A wry, witty account of what it is like to face death—and be restored to life.
After being diagnosed in her early 40s with metastatic melanoma—a "rapidly fatal" form of cancer—journalist and mother of two Mary Elizabeth Williams finds herself in a race against the clock. She takes a once-in-a-lifetime chance and joins a clinical trial for immunotherapy, a revolutionary drug regimen that trains the body to vanquish malignant cells. Astonishingly, her cancer disappears entirely in just a few weeks. But at the same time, her best friend embarks on a cancer journey of her own—with very different results. Williams's experiences as a patient and a medical test subject reveal with stark honesty what it takes to weather disease, the extraordinary new developments that are rewriting the rules of science—and the healing power of human connection.
I remember when my mom told me she had melanoma and she was going to be having surgery to remove it and then a skin graft to basically give her new skin in the area of the melanoma, I (like a really terrible daughter) assumed it would all be fine and it wasn't a big deal. It's not that I didn't take skin cancer seriously, but I am that person who just assumes this kind of stuff won't happen to MY parents (let alone me) and I really put a lot of faith that doctors know what they are doing and everything will be great. Fortunately for her, it did turn out OK but now that I've read more about melanoma and learned that she had not just melanoma but also all three skin cancers you can have and she has the gene which could be a genetic worry for my brother and I, (source) I am terrified. We spent out summers as little kids shirtless, sometimes naked, running around in the Florida sunshine. I am literally covered in moles and freckles, I've already had a suspicious one removed when I was in middle school, so the reality that I actually need to be extra cautious is drilled into my head. So long story short, as soon as I saw this as a book review option, I was all over it because it hits so close to home.
It's a true story of Mary Elizabeth and her weirdo scab on her head she thought was just a nuisance but turned out to be a very deadly form of melanoma. She has the initial reaction that any of us would upon hearing we have cancer- we'd calmly finish what we were in the middle in, and then breakdown. Look at our children, freak out on the inside, and do whatever it was that we had to do to beat this. She does it with honestly, humor, real tears, and you find yourself relating to her as if she's your best friend. Throughout the book there is not just her real account of what surgery, post surgery, lingering pain, cancer treatments, and repeat is like, but she also talks about how people around you react and treat you. Sure, you get the pot pies and the lasagnas, but beyond that people fall into the "ignore it and it isn't a big deal" category, the "overly invasive, in your business" category, and then the "we have no idea what to do but we want to do something" category. I'm ashamed to say I was in the first with my mother and it's not because I didn't care, but because it was really the first time I had ever seen my mother in that light- scared, but trying not to be, so I felt like if I made a big deal out of it, it would scare her more, or stress her out. And frankly? I am terrified to lose my mom. I have friends who have lost theirs and they always tell me how awful it is, how I'll never be the same, and what a difference it makes in the rest of my life and none of that sounds like something I want to deal with. I really need my mom still. A lot. I can't even imagine what I would do if I couldn't call my mom to vent or to ask a question or to ask for help. She's literally the only person who never makes me feel stupid when I don't know something, or make me feel bad when I need help. So as I'm reading this book, I was emotional and terrified that this could have been, could still be, the reality for my mom and I.
I also liked how the book gives us actual history and information about cancer, cancer treatments, and it's just a really brutal look into the cancer industry and what it means for real people. You can take a treatment that is $120K for four doses or you can buy a house. You can't buy both but what do you want- to live or be homeless? It's that kind of decision that millions of people are making out there and it's just... it's a lot to think about when your body is effectively trying to kill you. I found myself connected with the secondary characters, the friends and family around Mary Elizabeth, who are fighting (and sometimes losing) their own battles with cancer. It's just such a great book. I think cancer scares us all because it isn't forgiving and even if you "beat it" you live with the threat of it popping up somewhere else the rest of your life. Like a cruel carnival game you think you won but oh look- there it is again.
Please, whatever you do, put some damn sunscreen on, stop going to tanning beds, wear a hat, and the sun is not your friend so stop trying to party with it. And buy this book. You can find it on Amazon as well as Barnes & Noble, naturally.