In Part II of our three-part book review series for Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) 2013, Living Beyond Breast Cancer staff members take a turn reviewing books near and dear to their hearts. Lynn Folkman, manager of volunteer programs, writers about “It’s Not About the Hair: And Other Uncertainties of Life and Cancer,” by Debra Jarvis, Mdiv, and writer and web content coordinator Josh Fernandez reviews Deborah J. Cornwall’s “Things I Wish I’d Known: Cancer Caregivers Speak Out.”
It’s Not About the Hair: And Other Uncertainties of Life and Cancer (By Debra Jarvis, published by Sasquatch Books, 2008)
In the vast sea of breast cancer memoirs, I am happy to say “It’s Not About the Hair: And Other Uncertainties of Life and Cancer,” by Debra Jarvis, Mdiv, provides the reader with an infusion (no pun intended) of humor. Debra combines her self- deprecating humor, spiritual nature and no-nonsense voice to produce a witty, tender memoir about her breast cancer experience. I am one who loves to discover and read about lessons, be it my own or others. Debra as an ordained minister weaves stories of patients she’s seen, along with her own cancer journey, to reveal wonderful nuggets of insights throughout the book.
Her voice and sense of humor are true to herself. She writes about the expanse and range of emotions that individuals experience during a diagnosis of cancer. Debra respects that everyone has their own journey and her job as a chaplain is to assist people in finding their own way to their own truth. Debra says, “It means you feel your feeling, give that a voice, and then move on.”
When the tables were turned and she became a patient at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, where she worked as a general oncology chaplain, Debra had to grapple with the same searching many people experience after a diagnosis. “I learned much from cancer from being a patient, and probably the most astounding thing to discover was only a small part of the cancer experience is about medicine. Most of it is about feeling and faith, losing and finding your identity, and discovering strength and flexibility you never knew you had.”
Debra’s voice is like hanging out with a funny and wise friend who tells it like it is! Especially in passages such as this one: “Cancer does not give you immediate wisdom, insight, and understanding. If you do gain any wisdom, insight, or understanding, it’s not because of the cancer per se, but because the cancer has forced you to do your inner work.”
If you enjoy laughing as well as contemplating life’s big spiritual questions, this book is the perfect combination. – Lynn Folkman
Things I Wish I’d Known: Cancer Caregivers Speak Out (By Deborah J. Cornwall, published by Bardolf & Company, 2012)
Tiffany’s husband defines “caregiver” in his story about supporting her through her diagnosis with colorectal cancer. He says, “My role was to slow her down and be the voice of patience and calm. I had to say to her, ‘You are unique. You’re not a statistic.’”
It’s anecdotes such as the one above that make me wish I knew Deborah J. Cornwall’s “Things I Wish I’d Known: Cancer Caregivers Speak Out” existed when my mom was diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. The relatable thoughts and experiences that fill the pages of Ms. Cornwall’s book make this book a must-read for people who find themselves caregivers as soon as their loved ones utter the words “I have cancer.”
The 266 pages of “Things I Wish I’d Known” contains interviews with 95 caregivers – spouses, family members and friends of people affected by cancer – from 19 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Ms. Cornwall, a breast cancer survivor and board member of the American Cancer Society, arranged each chapter to be a different stage in the caregiving journey parallel that of the person diagnosed with cancer. Although I was interested in reading the book from front to back, this structure enables a reader to skip to the stage most relevant to him or her.
As a caregiver myself, I got choked up over some of the interview responses Ms. Cornwall received about dealing with a loved one’s diagnosis. My chest tightened when I read the section on end of life issues. However, one caregiver puts these difficulties into perspective as he says, “Whatever it is, you’re not going to be able to control this cancer or the way your loved one deals with it. It’s between them and the disease. You’re there to support the person who’s battling the disease, but you can’t change the outcome.”
Woven together, these stories provide the reader with an invaluable resource. As Ms. Cornwall says, “There’s no better way to learn about dealing with cancer as a caregiver than hearing other people’s stories.” – Josh Fernandez