A giant post for the Ides of March and this is a strange week for me to choose to read a book about cancer and then write about it, but in a way I think it chose me.
This time of year, and today especially, my thoughts always return to my only brother who died of leukaemia at the age of 24 on Saturday March 15th 1975 at The Royal Marsden Hospital at Sutton in Surrey. He'd only been married 3 weeks when he was diagnosed and his death was the saddest time imaginable for us as a family after living through his 18 months of hugely experimental treatments.
I was just 21 and also a student nurse but I learnt some enormous lessons about cancer at an age when it was going to affect me for life one way or another. I had to find positives and one of those was that the big C word and death itself would hold no taboos.
This book arrived, I opened it and I couldn't stop reading, then I went back to the beginning and read the first few chapters again. Dina Rabinovitch has written a very,very different book about breast cancer and despite the fact that she was told the book world was flooded with breast cancer memoirs, I'm not sure it's flooded with memoirs quite like Take Off Your Party Dress..
Most of the books on the subject feel duty bound to offer the complete ending...
I've been in remission for 5 years, I've had the all-clear, perhaps I'm cured and we all feel happy and relieved to read that.
Someone needed to write that this is not always what happens.
Dina hasn't been able to offer quite such an upbeat conclusion because she has had a recurrence and is still in mid-treatment but she has learnt and shares much wisdom.In her own words "Living with cancer as opposed to dying from it".
Yes, cancer can mean death before you really fancied the idea, but so too can heart disease and countless other ailments, often more so, but somehow they don't hold the same fear and terror that cancer does.
We need to redefine our interpretation and our assumptions about a disease that is responding with ever-better outcomes, may never be cured, but is now becoming increasingly manageable and controllable.
Life goes on for Dina and her family, albeit differently (lots of takeaways) but it goes on whilst she undergoes chemotherapy, surgery, school assemblies, radiotherapy, interviews with Madonna, drug trials with Herceptin, and much more besides.You hit the highs and the lows alongside her but somehow this exceptionally readable book never drags you down or leaves you feeling depressed.
There is an indomitable spirit addressing the seemingly ordinary but actually the things that would matter to me too, important issues, how on earth do you find the clothes, what about the hair, the prosthesis, the swimsuit but there's also an underlying loss that anyone who has ever been seriously ill will readily identify with.
That insidious depletion of your own carefully gathered inner resources, the rational baselines from which you assess your own health; basically you lose the health plot and a strange and disease-induced state of hypochondria beckons, an inability to rationalise even the most innocent symptoms because often they could actually be quite serious symptoms.That balance is something that most of us take for granted and you don't realise you have it until it is taken away.
It's very difficult to get that back.
Plenty of salutory reminders in this book for all health professionals, the throw-away remark that can cause untold anxiety, the rushed consultation, the tone of voice, the mis-timed facial expression, the unreturned phone call.I keep saying it, I've worked with GP's for 30 years or more now and I think it never does them or us an ounce of harm to be reminded of just how wrong we can get it and we would be stupidly arrogant not to take note.It is indefensible to misuse the power that being on the prescribing side of the desk gives you.
Dina is now part of a trial for a new and as yet unlicensed drug here in the UK and therefore at the forefront of evidence-based medical research without which we go nowhere these days.
If you read this book, and I hope plenty of people do and whether this subject affects you directly or not, you will come away from it with a true and honest account of what it means to be diagnosed and treated for breast cancer right now and with that knowledge comes understanding. For starters you will know exactly what and what not to say to the next woman you meet who has it and that has to be a good thing.
I'm also completely behind someone who fundraises without putting on running shoes and doing a marathon (though hats off to those of you that do it, I'm just a lover of the armchair and a good book as you know so you all make me feel terribly guilty) and you can see just how Dina's doing it here.