A Gritty Journey Into a Rare Cancer and Back

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Over the past decade, a prolific number of cancer memoirs have been published, and some have been award-winning bestsellers. When entering a crowded genre, it is best to have something that sets your story apart. Judith Dwyer Fugate did just that with a memoir about a rare tumor that has seldom if ever been featured in a published cancer memoir. Her style is also atypical among memoirists. She never waxes philosophical, nor does she attempt to bring pretty prose to the pages or give readers inspiration. Instead, she spools out a coarse, crudely written book festooned with poor graphics and mismatched fonts.

Yet, despite its flaws, Memoirs of a Life Shattered: Living With & Through a Pancoast Tumor has its own peculiar merit: It is a month-by-month psychological autopsy of a woman struggling against a formidable disease. In her own words, “I have a heart of gold, temper of a grizzly bear, curse like a truck driver, and have a warped and direct sense of humor.” These traits, no doubt, aided her cruel journey from diagnosis to survivorship.


Title: Memoirs of a Life Shattered: Living With & Through a Pancoast Tumor

Authors: Judith Dwyer Fugate

Publisher: Outskirts Press

Publication Date: August 2020

Price: $25.95, paperback; 248 pages

A Grim Diagnosis

Superior sulcus tumors, otherwise known as Pancoast tumors, are a relatively rare subset of non–small cell lung cancer. The tumor takes its name from the American radiologist who discovered them in 1932, Dr. Henry Pancoast. Although progress has been made in their treatment, the outcomes for people with this disease remain dismal, as the tumor is often misdiagnosed or diagnosed after the disease has spread, usually to the spine and ribs. Moreover, the tumor’s anatomic position and aggressiveness present with severe and unrelenting shoulder and arm pain. In short, in the world of cancer, a Pancoast tumor is one of the more challenging scenarios for both oncologist and patient.

Ms. Fugate had what could be described as a rough-and-tumble life. In 2015, she was a 53-year-old widow with three children and four grandchildren, had remarried, divorced, and then reconnected with a high school boyfriend. Plus, she was out of work and in debt.

That’s when things really took a turn for the worst. In November 2015, she developed such severe pain in her upper right shoulder blade that it rendered her bedridden for a few days. The description of that pain event is vivid, written in choppy, angry language. On July 11, 2016 (imagine the prolonged suffering), Ms. Fugate finally relented and underwent magnetic resonance imaging. After the scan, she was driving home when she received a call from her doctor, saying she needed to see her right away.

“I thought it was odd, but that was it,” she writes. “I turned around and headed back to her office…. I do not remember anything she said after the word ‘cancer’ came out of her mouth. I pulled into the driveway as my boyfriend was getting home. I showed him the picture and repeated what the doctor had said: ‘Cancer; it is called Pancoast.’ I was literally numb.”

Dealing Blackjack on Fentanyl

Memoirs of a Life Shattered is organized in the months from Ms. Fugate’s diagnosis in July 2016 to the beginning of posttreatment survivorship in December 2019. The author spools out her emotions, frustrations, and observations. She tells of moving from doctor to doctor, detailing her “cocktail of cisplatin and etoposide,” nausea, and vomiting; the jumpy narrative brings the reader into the moment—her moment— and one cannot help but cheer for her.

Imagine, for example, this scenario: In the midst of her treatment, she lands a job as a blackjack dealer in a Louisiana casino. “The pain was unbearable, and my oncologist put me on a fentanyl patch, which made me sick…. I had no clue of the side effects, and they kicked in when I was at work. Do you know how embarrassing it is to ask your boss … to cover your table because … you feel like you are gonna pass out?”

Hard Knocks and More

The doctorsand there are many—remain nameless, save for corny nicknames bestowed by the author, which, given the breadth of her care, feels a bit low. This is a terrible disease, and it wreaked havoc on Ms. Fugate’s body, soul, and mind.

She writes: “So, living in a wheelchair now and walking with a walker earned me a handicap placard from the state…. I am totally laid up, cannot walk, cannot cook, cannot stand, and cannot do anything without Joe [her boyfriend] to help me…. I did hate the world. I tried to conceal it but failed miserably.”

Joe, the author’s lover and caregiver, ends up cheating on her—heartbreak on top of a broken body. Several family members also die of cancer as she keeps her log, but she soldiers on. “I am getting another PET come June 2020. If nothing lights up, I am officially in remission and may discontinue treatment if I so desire…. I should have died in 2018, but, for some reason, I have been spared. Maybe to spread my story?”

Memoirs of a Life Shattered is more of a prolonged cry for help during immeasurable suffering than a book. It is recommended for readers of The ASCO Post who want a voyeur’s peek inside a tough woman’s daily struggle with a Pancoast tumor.