Cancer Book Club & Other Favorite Reads

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to break my technology addiction and my first course of action was banning devices from my bedroom. Instead of watching something on my iPad as I fall asleep, I replaced the activity with reading (real books) and have never felt more well rested, energetic and sharp. It’s made me realized how much I’ve missed reading like I did when I was younger. Plus, I’ve read over 45 books this year!

Naturally, some of these books are about cancer.  They consist of either memoirs or “how-to’s” on surviving. Below you’ll find a random, incomplete list my favorites to-date to serve as suggestions if you’re looking for inspiration.

rufusDie Young With Me by Rob Rufus. Read this if you’re a young adult impacted by cancer, lover of punk music and/or don’t subscribe to the kumbaya-ness that often accompanies illness. Personally, I’m a little partial to this story since Rufus and I both live in Nashville and are cancer surviving writers, who aren’t afraid of a few f-bombs.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanthi. It’s sad, it’s profound, but most of all, it’s beautifully written. Read my complete review here.

Dying to Be Me by Anita Moorjani. Read this book if you believe in miracles or want to believe in miracles by a first hand experience.

radzwillWhat Remains by Carole Radzwill. Another weeper, but the prose is incredible. I found this memoir of loss an example of what our caregivers endure along our side because they are often the forgotten trauma survivors.

Crazy Sexy Cancer by Kris Carr. Read this if you are a newly diagnosed woman and/or interested in means of healing through food, alternative treatments, etc. Better yet, watch the documentary or an episode of Carr on Super Soul Sunday.  

41b5V0a3aFL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_I Have Cancer and Never Felt Better by Tracy Krulik. Check this out if you’re a fellow pNET, especially if you’re about to go into surgery. I devoured this before my distal pancreatomy and it provided me with many important questions I would have not otherwise asked.

Now, this all being said, I have set up some rules for cancer reading, which may not always be a relaxing escape.

  1. Memoirs only before bed. Rule 1a – the person has to be alive. Rule 1b – it can’t be a section where the subject is talking about a similar trauma (chemo, nausea, etc.) Bringing those feelings and memories to the surface have no place in my bedroom.
  2. No cancer reads on vacation. Time away is officially a cancer-free zone in my family.

Don’t want to read about cancer? Yeah, me neither. Here are a few of my favorites:

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. This is my all-time favorite book, ever. The prose is out of this world and tells the story of an immigrant family’s struggle of retaining their culture versus assimilating to America. If you like this book, Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies is also worth the time. It was Lahiri’s first book and won the Pulitzer Prize if you needed any further nudging. There’s also a movie based on The Namesake, which, for the first time ever, does justice to the book.

The Moth Presents all These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown. Read my complete review here. Okay, so there are a few stories about cancer, but they are happy ones.

patchettCommonwealth by Ann Patchett. God, I love Ann Patchett. She lives in Nashville and owns a bookstore I frequent. Between you and I, I sometimes hang out there just to catch a glimpse of her. I wouldn’t be surprised if she thinks I’m a stalker. I just kind of want to soak up some of her genius by breathing the same air.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. An interesting memoir of escaping and growing up in poor Appalachia.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. A novel an African immigrant family trying to make it in New York City. While this story is fiction, I think it portrays the sacrifices and lengths that foreigners will go to to achieve the American Dream.

If you’re looking for more suggestions, check out my Goodread’s list, which has the last few years of books with ratings.

Also, my “to-read” list is primarily comprised of recommendations from others, so if you have a book that’s touched your life, please share by commenting below.

Up next in the cancer category is Radical Remission by Kelly Turner, Everyday I Fight by Stewart Scott, A Walk with Purpose by Michael Becker and The Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Sarah Knight.

Happy Reading!

Review: When Breath Becomes Air

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As featured on curetoday.com

Over the summer, a friend asked if I read, Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s memoir, “When Breath Becomes Air”. I had not, but look it up and was immediately flooded with anxiety. A 35-year-old neurosurgeon diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer’s thoughts on life and dying. Deciding the book was to close to home,  I added it to my list of 2017 fear conquering goals. Only the book wouldn’t go away and appeared on my Amazon recommendations and in the front section of every bookstore I entered. I concided and purchased it because I felt like the universe was telling me to I needed to read this book and I’m glad I did.

img_2308Before getting into the major takeaways, it should be acknowledged from a writing standpoint, Dr. Kalanithi “spun gold”. He strung his story together with complexity, elegance and creativity and it’s no doubt he found his true callings by being both a writer and a doctor.     

In terms of his disease, I feel being a physician was a blessing and a curse. Obviously, he was knowledgeable to the medical and scientific aspects, often to a fault.

“I began to suspect that being so close to the fiery light of such moments only blinded me to their nature.” He knew enough to ask his oncologist the Kaplan-Meier survival rates and his oncologist knew enough not to answer, but that he would look them up on his own.  Eventually, Kalanithi realized, “detailed statistics are made for research halls, not hospital rooms,” a philosophy I wished more doctors adopted.

At the debut of his illness he appeared to struggle and eventually come to grips with the emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of disease.  I’ve come to learn these are some of the biggest oversights by our doctors. Call me naive, but I’m a firm believer in positivity and faith and I think Dr. Kalanithi discounted these aspects early on, but eventually confronted them, when he said, “Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicted on it’s inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.

Between these core passions and scientific theory, there will always be a gap. No system of thought can contain the fullness of the human experience.”

I think “When Breath Becomes Air” should be annual reading for doctors if only to have both a peer’s and patient’s insight into illness.  Dr. Kalanithi explained,“How little do doctors understand the hells through which we put patients.” Also, to reaffirm, “Doctors invade the body in every way imaginable. They see people at their most vulnerable, their most scared, their most private. They escort them into the world, and then back out. Seeing the body as matter and mechanism is the flip side to easing the most profound human suffering.”

Throughout the book, there were many relatable moments. Early on when Dr. Kalanithi said, “Severe illness wasn’t life-altering, it was life-shattering,” and “Even when the cancer was in retreat, it cast long shadows.” And the most relatable theme for me personally – the biggest fear not being death, but leaving a spouse alone and “promising her one life and giving her another.”

Unfortunately, Paul Kalanithi passed away while writing this book, but in my eyes, it’s actually quite complete. His widow wrote the epilogue and beautifully summarized their journey through illness, “Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult-sometimes almost impossible-they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love.”

Now, if you haven’t read, “When Breath Becomes Air”, go out and buy two copies – one for you and one for your oncologist.

Read all of my articles with Cure.

Paul Kalanithi (1977-2015)