It’s just about time to stop reading cancer memoirs. They’re haunting, fascinating, and I keep adding more books to my pile—but I’m going to make myself quit when August is over.
Reading so many, I see poignant connections among them.
In his 1979 memoir of prostate cancer, A Private Battle, Cornelius Ryan mentions visiting his publisher Michael Korda to tell him about the cancer; I’ve read Korda’s Man to Man, so I know Korda will have his own fight with prostate cancer, twenty years later.
In her 1989 breast-cancer memoir, It’s Always Something, Gilda Radner talks about how important The Wellness Community became to her; in Stan Mack’s 2004 memoir of Janet Bode’s breast cancer, Janet and Me, Mack talks about going to a support group at Gilda’s Club—an organization started by Radner’s husband, Gene Wilder, after Radner died in 1989.
Anatole Broyard’s Intoxicated by My Illness is an account of his prostate cancer. The book includes Broyard’s short story, “What the Cystoscope Said,” inspired by his reaction to his own father’s experience with cancer. Cancer killed both of them, the son forty-one years after the father.
But as compelling as these memoirs are, I think I need to stop reading them. Pain, hospitals, fear, affliction, humiliation, and dread have become too vivid in my mind.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s account of the first year after her husband’s death, she tells the story of John’s first heart attack.
I lent my copy of the book, so I can’t check the exact words, but I remember reading that John told Joan something like, “Now I know how I’m going to die,” after his heart attack. She scoffed at this; he could be hit by a car. But, in fact, at that point he did know how he was going to die.
That phrase has lingered in my mind. “Now I know how I’m going to die.” It gives me a sense of panic that I didn’t feel before, when I hear words like cancer, chemotherapy, exploratory surgery, and all the rest.
In many ways, reading these illness memoirs has made me better able to think about bad things that might happen in the future. But I think it’s time to stop reading them now. Time to take that familiar advice: “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”