It All Began With a Lump in the Throat

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Title: Milkshakes and Morphine: A Memoir of Love and Life
Author: Genevieve Fox
Publisher: Vintage
Publication date: January 2019
Price: $15.95, paperback, 384 pages

“It doesn’t hurt, but I know it is there and I know it shouldn’t be. Interloper. I have touched it a couple of times already, clocking the chutzpah of it; how silently and without any warning, it has taken up residency. Nasty.” So begins Milkshakes and Morphine: A Memoir of Love and Life by Genevieve Fox, which, as in the best of this genre, is more than a diary of cancer in that it looks at larger universal themes. It’s a terrific read, filled with candor, tragedy, humor, and smart insights on what it’s like to struggle against a deadly disease.

Just a Swollen Gland

Ms. Fox, formerly a features editor at The Telegraph in London, is an accomplished journalist, writing in leading British journals on culture, art, and travel. Her writing skills appear to sharpen with each page, as she brings the reader along her journey, never didactically, but more as if in conversation with a new friend.

Her lump, as noted, is discovered for the reader in the first paragraph. Not surprisingly, her husband, after feeling it with “that blokeish, fingers-together paw,” shrugs it off as “nothing, probably just a swollen gland that will be gone in a day or two.” By day 4, the author falls into her husband’s sense of security, writing with self-deprecating dismissal: “I am Gwyneth Paltrow’s worst nightmare…. I do my thing; my body does its thing. A temple it has never been. I’ve treated my body with the same disregard as I do our old boiler.”

Cause for Concern

The next morning, Ms. Fox discovers that the lump had a growth spurt, and her husband suggests she make an appointment, simply to settle her anxiety. The first appointment is 10 days away. “I am in no hurry,” she writes. “If the ball has bounced elsewhere by then, I still have the spots of dry skin on my face that I can mention instead.” But 3 days later, she wakes to “find the lump sticking out under my chin like a big bulge in a silk pocket. The skin around it is an angry red, and it’s hot to the touch.”

“It doesn’t hurt, but I know it is there and I know it shouldn’t be…. How silently and without any warning, it has taken up residency.”
— Genevieve Fox

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Ms. Fox gets an emergency appointment, and while sitting in the doctor’s office, she fretfully muses about her dearest friend from college. “Ruthie told me about a small lump in her breast, which was diagnosed as benign, but then after giving birth to twins, it came back, as big as a golf ball, and she died within a year.” The author writes with such personal ease that it brings the reader into the seat next to hers as she tries to remain calm. But, as any good dramatist will do, Ms. Fox lets the reader hang, flashing back to her youth, which is a wacky and lovely repose from the tension in the waiting room.

“Morning Mother as she drove us to school was a big blur of messy hair and sleepiness, but afternoon Mother was a 70s dream in a cowl-neck jumper, cocktail in hand,” she writes. When the author was 9, her mother died of breast cancer, leaving Ms. Fox a “cancer orphan,” something she dreads doing to her small son.

Just days before Christmas, the lump is scanned, and, as the author is throwing a secret Santa party, she is summoned by phone to her doctor’s office. She is “catatonic with dread,” but for reasons not fully explained, her husband waits in the office’s sitting room. Moments later, the author’s doctor delivers the life-altering words: “There is only one way tell you this. The tumor in your throat is malignant.”

Every cancer memoir has this dreaded inflection point, but Ms. Fox tells it in a way that stands apart from most. She asks for someone to please go get her husband. “Into this lonely silence silent tears course, swelling the surprised riverbanks. Richard walks into the room. His face has turned into silly putty. It is ashen and it droops.”

The descriptions of the cancer treatments are mentally punishing and written with delicate precision. Ms. Fox could have shared a bit more about her management team and the exact treatments, but that’s a small gripe. “Everything is going as expected post-radiotherapy. I can’t open my mouth, swallow, or talk without morphine, which I no longer bother to measure.”

Results Day

During the worst part of therapy, she slides in an account of a trip to America as a young woman and a diverting portrayal of all the friends of her parents with whom she stayed. This section of the book might have benefited from some editing, but readers will enjoy the breezy backstory. Eventually, the treatments are over, and it is “Results Day.” Her oncologist, looking down at the list of tests says, “Well done. All the results are fine, fine, fine, fine, fine.”

Ms. Fox, heart pounding, asks: “Just to clarify. Am I cancer free?”

The answer puts her “back on Planet Earth. Back in the club of the living…. I am weightless, and it feels great!”

Milkshakes and Morphine is recommended for readers of The ASCO Post. It is more than a cancer memoir; it’s a terrific book about being human, both frail and strong at once.