I recently started reading cancer memoirs by writers who are dead. There are piles of them all over the house, mushrooms that sprout after rain. They appear as if by magic, every time I read a review of a new one or dig deep into the internet looking for other ways to write about, read about, and think about cancer. This approach to reading feels almost like a compulsion.
These books talk about cancer as a rage of living and dying and bleeding and hurting. In The Unwinding of the Miracle (2019), Julie Yip-Williams’s way of living while dying is to redo her family’s apartment so when she’s dead, her daughters and husband will feel her in every corner, as will the “new wife,” whoever she may end up being. When I first started reading her book, I found her over-controlling. The thought of redoing an apartment when dying from cancer made no sense to me. But by the end of the memoir, I loved her. I loved her fierce desire to make her death material in the living spaces her daughters and husband would inhabit after she died. She had been born blind. Her grandmother had wanted to kill her for that. Scarcity and fear had made her vulnerable to death even at the beginning of her life. She was angry and wrote so honestly about being thought of as expendable even by her family. I loved her anger. And I loved that she was angry about cancer, the dumb stupidity of it. Her husband wrote the epilogue. I still think of her as around. Fierce. That’s how I still think of her.
My husband asks me only one question when he sees me opening one of these books: “Why are you reading that?” I could rationalize a purpose, something coherent and smart sounding. But I don’t know exactly why or when I will pick up one of these mushroom books and spend a week or a month reading about chemotherapy, mouth sores, and death. Or when I will choose to read about how a writer decided to write a book about how they knew they were dying. How they decided to write about how cancer found them in the middle of their lives and changed the whole story.
That’s not exactly true. I read books about cancer because I had cancer. One day in October, seven years ago, I noticed a lump in my right breast. It felt a like taut rubber band along the curve between my armpit and my breast. A secret tightness, a braided rope, and it was there, had been there, growing, thickening. A daffodil bulb.
Tumor. Stage 2. Stage 2 A, I think. There are stages other than 1-4, I learned through the diagnosis process. There’s stage 2 A or B and Stage 3 A or B. I’ve always been too scared to think about Stage 4. Diagnoses move to tumors within what my surgeon called “the box”—breasts and armpits—or outside the box. Curable or metastatic. To be honest, I have no idea how medically accurate I’m being right now, except to say these are phrases I remember from when I was first diagnosed. Sounds I carry around in a trunk of memories from that time. They rise to the surface, usually when I’m in middle the of doing and thinking about something else. Then poof, almost as if out of nowhere, there’s the image of my tall, bald surgeon sitting on a twirly stool drawing breasts and arms on a dry-erase board and X’ing them, talking. “Inside the box. Anything inside the box, we can cure,” he says.
Once you’ve had cancer, there’s no way to live without knowing it’s there. Even a little, even somewhere in the corner of your life. A wrinkled suture, tender, a bit jagged and wonky. For me, there’s the sensation that the divide between life before cancer and life now is hazy. Life before is there. Memories of before still flash through. That time I was a kid in a cowboy hat. That time I learned to drive on the highway. Whole decades are part of this divided sensation. It’s all my life, those years before cancer. And yet. Cancer is a mark. A before and after. Before I was diagnosed, big memory landmarks are things like before and after I immigrated. When I first learned English. When I first met my husband. And they still are. I know that. But cancer is now wrapped through and in these “before” memories, too. I remember my surprise eighteenth birthday party. I wore my hair long, horse hair coarse with a barrette holding it back. I wore red pants and a white sweater. I remember opening the front door. It was unlocked. I was and have always been scared of walking into dark rooms. My sister pushed me through—the lights burst on and “Surprise!” I have all those sensations of the memory. It’s all there. Still. But now, it’s all overlaid by the flash of the before-cancer reel on top of the cancer reel.
I have made a lot of new memories since cancer. I am living with memories in my body that I don’t quite know how to forget. Or fully remember. Sensations. Feelings. The way a movie scene fades in and out, that’s how cancer still feels. Fade in. Fade out. Colors melding into a dark pinpoint at the center of a screen. Never fully fading to black but always in the process, circular colors blending and moving, paint through a drain. Sometimes. All the time. None of the time. It’s the swirl that is real.
Living in my body after cancer has been loopy. Mostly I can get on just fine. There are residues of pain from lymphedema, some swelling of my right arm and breast. I wear compression sleeves. I use a Flexitouch machine every day that I just call “the Machine.” The machine has garments; I call them “tentacles.” I wear the tentacles, which have plastic tubes sewn into them. The tentacles get attached to the machine, which, when turned on, uses patterns of air pulsing through the tubes to stimulate the lymphatic system in order to compensate for the twenty-some lymph nodes that got sucked out during surgery. It’s like a weird massage. In this way, I can’t ever exactly forget about cancer because these are visible signs that my body is different.
Although cancer is usually in the background, sometimes it bursts into the foreground. Like the Thursday morning almost two years ago when I woke up, got out of bed, and the room immediately shifted. I was walking on quicksand. I had barely had anything to drink the night before, but I wondered if the red wine had grabbed me anyway. The alarm rang, an electronic beep, and I woke up. Feet barely on the gray flowered carpet and I almost fell over, a beam tipping as if out sync with the rest of the room. Almost crashed headfirst into the nightstand. Almost. I spread my arms reaching for the walls.
My first bout of vertigo. What was my body remembering when I had that first bout of vertigo? Because it felt like my body was remembering something else. The shifting of my sightline, the room swimming, the ground swirling felt older, felt like something rising from some other time. It felt like my body was remembering a time before vertigo, when I shook drenched in heat and cold sweat in a flood of nausea, and tasted the starfish bulge of my tongue.
I don’t drink as much as I used to. My liver reminds me that I have to think about what my body still remembers from chemotherapy, even years later. And that says a lot about cancer, because I’ve had a love affair with gin for most of my adult life. I fell in love with gin in my thirties, and I fell in love hard. I have kept falling in love with gin and the taste of gin and lavender, gin and citrus, gin and chili bitters, gin and olives, gin and a twist, gin martinis. One summer years ago in Barcelona, my husband and I spent a day looking for the funkiest gin bars, looking for midday gin drinks as if we’d invented a botanical made from Dali’s own paint palettes. Gin tastes like the botanicals it’s infused with. Opening a bottle of gin and smelling it, the juniper berries first, then the lavenders, the citrus, the sprigs and spices, a liquid wild garden, that first moment of aromatic reminds me of a January trip we took with friends in grad school. We rented a weathered house on water with sun in January, escaping the Boston snow, played board games as the sun stretched across the ocean, and we sprawled out on the roof deck, lingering in our youth. Gin smells like those careless days before my body had any idea of the cells it had lurking for it decades later. When I didn’t need a language for what is curable. And what is not.
No doctor told me to stop drinking. The hepatologists I’ve seen have only ever been obsessed with my weight. Even after a liver biopsy indicated no damage of any kind, no cirrhosis. Even then all they have ever cared about is obesity. “Morbid Obesity” is what my chart says. My most recent hepatologist suggested appetite suppression pills to lose weight. She assured me they were safe. After all, she said casually, she takes them regularly for those annoying six pounds she’s always trying to lose. So does her friend, also a doctor, once she realized she was always hungry without them. She’s the doctor who recommended Hepaxa and Hepaxa PD supplements, fish oil at about $35 a bottle, and raved about the great effects they had on fatty liver, how her whole family took them for healthy living. In 2022, I got a $108 settlement check from the Federal Trade Commission, which noted that “in reality, a clinical trial sponsored by BASF showed that Hepaxa performed no better than a placebo at cutting liver fat in persons with NAFLD.” I still think about how disdainfully she diagnosed me with NAFLD (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease) or NASH (non-alcoholic steatohepatitis).
When I was sick, I used to get my liver enzyme numbers—and many other numbers—checked every week during chemo. Until about a year and half ago, I got them checked every three months. Alanine transaminase (ALT) and aspartate transaminase (AST) are the liver enzymes I’ve watched since cancer. A “normal range” for both is 0 to 33 and 0 to 32. At the height of chemo, my numbers were around 180 for both. These numbers were the reason my oncologist delayed rounds of chemo, one week, two, three. Why she never started the second phase of chemo. They are also why I stopped drinking alcohol, mostly. What would MyChart say? How much higher than normal would my liver enzyme numbers be? These are the questions I have asked myself repeatedly since I got sick. These are the numbers I’ve struggled with and, at times, used to judged my body since my original diagnosis.
High liver enzymes suggest inflammation, live-wire cells, throbbing cells. Stress causes inflammation. Anxiety causes inflammation. Trauma from chemo can cause inflammation. Capitalism can cause inflammation. Living can cause inflammation. Still, an obsession with my weight is the only thing any doctor has ever talked consistently to me about since I was cured of cancer. Once during a routine post-cancer visit, my midlife gynecologist said to me that fat cells store cancer cells more readily. And she sighed that, yes, it would make me sad how little I would have to eat in order to lose the weight I needed to lose to bring down my liver enzyme numbers. She even told me how she and her friend travel with their own tofu and tempeh on vacation, that when she goes out to eat, she orders a half plate of steamed vegetables and lean meat. She’s about 5′ 2″ and can’t weigh more 105 pounds. I wonder about the last time she ate chocolate. Or cheese. Or bread.
So, cancer isn’t completely in the background. My liver is a bit roughed up from chemo, and it wasn’t roughed up before. I was just as heavy before cancer and had no problems with my liver. Then I had chemo and now my liver has problems. But still, the fat is the issue for all of my doctors. Not the chemo. Not the cancer.
In Nina Riggs’s 2017 memoir, The Bright Hour, there isn’t a lot of anger. Her book is more meditative, less grounded in an action plan. She tried to make cancer part of what was happening, as life with her family and her writing continued. There’s a lot of beauty in her writing. She interspersed Michel de Montaigne’s biography as an anchor for her story of dying. As a poet, Riggs kept books at the center, reminding readers about the ways books make us love things. The title comes from Emerson, something he wrote in his journal: “to cease for a bright hour to be a prisoner of this sickly body, and to become as large as the World.” I remember this book like it washed over me and to be honest it was only at the end that I realized Riggs didn’t fully finish the book. As with Yip-Williams’s book, Riggs’s husband also wrote the afterword. Even reading that was not enough. The bio at the end in the past tense, “she lived with her husband and sons and dogs in Greensboro, North Carolina,” finally convinced me she died.
Chemotherapy can make liver enzymes surge sky high. Sometimes called the “red devil,” Adriamycin—the A in the AC chemo regimen—is a bright cherry Kool Aid red. Nurses wear protective gear when they administer it, and for a few days after you’ve been infused you’re actually toxic, you pee pink, have to wipe down the toilet with Clorox wipes to clear it of that toxicity. I’ve forgotten some of the precise specifics of the chemo process, but the basics for me were: every three weeks nausea meds, then the red stuff, then cyclophosphamide, the C part of the AC treatment. And, before the whole thing, a port, placed beneath skin. In my case, the port was sewn in above the non-cancer sick breast. Before and after the treatments, the port gets flushed with saline, in the weeks between chemo too. When all your numbers also get checked.
My first AC treatment happened the same day I got the port stitched inside me. It was a gray day in February, a Friday because I thought I’d make it easier for my family to fly in and help me if I needed it over a weekend. At the time, I had no sense of what could happen to my liver with chemo. I was worried about the actual cancer. The chemo treatment was so intense the oncology nurse had to stop midway and let me catch my breath because I was sweating, pale, cold, and the nausea hit like a baseball bat to my chest. I was there much longer than the usual two to three hours. I do not remember much about the drive home, expect that I was sore from the port and sick like I had never been and would never be since.
Until the vertigo. Vertigo is “the symptom rather than the condition,” according to my unsystematic search on Google. When I felt the vertigo, my body swelled and I felt the nausea, a stone in my throat, pulsing heat from deep inside my guts. The room spun, my body teetered, and my brain was a metronome. I thought, I’m on a ship that has no sightline for balance. The symptoms of vertigo imitated the nausea, the heat, the boiling over of the body in the fire that was chemotherapy. That morning years after cancer, there was a small, wavy earthquake in my mouth. In my head. I wobbled. No firmness in my feet. The carpet, a wave and no shore. And I was going to crash against the hard, wet sand.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo, John “Scottie” Ferguson is debilitated by his fear of heights and has to retire from the San Francisco police force because of it. The camera visualizes his acrophobia using that now-iconic “vertigo shot”—a “forward zoom” and simultaneous “reverse track” or dolly zoom—to mimic the surge in Scottie’s head when his body is suspended over staircases, or in the tall tower at the San Juan Bautista mission. At the beginning we see Scottie develop vertigo after a fellow police officer plunges to his death during a rooftop chase. But the film’s narrative-driving vertigo happens when Scottie is unable to save a woman—purportedly his friend’s wife, Madeleine, whom he’s been hired to trail and with whom he falls in love—from falling to her death. Through Hitchcockian twists and turns Scottie does manage to overcome his vertigo, but by the end of the film, Judy, his new love interest and the woman who pretended to be Madeleine from the start, also ends up dead. The film circles narratively, evoking a continuous vertigo loop—the only version I’d known until my own emerged.
After AC chemo, I was supposed to have twelve weeks of treatment with paclitaxel, Taxol for short, but I never got that far. AC singed up my inside with a fever that forced my oncologist to give up the burning and hope for the best with surgery, pills, and a monthly injection instead. I did that for about five years, Tamoxifen pills and Zoladex injections after surgery. And the liver enzymes number check. Zoladex can cause nausea, but mostly it gave me hot flashes. It was the vertigo that made everything swirl back to cancer.
When I read Teva Harrison’s illustrated memoir, In-Between Days, it was disorienting to see the black and white images, the way Harrison made them move on the page and leap through each moment as she described her fears and joys while in treatment. Each image is its own small story about what it felt like to have cancer swirl around her. While they often echo the parallel text, the images are their own story and live in their own spaces in Harrison’s memoir. I had no idea she died of cancer when I read her book. At the end I thought she’d actually survived, since the final illustration is of a bird-woman looking beyond the page, seeming to fly outside the page’s frame. The final entry in the memoir is titled “Incurable.” And she wrote, “So. Here I am. In treatment for the rest of my life.”
And even with this, I didn’t pick up on the clues because the book, the images and the voice, are vibrant. Maybe the final image of a fluttering bird body moving into the sky is what got me. It seemed almost to leap off the page. When I got to it, I loved that the bird-woman was facing away from me, even as the title of the entry clearly said “incurable.” Somehow reading the word alongside the image of a bird woman leaping to fly beyond the page made it feel like her living was still viable, even if her cancer could not be eradicated. Harrison gestured to this possibility too: “[T]his disease will eventually kill me, but it could be years and years and years. I have to count on that.” I looked up the word “incurable” just because, as she used it, there seemed to be a texture of more than simply not being able to be healed. The bird felt like it could fly. I found the gesture of that bird beyond the page with one of the secondary definitions of incurable. “Not admitting of remedy, correction, or reformation.” Not admitting. Something about that felt like agency, the sense of being beyond the need to be corrected or reformed.
It’s easy to think the body has recovered after the new routine becomes just the routine. Once, I didn’t have cancer. Now I only know I had cancer. Although I don’t have cancer now, it’s become absorbed into almost every crevice of how I live my life. There’s no after-cancer that could ever be the same as before-cancer. There is just after-cancer and what the body is after cancer. Even with a new routine that seems to erase what happened during cancer.
My seven years since cancer don’t seem much like Scottie’s life trying to get over vertigo. He was trying to overcome it. But cancer is not something I can get over by climbing the tower of a mission or by reliving a life with a phantom fantasy woman. It’s not driven by linearity. Even so, I do want to be cured in some kind of permanent way, a way without the need for oncotype testing to see about the likelihood of recurrence, a way that means my liver is not a problem. So I suppose I am like Scottie too. I want my liver to be a before-cancer liver, the same way Scottie wants Judy, who faked being Madeleine, to just be Madeleine again.
In Hitchcock’s film, the loop of vertigo suggests there’s a loop always. The loop is the sickness of masculinity maybe. Or the sickness of fantasy femininity, Scottie coercing Judy into becoming Madeleine again, finding clothes for her to wear so she looks like Madeleine, the purse, the shoes, the exact gray suit, her hair color, asking Judy to dye it that famous lavender-blond. His treatment for the vertigo is to recreate the vertigo.
My treatments were similar. The physical therapist who tried and failed to treat my vertigo told me, “I have to incite the symptoms to cure the problem.” It’s weird. So often treatments do damage even if it’s not the damage of the actual disease. Chemo scorched a lot of me, especially my liver, and now I live with the damage from whatever is also called the cure. “You have to remind the brain it knows how to stand,” is what the ENT said. Except that when vertigo found me, what my body remembered was chemo and cancer.
Cancer, if you’re cured, leaves ghosts, the aftereffects of what happened, the inflammation of the liver. Cancer seemed very different from Scottie’s attempts to get over vertigo. Until I actually had vertigo to get over. Then I read cancer memoirs of dead people, while I was in the throes of nausea, cancer nausea, vertigo nausea. Not trying to get over toxic masculinity. Not like Scottie. And yet. Still living in the vertigo of cancer, even after I was supposedly cured.
An honest answer about why I read so many cancer memoirs might be that I want to rethink cancer without having to relive it in my body. Reading lets me stop, put down the book. It seems to give me some control as I’m looking for connection. I don’t even know if I’d call what I’m looking for a connection. I think I want to see how others have made cancer something more than the memory of it. Or how they made a routine that also means there’s been cancer somewhere along the line. Except, I end up reading a lot of dead writers with cancer. Maybe I am like Scottie. I keep reading the same thing and can’t save anyone.
But I also read books where the writers do not die of cancer. Reading about their treatments and how they research intensively their own treatments feels like a way to exit the cancer loop, a way through, a way out of it. Maybe.
In The Undying, Ann Boyer brilliantly discusses wanting to stay alive and try for medicine almost like magic. She wants to get out of the cancer loop too and details her relentless impulse to try every drug, to surround her body in them to stay alive and get out of cancer. Hers is a heat ride, a maze of literary impulses. When I read her memoir, I felt her heat, that desire to find a way to write herself out of illness. When her initial rounds of treatment didn’t seem to be working, she wanted more. She asked for treatments beyond the standard of care. She calls her oncologist Dr. Baby because he “resembled a cherub,” and when standard treatment wasn’t working, she needed him to do more than “care” for her, she needed him to “be brave” for her.
“I tell him that to not offer the most aggressive treatment is too great a risk for a young patient because the survival numbers for the standard-of-care treatment are not acceptable. I do not want to die, I tell him. I still have a lot left to do. It is precisely because I still need time to, I plead, that I will do anything to live.” When her friend asks the doctor, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Dr. Baby says, “She could die.” Irony. Incurable. I know that knot, that impulse. She was forty-one when she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. I was forty-two. I didn’t have her odds. I had the “good kind” of hormone positive cancer. Curable.
Reading stories of cancer by women who are also powerful writers wrecks me often. It’s a simultaneously thrilling and grief-filled. Should I make beauty out of cancer, given the writers I’m reading who are dead? Or could be dead. Because I have never once thought about any lesson that cancer taught me. No one gets cancer to learn any lesson worth learning. And yet Boyer is not dead, and her book is beautiful. What does that mean for me? Because reading her book was like food, not just because I felt the pulse of her propulsion—that’s what her book felt like. Even the title is like the tail of a comet that is still soaring mid-sky. Her book felt voracious. Which is an irony since in some ways, the whole point of treatment is to starve the growing cells anchoring themselves to blood and fat.
If there’s beauty in these books, and I don’t know if that’s what I’d even call it, there’s also the harsh reality of suffering. Suffering that is not about finding any beauty, message, or lesson. With cancer, suffering just happens. I lived through it, just like all the writers I’ve now read did. But’s that is not an experience of triumph. I got lucky. Yip-Williams, Riggs, and Harrison didn’t.
When I read Susan Gubar’s Memoir of a Debulked Woman, I felt almost as if I was invading private spaces I shouldn’t exactly be in. She writes about her body, ovarian cancer, and the indignities of living with a stoma after surgery, vividly detailing what she contends with on a daily basis, and what it’s like to feel out of control since she cannot control even this most basic function. Gubar focuses on the intense disgust of having to think about emptying the bag while also being grateful that she has it and this chance to keep living. She says with despair, “I can feel the belches of liquid when they emerge from the stoma and every trip to the toilet involves emptying the bag which, I hope, might become routine. Each time, though, I think that vets would not do this to a dog … I am perpetually dirty, defecating incessantly from my belly.” She knows she’s supposed to be grateful, that her doctors try to treat her respectfully, calling her Dr. Gubar. (She’s an English professor). But she knows. She knows. Cancer cannot be sanitized or made lyrical. “I have to struggle against feeling betrayed by the cancer and by the well-intentioned doctors fighting it,” she writes. She’s alive, and she’s writing. She has the care she needs. And still, she knows. She knows cancer can’t just be sanitized or made lyrical. What’s the lesson to be learned from shitting in a bag?
The last eight or so minutes of the film Vertigo retell the plot, and the vertigo loop of the tower that haunts them all from the beginning. Driven back to the essential scene of their relationship, Scottie and Judy make it to the top of the San Juan Bautista mission. “I made it! I made it!” he declares. He’s sweating, she’s disheveled. And she begs him to love her, as she has begged him the whole time he’d spent remaking her into the Madeleine mirage. “I walked into danger. I let you change me because I loved you so,” she whispers urgently. Maybe, it’s enough. Maybe they can both get out of the loop they’ve both been in since they first met.
The film’s zenith is captured by another iconic bit of camerawork, the overwhelming circular shot surrounding the couple, twirling around them over and over again as they embrace. Inciting nausea. Inciting vertigo for the viewer. But as Scottie clings desperately to Judy-turned-Madeleine, he knows. We know. Judy knows. This is not a return to the past. They kiss, and the music, those famous strings of the soundtrack crescendo—it doesn’t last, the kiss. It can’t. Incurable. And Judy is incurable too. She’ll live Scottie’s fantasy if it kills her. And it does.
When I read Suleika Jaouad’s Between Two Kingdoms, how she focuses on the starkness of becoming an adult as cancer grows inside her lingered with me. She fell in love while sick, hungered for safety and care, and then lost that love as she suffered through treatment. Her memoir follows a linear, looping chronology, and the moments of narrative when she’s working out how to be in a new relationship, how to start one while trying not to make cancer the center of everything, are poised and vivid. I felt her as kindred even though I was so much older when diagnosed than she was. Toward the end, her story also became a road-trip narrative, as she visited people who were important correspondents for her as she was undergoing treatment. After she seemed to be fully recovered, she was also working out how to be in the world, knowing the losses she has had so young. “Loss has left me guarded, spent, and not just the losses of life I’ve witnessed over the last few years. It’s the collateral losses of illness … at times, my heart feels so haunted that there’s no room for the living—for the possibility of new love, new loss.”
Jaouad made me realize how little I’d read about cancer during my illness or what the treatments would do to me or even their chemical reactions in my body, like the liver enzymes and inflammation. She was sick for several years, while my illness was, by contrast contained to a year of treatments. (Unless I count the post-cancer infusions, pills, liver issues, lymphedema.) But why bother with comparison. She reminded me, we’re all haunted. By the time her book ends, she’s living her life with chemicals still, the effects and the ravages of cancer, and what’s possible after. She’s also in love again, traveling out of the illness into the living. Maybe. But the chances of recurrence, they hang over all of us. The promises of more cells, more tests, more cancer, a kind of vertigo in the end. It has kept me off balance. Maybe there is no way to get out of the cancer loop.
Being laid up with vertigo was nothing like cancer. My body was completely overtaken by cancer. With vertigo it remembered the tactility of being completely overtaken again. I think reading cancer memoirs has been my way of not getting completely overtaken. It may be like what Scottie was trying to do too with Judy at the end. To live the memory again, to try and control it. It doesn’t work. His desire to conquer vertigo became a desire to conquer Judy. That way leads to death.
Reading about cancer is not the same thing as the memory of cancer in my body. It wasn’t the reading that made me remember. It was the vertigo. That remembering was not a choice. It was not something I could plan. Cancer wasn’t the plan. Neither was vertigo. And still, my body does not forget. It has a way of remembering. Like the other writers I’ve read, all I can do is try to write out the memory—and hope that is the way through.