23 July 2012

From a Death Sentence to a Surplus of Wonder

Because, as you know, I can't stay away from the medical non-fiction, I was inexorably drawn to Susan Gubar's "Memoir of a Debulked Woman".

Oof. And, wow.

"Doctored, I am a maundering wreck of the woman I had been." (p. 182)

It's her telling of her travails with ovarian cancer - diagnosis, surgery (the debulking of the title), chemotherapy, remission, recurrence. And because she's a scholar, it's laced with quotes from a huge array of books and articles - from writings about medicine to poetry, fiction, memoir. Because I'm me, and was astounded by the ten tiny-type pages of "works cited", I counted them. 177, ranging from W.H. Auden and Margaret Atwood, to Gail Goodwin, Philip Larkin, Oliver Sacks and Virginia Woolf. It's kind of a tour de force.

"When is an ache an ache, and not the sign of a recurrence or a metastasis?" (p. 210)

All through, though, Gubar pulls no punches - chemo is described as the horror that it is, drains and ostomies are excruciatingly detailed. And ovarian cancer is lamented as a silent killer. It may or may not have symptoms, its symptoms may be disregarded as "other, more benign ailments", and there is no reliable test or screening tool for early detection.

"Cancer is paranoia's dream come true; there's something in there that I cannot see or feel or imagine, trying to murder me." (p. 64)

Reading Gubar provoked an awful lot of what my kid's elementary school teachers would call text-to-self connection. Every intestinal twinge convinced my inner paranoiac that cancer was masquerading as indigestion. The several friends I've known who've had ovarian cancer? I wept for them. My mother - who endured several regimes of chemotherapy and two different courses of radiation - was not far from my mind, ever. [And Gubar's own elderly mother makes numerous demanding appearances through Memoir of a Debulked Woman.]

"As in childbirth, I speculate to Jo, in dying we may need a doula." (p. 226)

Gubar's book is grisly, and not particularly hopeful - because most cases of ovarian cancer are not diagnosed early enough, treatment is too often not very successful. She anticipates death, spins beauty and understanding out of bits of poetry and prose. It's heart-rending, and clear-eyed, and makes the point that our "social prohibitions against acknowledging dying or mourning" mean that we shy from hospice, rail against "death panels", and spend countless dollars keeping the very sick alive. But she's alive, nearly four years past diagnosis, and writes with a fluid underlying joy. It's a gift, this book.


Freshhell said...

Not sure I could stand to read it. Esp as I have all my twinges and aches diagnosed. I can't help thinking of thing that keeps killing my friends.

Anonymous said...

This is going on my "to read" list.

Joybells said...

This, like most everything lately, is reminding me of Frank Ocean's song, "Swim Good." Thanks for reading this book, and writing this post. Not sure when, or if, I'll get to this book, so I'm all the more grateful for the post.

I think she's right about needing a doula for dying. Based on my anecdotal observations from the peanut gallery, many people call on priests/ministers for such companionship as they near death. The people who get to make such calls for help are perversely lucky in some ways, so far as I can tell, knowing with such intimacy that their days are numbered. The rest of us, the teeming undiagnosed and clueless crowds, meander through life using expressions like, "I could get hit by a bus..." but tending to assume we'll be able to exercise some discretion, and have some choices to make, before we expire.

Goodness. Obviously I need a vacation from church AND hospital work. Anyway, thanks again.

Sharon L. Holland said...

Sounds like a book you have to be brave to read. I'll mull over whether I am or not.

MARY G said...

There's also a gruesome movie with Emma Thompson in it.
When do we stop feeling invulnerable and start to fear? Sometime in our twenties, maybe?
Don't know if I have the courage to read this, but it sounds amazing.

V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios said...

My friend Brenda has terminal ovarian cancer, is four years or so out from diagnosis. I can't read this because it hits too close for comfort.