Two books struggle with how to deal with cancer deaths in the family.

book (photo credit: coutesy)
(photo credit: coutesy)
THE FIRST US NATIONAL Breast Cancer Awareness observance was a week-long event organized by various charities in 1985. At the forefront was the Susan G. Komen Foundation, arguably the most successful breast cancer charity in the world.
Susan, or Suzy as she’s sweetly referred to throughout her sister Nancy G. Brinker’s new memoir, “Promise Me: How a Sister’s Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer,” died of the disease in 1980. She was 36 and left two young children and a devastated family in her wake. Brinker’s breast cancer activism started with a deathbed promise to Komen that she would dedicate her life to raising research dollars for a cure.
Suzy and Nancy Goodman had an idyllic middle-American girlhood in Peoria, Illinois. The Goodman family was active in Jewish causes and the girls were brought up “to embody the idea of tzedaka, which isn’t about performing acts of kindness; it’s about the state of being kind.” Extraordinarily close to her sister, Suzy married first and settled in Peoria with her husband, son and daughter. Nancy moved to Dallas to work for the Neiman Marcus department stores. Suzy supported her younger sister through a failed marriage that produced a son, her only child. Nancy eventually met the financier Norman Brinker. Their marriage transformed them into a classic power couple and gave Nancy entrée into elite philanthropic circles in Dallas.
Breast cancer affects one in eight women, and that doesn’t count the helpless bystanders, who love the mothers, sisters, daughters and aunts who are afflicted. It no longer counts my best friend who died of Survivors 42 the disease three years ago. If I had to pick a color to represent breast cancer, I’d pick a shockingly angry pink because I’m so furious that my beautiful little sister has breast cancer. I’m enraged that my best friend won’t be at my son’s bar mitzva.
Thanks to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, October (Suzy’s birthday month) is awash in pink. When I think of pink I see the shag carpeting in the childhood bedroom I shared with my sister. It was a small room with just enough space for two twin beds and matching dressers.
When my sister had the chicken pox, I thought that running masking tape down the middle of the room would keep me safe from her illness. Even though I’m grown up, I can’t help but indulge in some magical thinking when it comes to protecting the women that I love from cancer.
At the Susan G. Komen 3-Day Race for the Cure held in various locations every year, grown women wearing bunny ears and dogs in pink tuxedos are almost de rigueur. Brinker acknowledges that “some feel this sort of frivolity trivializes breast cancer. But [the Race for the Cure] is an experience that no one within shouting distance can ignore and no one in attendance will ever forget. “Under those circumstances I can accept a softer pink that draws attention to women’s health issues.
As of this writing the foundation has raised $1.5 billion for breast cancer research. It held a Race for the Cure event this October, in Israel, for the first time and drew more than 5,000 participants. After reading Brinker’s engaging, blunt memoir it’s evident that she is key to the Foundation’s success. As her husband used to say, “You’re not everyone’s cup of tea,” but that has obviously been an asset. Think of how far we’ve come that the word breast is not only a normal part of discourse, but also a body part openly discussed without shame or innuendo.
AMY BOESKY’S QUIETER, BUT equally affecting memoir, “What We Have,” introduced me to a new word in the cancer lexicon – “previvor.” At the outset of her book she informs the reader: “This story is about what it’s been like for one family – mine – to live with risk. It isn’t really a cancer story, or a survivor story, though it has cancer and surviving in it. Instead, it’s a previvor’s story. A previvor is someone who doesn’t have cancer, but has a known (elevated) risk for it, discovered through family history or through diagnosis with a genetic mutation.”
Boesky wryly notes that the standard timeline for the women in her family includes getting a first pair of eyeglasses at six or seven, having wisdom teeth removed at 18 or 19, and removing ovaries at 35. Like many women of Ashkenazi descent, BRCA1 gene mutations associated with a high risk of breast cancer lurk in her genetic history, but she and her sisters elected surgery over testing.
To her credit, Boesky is never heavyhanded about the potential mutations in her body. She fills in the idiosyncratic outline of her life with details of starting her own family, establishing herself as an academic and her decision to go ahead with a prophylactic operation to avoid ovarian cancer.
“[My sisters and I] wanted surgeries instead of testing, surgeries as if to prevent the need for testing, because what we really wanted was to move back, to a time when none of this was needed, when we could just live our lives and be.”
Boesky teaches literature at Boston College where part of her academic research focuses on time as measured and expressed through ancient timepieces, calendars and temporal narratives. Their mother Elaine’s struggle with breast cancer forces Boesky and her two sisters to keep parallel calendars. She writes, “Our plans were made in the old calendar, Calendar One, but they took place in Calendar Two, Cancer Calendar, which had no fixed beginning or end, no set months or days.
This was the calendar that governed now.”
Although the daily life of juggling babies, new jobs and house renovations was lived in parallel calendars during the last stages of Elaine’s illness, Boesky finds elegiac poetry in “Time left with dignity.
Terminal Time. This was like no time I knew. It was time that was finite – Isn’t all time finite, aren’t we all mortal, my mother was saying. Yes. But this was different.
This was time cut off from hope.”
Boesky also teaches a creative nonfiction writing workshop called “Writing the Body.” The course description could serve as an apt précis of Boesky’s work. In “What We Have,” Boesky uniquely delves into the question of “what does it mean to capture the experience of living in and through our bodies?” Writing assignments are meant for students to explore “topics such as race, beauty, appetite and desire, regimen and renunciation, ornamentation, illness and recovery, deviation, difference, or conformity.” Her reading list includes works by Lauren Slater, Lucy Grealy and Ann Patchett. And her memoir reflects lessons learned from these masters of the memoir and illness genre.
Reading these two cancer memoirs in tandem left me a bit disoriented yet anxiously optimistic. Although both followed standard medical protocol, their experiences suggest that one day we’ll look back at the current protocol of treating breast cancer with chemotherapy and radiation as barbaric as the cobalt treatments and radical mastectomies of the mid-20th century.
Until that day, Nancy Brinker still has a promise to keep and Amy Boesky has her two young daughters to protect and educate about their bodies.