As I was looking at the ever-growing list of books I need to write reviews for, the fact that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month finally clicked inside my head (yes, I realize the month is almost over). Therefore, I can’t think of a more timely book to review than S. L. Wisenberg’s blog-turned-memoir, The Adventures of Cancer Bitch. The book, written with raw honesty and acerbic wit, chronicles Wisenberg’s experiences as she battles breast cancer. Armed with sobering statistics that I had absolutely no idea about–particularly those regarding Ashkenazi Jewish women–Wisenberg also ruminates on the politics of breast cancer and the pink ribbon campaign.
Right from the start, the reader gets a taste of Wisenberg’s honesty. Within the first few pages, in a section called HOW NOT TO TELL YOUR CLASS ABOUT YOUR BREAST CANCER, Wisenberg writes:
Be grateful that during class you don’t think about your cancer, except during free writing…Wait until five minutes before class ends. While they are standing with their coats on, say that you have something you need to tell them. That you have breast cancer. Expect your voice to be calm. It will not be. You will be in danger of crying. Tell them you will find substitutes for any classes you’ll miss. Tell them you’re going to talk to a surgeon the next day, but be unable to continue, leaving them stunned. Then exit.
Probably due to its blog origins, the book is written in somewhat of a diary format, with the topics and events broken down by date and title. As she writes about each stage of her battle with breast cancer (diagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy, etc.), Wisenberg contextualizes her own experiences with the much larger picture of breast cancer in the United States. Take, for instance, this excerpt where she’s talking about the Department of Public Health’s request for her to participate in a study:
The group is trying to get a handle on why African American and Latina women have a lower incidence of breast cancer but are more likely to die of it. (I can tell you: Minorities generally earn less, and thus have poor access to health insurance and good medical care. There’s a local study that shows that in 2003 the mortality rate for black women was 68 percent higher than for white women, even though black women are less likely to get breast cancer.)
Not surprisingly, the theme of mortality permeates the book. Since the author is Jewish, and Ashkenazi Jews–who make up 90% of the Jewish population in the U.S.–are predisposed to the BRCA gene mutation that leads to breast and ovarian cancer, Wisenberg knows a lot of women who have battled breast cancer; several of them lost that battle. One of the things I loved most about this book was its success in humanizing a topic that many people probably don’t think much about:
I went to Ann and Peggy’s 30th anniversary picnic today. When they were cutting the cake, I was standing nearby and noticed Nancy (mastectomy) standing on Ann’s other side. Later I said to Ann (mastectomy): I don’t think I’ve been anywhere where there were three onebreasted women. And then she pointed out a fourth.
Later in the book, she writes:
If one in seven or eight women will have breast cancer at some point in their lives, and if some of these women (I don’t know what percent) will have a breast cut out, slashed and scooped, amputated, what have you–then it seems that one-breasted women would therefore be fixtures in our grocery stores, offices, restaurants, classrooms, and so on.
Another thing I like is the fact that she talks about “pinkwashing,” where corporations slap a pink ribbon on their products and vow to donate a certain (tiny) percentage to breast cancer research, all while pocketing the majority of the profits.* She also notes how sponsors of a breast cancer walk she attended gave out all kinds of plastic items, even though discarded plastics are known to release cancer-causing carcinogens that make their way back into our water supplies.
Some memoirs are mired in unnecessary details and long-winded introspections. Wisenberg is a professional writer and creative writing professor who knows how to temper her moments of sadness, anxiety, and whining with sarcasm and, of course, bitchiness. I appreciated the fact that there were healthy doses of skepticism throughout the work. There are a lot of memoirs out there, cancer-related and otherwise, but the reason you should read this one is because it’s extremely well-done.
* If you’re interesting in reading more about pinkwashing, Samantha King’s Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy is a great place to start.
The Adventures of Cancer Bitch was released by University of Iowa Press on March 16, 2009.