raw. Like the rough coastlines and beautiful gardens that bring Sarah delight, her story has a wild, natural beauty that reminds us of the unexpected tenacity of life.
To purchase Sarah’s book, go here.
This entry was posted on Monday, January 16th, 2012 at 8:53 pm and is filed under Survivorship. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.