A Candidly Humorous Approach to the Cancer Journey
The author’s diagnosis, treatments, and survivorship represent a victory, not just for him, but for the dedicated doctors who have kept him alive. If Mr. Bishop had stayed closer to that story, his book might have been much more engaging.
Title: Shrinkage: Manhood, Marriage, and the Tumor That Tried to Kill Me
Author: Bryan Bishop
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Publication date: April 29, 2014
Price: $25.99; hardcover, 336 pages
At 30 years old, Bryan Bishop was having the time of his life. Known to millions of radio fans as “Bald Bryan,” he was the sidekick and soundman on the hugely popular Adam Carolla Show. Then, in 2009, as his career was skyrocketing, Bryan Bishop and his fiancée Christie Clough received news that tore their world apart: he was diagnosed with an inoperable brainstem glioma. The story of his diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship is told in his newly published book, Shrinkage: Manhood, Marriage, and the Tumor That Tried to Kill Me.
Written with the same candid humor that had made him a radio celebrity, Mr. Bishop details how his life was transformed by his cancer diagnosis and the subsequent punishing routines of radiation therapy and chemotherapy. In a book like this, the reader needs an intimate window into the cancer patient’s life. To that end, Mr. Bishop leads off with an account of his early life growing up in San Mateo, California, and his journey to radio and the altar.
Unfortunately, Mr. Bishop’s book suffered from a timid editor, one who should have gently reined in his prolixity. Much of these opening three chapters could have been reduced to a few pages. Instead, Mr. Bishop takes the reader on a lengthy, anecdote-laden ride that includes a chapter about his courtship with Ms. Clough, offering yarns about their first date.
Mr. Bishop writes, “The casual date went great. Oh, sure, there was a chink or two in the armor; Christie, for example, considered Shiner Bock to be ‘fancy beer.’ To me, it’s okay, but far from fancy. You will probably think I’m joking, but this was nearly a deal-breaker for me. In the business world, this is called a fireable offense. Thankfully, I broke her of this habit, and our relationship blossomed.”
He follows with a numbered list of “the top habits Christie says she’s glad she broke me of.” This kind of chatty stuff is more page-filler than substantive narrative, certainly for a book written by a man diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor. Mr. Bishop writes in a conversational style meant to engage and entertain his readers, and once he gets into the meat of the book, he succeeds, but by burying his lead, he runs the risk of turning off readers before they get there.
For readers of The ASCO Post, the real interest begins in chapter 4, “Signs of Trouble.” To his credit, Mr. Bishop does a good job building up the true-life tension that a person experiences when his body begins acting in strange ways. In Mr. Bishop’s case, there were a number of subtle neurologic symptoms: sudden tripping and falling after only a few beers, lightheadedness after a short sauna bath, numbness in the lips.
After a period of denial, he began to worry. “It was around this time that I started to quietly look for a neurologist. All these little symptoms had freaked me out…. I looked up my symptoms on WebMD.com, and every possible diagnosis came back brain-related.”
In the following chapter, Mr. Bishop describes waiting with his fiancée for the results of an MRI and the subsequent life-altering diagnosis. He writes, “[The neurologist] began to explain that while he initially thought I had multiple sclerosis, I did not…. But in the brain-stem, an area where multiple sclerosis typically occurs, was a growth or ‘lesion.’” Although the neurologist advised, “don’t go home and look this up on the computer,” that’s of course exactly what the couple did.
Mr. Bishop then gives a fairly convincing account of how he processed the dizzying array of information gathered on medical websites about brainstem lesions. When the author and his fiancée finally meet with an oncologist, they are both emotional wrecks, and the meeting does not go well.
He writes, “The doctor hands us a pamphlet…. Key words such as inoperable are bandied about. The whole experience felt as if he had memorized a worksheet titled, ‘Good Bedside Manner,’ the night before.” Mr. Bishop bluntly asks the oncologist for a prognosis and is given one of 6 months to a year. His fiancée “went into an emotional conniption.”
Mr. Bishop is describing one of the most difficult doctor-patient encounters in all of medicine, in which an oncologist must address another fragile human’s mortality. There is no easy way to do it. The oncology community has spent many years of introspection on this issue, developing workshops and educational material. Frankly, some doctors are better than others at breaking bad news, and the back-and-forth Mr. Bishop relates does not sound cold, unfeeling, or staged—only slightly awkward, perhaps.
In a subsequent chapter, harshly titled “The Worst People I’ve Ever Met,” Mr. Bishop lashes out in bitter personal tones at his oncologist and several others, including the father of his first serious girlfriend who he dated during college. There’s no reason for this chapter; it’s offensive and doesn’t move the story along, especially the three pages Mr. Bishop spends denigrating his girlfriend’s father. Moreover, Mr. Bishop falls into frat-house tirades littered with vulgarisms that are certain to turn off many readers.
When Mr. Bishop talks about the emotional ups and downs and the side effects of his radiotherapy and chemotherapy (and, as he calls bevacizumab [Avastin], “the big gun”), he brings a worthy insight and humanity to the pages. But those insightful pages are too few to make this a worthwhile read for most in the oncology community. In effect, this is more a memoir of Mr. Bishop’s life, not of his cancer journey. And Mr. Bishop’s life, like most of ours, just isn’t interesting enough to fill a 300-page book.
The book’s title, however, is compelling. Shrinkage was the goal of the medical and radiation oncologists who treated Mr. Bishop’s inoperable brainstem glioma. He was diagnosed in 2009, and he has written a book about his experiences 5 years later. The author’s diagnosis, treatments, and survivorship represent a victory, not just for him, but for the dedicated doctors who have kept him alive. If Mr. Bishop had stayed closer to that story, his book might have been much more engaging. ■