Cancer Solace in Strange Places


A patient with metastatic breast cancer discusses what helps her find comfort.

When patients with terminal cancer share their experiences, the rest of us can find comfort.

“That sounds a little macabre,” I recall a good friend of mine saying a couple of years ago when I asked if she’d come with me to hear the wife of Paul Kalanithi speak.

Kalanithi, for those of you who don’t know, was a neurosurgeon and the author of “When Breath Becomes Air,” a beautiful and stark bestseller about his work and his life with stage 4 metastatic lung cancer. He died of that disease in 2015 at the age of 37 — 10 months before his book’s publication.

His wife, Lucy, is also a physician. Kalanithi’s medical understanding of his progression and treatment is a reminder that even when we know what’s happening, we often must rely on other things — faith, love and hope — to get through.

At home, I’d kept my reading of the book private. My family worries enough without wondering why I’d be reading a book about a patient with terminal cancer.

Turns out that for me, a patient with metastatic breast cancer, reading stories from patients with terminal cancer is comforting. I understand the life, even if my specific experiences are different. When you can count the number of days between appointments on your hands (and sometimes feet, too) for years at a time, death is not some mysterious far-in-the-future event that you plan to avoid at all costs. It’s pretty much a solid reality that creeps around in the background and manages to make regular appearances even if you try desperately to avoid it.

Although I didn’t go to hear Mrs. Kalanithi speak (a decision I regret, proving once again in my life that it truly is the things you don’t do that fall into that unfortunate category), my friend’s response reminded me of the vast gap between someone living with stage 4 cancer that is incurable and those who believe they will live forever.

I heard that conversation echoing in my mind as I read “In-Between Days,” Teva Harrison’s graphic novel about her metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. Harrison is a wonderfully talented writer and graphic artist whose work can be easily found with an online search. The book is humorous and breathtakingly sad. If you’re living “here” — in this strange world of metastatic cancer — you’ll probably smile and appreciate her experiences.

Since two books are never enough, I also recently read “The Bright Hour,” a memoir by essayist Nina Riggs, which chronicles in poignant and funny detail what her life was like as she progressed through early-stage breast cancer to stage 4. Like Kalanithi, Riggs died of cancer, and, as with “When Breath Becomes Air,” I hid “The Bright Hour” as I read it. The idea that I was being “macabre” had struck and stung me without my friend intending it to.

Each of these books puts into words and ideas the reality of living with a stage 4 diagnosis. For me, they’ve brought pain, yes, but also clarity and reminders of the love that’s so present in this life.

Whatever your diagnosis and prognosis, or if you’re a caretaker or friend of someone with cancer, don’t back away. Acknowledging whatever we might feel about dying, whether it’s sorrow or pain, relief or gratitude, is not for the faint of heart, but it’s what each of us deserves.

I’m not recommending you show up at a newly diagnosed friend’s house with any of these books, but just like we read blogs and magazine articles about cancer to find guidance and insight, books can provide solace as well.

Someday I’ll tell my friend that I’ve added to my life with that macabre reading material. For now, though, I find solitary comfort in reading and re-reading the words of others so like me.

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