"When the technician leaves the room, I turn my head toward the screen to interpret neoplasms, the webs of nerves, the small lit fonts in which my pathology and/or future or future end might be written. The first tumor I ever saw was a darkness on that screen, round with a long craggy finger jutting from it.... That tumor was my own,” writes Anne Boyer in the opening of her Pulitzer Prize–winning memoir, The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care.
Title: The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care
Authors: Anne Boyer
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: September 2019
Price: $27.95, hardcover, 320 pages
Anne Boyer is an acclaimed poet; however, despite accolades, the poetry business did not pay very well, nor did her teaching gig. A week after her 41st birthday, she was diagnosed with aggressive triple-negative breast cancer, a catastrophic event for a single mother living paycheck to paycheck.
In this tale of diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship, the stunning language itself makes it a worthy read for the lay public well as for cancer care professionals. Organized into eight riveting chapters and a spot-on epilogue, Ms. Boyer explores the multilevel experience of cancer from the digital age back to ancient Rome, interweaving anecdotes from other noted people who have died of cancer. These poignant and compelling vignettes add human drama and color to the pages.
Literary Figures With Cancer
In Jacqueline Susann’s groundbreaking 1966 novel, Valley of the Dolls, a character named Jennifer, terrified of a mastectomy, dies by an intentional overdose of sleeping pills after her breast cancer diagnosis. “All my life, the word cancer meant death, terror, something so horrible I’d cringe. And now I have it. The funny part is, I’m not the least bit frightened of the cancer itself, even if it turns out to be a death sentence. Just afraid of what it will do to my life.” Jaqueline Susann, diagnosed with breast cancer at age 44, died of the disease in 1974.
Ms. Boyer describes the plight of another poet, Audre Lorde, who, like Jaqueline Susann, is also diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 44. Her riveting journey is captured in The Cancer Journals, which includes detailed accounts of her diagnosis, treatment, and call to arms: “I don’t want this to be a record of grieving only. I don’t want this to be a record only of tears…. I carry tattooed upon my heart a list of names of women who did not survive, and there is always a space for one more, my own,” wrote Ms. Lorde, who died of the disease in 1992 after a valiant and meticulously recorded 14-year battle.
An Oncologist Called Dr. Baby
Within the poetic lamentations and digressions into the political and feminist issues surrounding breast cancer, the author delves deeply into her chemotherapy regimens, bringing piercing insight into the double-edged sword of highly toxic agents that are her only hope for survival. She nicknames her oncologist Dr. Baby because of how much he resembled a cherub.
Ms. Boyer’s beautiful writing is also imbued with delicate humor and irony. While in Dr. Baby’s office, she describes a scene that feels surreal. The author ushers the reader into the chair next to her as Dr. Baby writes in a “childish hand,” hormone receptive–positive breast cancer, explaining in painful detail there were targeted treatments for it. Then he crossed it out and wrote “HER2-positive breast cancer,” explaining again there were targeted treatments for it. Then, he wrote triple-negative, noting in a softening voice there were no targeted therapies for it. He went on to explain this cancer had the fewest treatment options and a poorer prognosis than the other cancers.
“He said it was the cancer I had and that the tumor was necrotic, which meant it was growing so quickly, it failed to build infrastructure for itself…. I didn’t agree to have a lymph node dissection or any other biopsies. I felt like there wasn’t any point to know what else was there,” writes Ms. Boyer.
Anger and Hope
“I’d survived, yet the ideological regime of cancer means that calling myself a survivor still feels like a betrayal of the dead.”— Anne Boyer
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As the author’s journey into the world of oncology intensifies, so does her anger at the medical establishment that is chartered with saving her life. “I was given Adriamycin with cyclophosphamide, a drug approved in 1959, which is a medicalized form of a chemical weapon…. Although four dose-dense rounds of it effectively eliminated many parts of me, the drug combo didn’t significantly reduce my tumor. It remained as the full measure of shadow inside the radiance of the screen,” she writes. Her later descriptions of “chemo brain” are so well drawn that, again, the reader will experience vicarious symptoms.
However, sometimes Ms. Boyer forays too deeply into an anticapitalist polemic or biting social criticism about the politics of breast cancer, but that is a small gripe in such a wonderfully drawn examination of a personal day-to-day struggle with breast cancer. “I’d survived, yet the ideological regime of cancer means that calling myself a survivor still feels like a betrayal of the dead. But I’ll admit that not a day passes in which I am not ecstatic that I still get to live,” confesses Ms. Boyer on the closing pages. This book will break your heart, make you angry, and fill you with hope. It is highly recommended for readers of The ASCO Post.