Book Review: Cancer Was Not A Gift, And It Didn't Make Me A Better Person

cancer-was-not-a-gift-by-nancy-stordahlNancy Stordahl is a former educator, breast cancer blogger at NancysPoint, and a friend of mine. I was delighted to get my signed copy of her self-published memoir Cancer Was Not A Gift & It Didn’t Make Me A Better Person, about her personal experiences with breast cancer. Some of these I already knew about from our conversations; others I read for the first time.

And am still honored that the final quote of the book is a classic Sulik:

“Cancer is not a ribbon, a screening test or a leisure activity. It is not a sassy t-shirt, a proclamation of survivorship or a gift worth giving. It is a disease process that ignites what is all too often a cycle of medical surveillance and interventions, of which some succeed and others cause irreparable harm. For too many, it will be the eventual cause of death. They deserve better than this, and so do we.”

When Nancy asked to use that quote I was happy, and humbled. “Of course,” I said. Then when I read her book I knew exactly why she wanted to end her story with it.

Nancy is a truth-teller. She was not about to sugarcoat the messy realities of her experience with breast cancer, her mother’s experience with metastatic breast cancer, her grief about her mother’s death, the uncertainty she faced as she discovered that she had a genetic predisposition to breast cancer, her trepidation about the future, her disgust with the pressure to be a cancer-fighting superhero, or the many other topics often dismissed within the dominant cancer narrative.

On medical lingo and the illusion of options…

“We head for our preferred chemo room, the quiet one, but today it isn’t quiet. There is only one recliner left, so I head over to take my seat…Today my chemo nurse irritates me. She’s obviously a talker. I am not, especially when sitting in a God damn chemo chair. I should tell her to be quiet, but I don’t want to be rude…. ‘I do so admire you patients for returning and choosing more treatment. It’s a choice you know. You don’t have to be here,’ she says. What the fuck? Hearing this pisses me off more. I know she means well, so again, I keep quiet.” (p. 157).

“At the conclusion of our appointment, we concur it is essential for me to have the blood test to determine if I carry the BRCA2 gene mutation like Mother. If I have the mutated gene, a bilateral mastectomy will most certainly be recommended. If I do not have the gene mutation, there may be other options. I don’t like any of the options. It’s a joke to call them options. These are not options. you can turn down options. Actually, I guess I could turn these down, but then…well, the dying option sucks.” (p. 38).

On disallowed emotions in Cancer land…

“A few emotions that arise without warning at times are fear, uncertainty, vulnerability, anxiousness, disgust, despair, loneliness and anger… Some emotions aren’t allowed in Cancer land, and anger seems to be one of them.” (p. 165-166).

How many body parts must I give up? How many times and in how many ways can one body be carved up? Sometimes I feel as if I am no longer a woman at all. I am Frankenstein-like. Or maybe like Wonder Woman. Or the Bionic Woman. I am a reconstructed version of my former self, some sort of salvage job.” (p. 181).

Cancer is a string of losses, and there should be no shame in grieving for things lost and missed, including body parts. I am allowed. Damn it, I am allowed.” (p. 181).

On waiting for miracles…

“Five days after she arrived at Mayo, Mother was discharged and sent home. How was it possible one of the world’s most well-renowned medical facilities could just send us home with no solution? Where was our miracle?” (p. 78).

On giving gratitude to cancer for all it’s given to you…

Cancer can be a wake-up call. But…I didn’t need cancer to make me appreciate my life and my family. I didn’t need enlightenment….Before cancer I tried to learn from what was going on around me. After cancer, I try to learn from whatever is going on around me. I tried to be a better person every day before cancer. And I still shoot for that now. So why should cancer get any credit for any of it?” (p. 167).

“Cancer is a great hands-on teacher of mostly shitty stuff. Sure, perhaps you pick up a few nuggets of wisdom along the way, but I’d rather by-pass the rendezvous with cancer and be less enlightened. Who needs the kind of wisdom you garner from cancer? Who needs this kind of gift?” (P. 168).

Despite the illusion created by pink ribbon culture, breast cancer is still a horrible, too often deadly disease, and nothing about it is pretty, pink or gift-like. Period.” (p. 188).

Nancy Stordahl covers a lot of ground in this book, sharing intimate details about her thought processes, medical decisions, personal interactions, and emotional states as she manages the “shit storm” of cancer diagnosis and treatment, all in the aftermath of her mother’s. At times funny and ironic, it’s still not the happy cancer story. But it’s real. And it’s needed.

I honor Nancy, too, for stating clearly at the outset that what she presents are her truths about her breast cancer experience and that no material in the book is intended to replace or be interpreted in any manner as professional medical advice. This is a crucial caveat for understanding personal narratives on any topic. But when it comes to health and illness narratives, especially about cancer, and more especially about the culturally dominant mother-of-all-causes (breast cancer), it is vital for readers to recognize that the typical one-size-fits-all, feel-good stories with happy-endings and medical-factoids-presented-as-evidence that saturate the cultural narrative, must be taken with many grains of salt. In sharing the details of becoming a “rebellious patient,” Nancy Stordahl creates a unique and concrete context for understanding her particular breast cancer experience. Not pretty or pink, but one likely to resonate with many people diagnosed with cancer.

Cancer Was Not A Gift and It Didn’t Make Me A Better Person by Nancy Stordahl. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; first edition, 2015. 204pp. ISBN: 978-1517070229, $14.99 (paper).


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