The Big C

When I was a tween, I got introduced to the concept of “cancer books”—books by and about people who were fighting or dying from cancer. And not long afterward, I met a friend who had lost her leg to bone cancer. She was a few years older than I was, and I couldn’t believe how strong she was. How kind she was to her little brother and sister. How kind she was to me. How positive she was, and how she never seemed to ask “why me?” or be angry about having been sick, having lost her leg and her hair, her childhood. Within a year or so, she was in remission. She finished high school and started college. By spring break of my freshman year in high school, the cancer recurred in her lungs and she was dead.

It devastated me, and it changed my life. There are things I do in my life because I know she never got the chance. There are ways that I’m kind because she would be, and I owe it to her to honor her legacy in that way.

Tonight, I saw “The Fault in Our Stars,” and it got me thinking of my cancer books/movies. Over the years, I’ve given most of them away, so this is an incomplete list. If you think of any I’ve missed, or that you’d recommend, please comment with them. I’ll be off reading my first John Green (even though Slate thinks I shouldn’t).

  • It’s Always Something by Gilda Radner. I read and reread this one, in middle school.
  • After the Rain by Norma Fox Mazer. Fiction about a girl who gets to know her grandfather as he’s dying.
  • “Dying Young” with Campbell Scott and Julia Roberts. Broke my little teenaged heart. Romeo and Juliet got nothing on a woman nursing her dying love.
  • “A Walk to Remember” with Shane West and Mandy Moore.
  • Talk Before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg. I was a true Elizabeth Berg addict, for awhile, with the real sense that she spoke to my experience in a way that I hadn’t seen before.
  • “Wit” with Emma Thompson. This so powerful. It’s unflinching about the loss of control of your own body, among other things you encounter battling cancer and coming to terms with your own mortality.
  • One True Thing by Anna Quindlen. Like “Big Fish,” below, this tale is about losing a parent you thought you knew, and finding them and yourself in the process.
  • “My Sister’s Keeper” with Abigail Breslin and Cameron Diaz. I’m not a big Jodi Picoult fan— she writes good books, but she telegraphs the endings. And her ripped-from-the-headlines approach annoys me (ugh— I feel like a snob). But this is a meaningfully told tale, and I really enjoyed the movie. Despite its telegraphed ending.
  • “My Life” with Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman. I was so much fun in college that I took an elective called Death & Dying, in which we wrote our own living wills, watched movies like this, and wrote our own obituaries. You’re jealous, aren’t you?
  • “Stepmom” with Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts. Have I mentioned that I love Julia Roberts? This film makes me sob uncontrollably, as Susan Sarandon comes to terms with her mortality and her children’s relationship with their new, young stepmother.

About dying and grieving:

  • On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Not specifically about cancer, but about dying and grieving
  • “Big Fish” with Ewan McGregor, Anthony Quinn, Helena Bonham Carter. A visually arresting, fantastical story about coming to know a parent through the process of losing them.

5 thoughts on “The Big C

  1. I enjoyed all of John Green’s books, but “The Fault in Our Stars is his best one. I’m planning to go see the movie, and cry my eyes out again. His characters, by and large, remind me of me when I was a teenager, except for the part where I didn’t really have any friends to hang out with until college. Also, the support group leader totally reminded me of my church youth group leader, who had survived cancer he got in his 20s, and then, it recurred, and he died while I was in high school.

    Of course, you probably know how I feel about the Slate article. It’s mostly like this: and, yeah. Others along those lines. Anyway. enough about that.

    The ending of the book “My Sister’s Keeper” annoyed me, because I thought the issues brought up were more interesting than the cop-out of the ending.

    I also read a few years ago Erma Bombeck’s book highlighting kids with cancer, “I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise: Children Surviving Cancer” which has some things in common with “The Fault in Our Stars.” I liked it, because it reminds us that people are more than their disease.

  2. Kate,

    I knew you’d disagree with the Slate author. I’m actually more sympathetic to her perspective than I think most people would be, but I think she’s a killjoy. Would it be better for people to be reading Grisham or King? I think serious literature has its place, and I’m a defender of the canon. But it’s rarefied air, and something a little more populist has its place, too. Which I think she kind of says in the piece, but I understand why it’s pushing YA lovers’ buttons.

    I’m glad you reminded me— Bombeck’s was totally one of my cancer books, back in the day.


    • Indeed. I cannot think of a worse thing than depriving someone of whatever brings them joy by judging it to have less worth. Joy is far too scarce and wondrous a thing to try and stamp it out. While I have loved many books in the canon (and some of them, not so much),I know that they are not joy to everyone, and that’s ok, too.

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