As Orson Welles so cheerily put it, we are born alone, we live alone and we die alone. But none of us has to struggle through cancer alone, thanks to a vast pool of literature, non-fiction and poetry that tackles the subject.
In C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too, columnist and self-confessed hypochondriac John Diamond writes with almost unbearable honesty about his fears as he is diagnosed with throat cancer. As he puts it, this is his “attempt to write the book I was looking for the night I got the bad news”, and it explains “what it’s like to be a person with cancer, to deal with the pain and the fear and the anger”. While his feelings vacillate between hope and despair, his dark humour sings through. Taking the reader on a gripping and emotional journey, this account captures the unpalatable but essential truth that not all those living with cancer are “bravely battling” – some are just plain scared. Diamond is one of a handful of writers who can make me snort out loud in public through the magic of their words, and is much missed.
The true story beautifully told by Rebecca Skloot in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is astonishing. Henrietta was a penniless black tobacco farmer who died in 1951, but whose cervical cells changed the shape of medicine. Taken without permission, cells from her tumour have since been multiplied and shared around the world to advance our understanding of cancer. Skloot’s book was inspired by a science lesson in which her teacher told the class that if they went to almost any cell culture lab in the world and opened its freezers, they might find billions of Henrietta’s cells in small vials on ice. The biography examines how those cells enabled scientists to make advances in fields ranging from cancer and gene mapping to IVF. Skloot confronts issues of racism, poverty, consent and the anguish of Henrietta’s family.
Clive James wrote in this paper about living with late-stage cancer in his weekly column, Reports of My Death. One of his latest (and, he assumed, last) books of poetry, Sentenced to Life, and its surprise sequel, Injury Time, are filled with verses that address the feeling of wanting to live life to its fullest while waiting for death to knock. “Now, not just old, but ill, with much amiss / I see things with a whole new emphasis,” he reflects. In these volumes, he describes his sense of loss, and guilt at leaving behind the people he loves, and draws on his trademark humour.
There are many cancer blogs out there, but to my mind one of the best was The C Word, subsequently turned into a book and a TV series starring Sheridan Smith. Lisa Lynch has a gloriously witty turn of phrase in dealing with the emotional ups and downs of living with breast cancer – or, as she put it, The Bullshit. Made all the more poignant as she died after the book was published, it is no-nonsense, funny, moving and entirely devoid of self-pity.
If we trust the Pulitzer prize panel about this kind of thing, and I suspect we should, then read The Emperor of All Maladies by oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee. It is an in-depth, but clear and at times poetic depiction of the “lethal, shape-shifting entity” – its past, present and putative future.
• Adam Kay’s standup show This Is Going to Hurt is at Hammersmith Apollo, London W6, on 18 November. adamkay.co.uk. October is breast and liver cancer awareness month.
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