Healing Words: A Quartet of Titles on Facing Cancer

Daly, Linda. The Last Pilgrimage: My Mother’s Life and Our Journey to Saying Goodbye. Counterpoint. 2013. 288p. ISBN 9781619021174. $26. MED

This book is not about so much the treatment or science of cancer but more the feelings of the author as her mother, Nancy, is diagnosed with and treated for cancer, eventually dying. The story is a loving tribute to Daly’s mother and the love and support that family and friends gave Nancy after her diagnosis. Daly talks at length about her spiritual development growing up and before and after her mother’s death, which hinders the story at times. While the work contains worthwhile discussions of various treatment options and how the family coped with the complications, much of what happened was only possible because of the status and wealth of the family and may not be helpful to those who don’t have a private jet to transport a loved one to treatment or the wherewithal to engage an RV to drive a dying parent cross-country. VERDICT A good read for those interested in how other families deal with illness.

Jain, S. Lochlann. Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us. Univ. of California. Oct. 2013. 309p. ISBN 9780520276567. $60; pap. ISBN 9780520276574. $24.95. MED

Jain (anthropology, Stanford Univ.; Injury: Design and Litigation in the United States) takes readers through many less-pondered aspects of cancer in society as she goes through her own cancer diagnosis and treatment. Readers see cancer through the eyes of an anthropologist, looking at history and societal aspects of the disease and how it shapes American culture. Jain also examines sociology and politics, describing how the for-profit health-care industry and especially the insurance payments for cancer treatment are integral to our economy. Business can be linked to both cancer-causing chemicals and the pharmaceutical companies that sell highly priced treatments; some now even run the clinics that provide the treatment. The psychology of cancer is also considered, with the author explaining that the doctor-patient dynamic needs to be understood and there should be more equality in health care—at the moment, screening access and standard of care depends on race, gender, socioeconomic class, insurance, and location, among other factors. VERDICT For those interested in cancer biographies and anyone who would like to learn more about the place of cancer in society.

Johnson, George. The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery. Knopf. 2013. 304p. ISBN 9780307595140. $27.95. MED

Science journalist Johnson (The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments) does a solid job of weaving together the stories of his wife’s cancer diagnosis and recovery and his brother’s death from cancer with his research on the disease. Johnson does more than just explore current disease diagnoses and treatments. He looks at cancer in other species, prehistoric and historic human populations, and fossils, including those of dinosaurs, trying to discover information on the origins of cancer and comparing past and present incidences of the disease. Johnson considers epidemiology and finds that many of the environmental hazards that people assume cause cancer are not always proven culprits. He also investigates pharmaceutical companies that develop cancer drugs and the workings of treatment centers. Throughout, Johnson tries to base his writings on the facts he has found reading scientific papers and talking with scientists, rather than relying on misleading headlines in newspapers and magazines. VERDICT For those interested in learning more about cancer and related treatments.

Pesmen, Curtis. My Cancer Year: A Survivorship Memoir. Tatra. Oct. 2013. 152p. ISBN 9780981932170. pap. $15.95. MED

Pesmen (The Colon Cancer Survivor’s Guide) has written an honest and sometimes explicit memoir about his diagnosis with and treatment for colon cancer. The first chapter is an edited and amended version of his blog entries at the time of his diagnosis and the care that followed. The entries are often chaotic but convey the raw feelings and turmoil of his story. Occasional notes or diary excerpts from family and friends are interspersed among the entries, offering a chance to see how others reacted. The remaining chapters focus on the author’s recovery, again bringing in passages from his wife’s diary and letters from friends and family. Pesmen has survived for more than ten years beyond his diagnosis and is now the father of two adopted children. His reactions to cancer and survivorship will enlighten anyone facing the same crisis, those close to them, and survivors. VERDICT The honesty of this book will resonate with cancer patients, and caregivers and health professionals will find it a realistic read if they wish to know more about what it feels like to have cancer.

Margaret Henderson is Director, Research Data Management at Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries, Richmond