Sitting on the Tube on my way to visit a friend, I look up from my book to find a middle-aged woman offering me a smile of such supportive warmth that I think I must know her. I don’t, and soon realise she’s seen I’m reading Janet Todd’s Radiation Diaries and assumed I’ve had the diagnosis we all dread and am preparing myself for what’s to come. I haven’t. But having read these three remarkable memoirs, I can now imagine how it would be. The authors are quite different, their cancers are different and the ways in which they deal with them are different, but they are united in the clarity with which they recount their experiences of diagnosis and treatment and the astonishing endurance they have all shown.
Barbara K Lipska is a neuroscientist, specialising in schizophrenia, and director of the Human Brain Collection Core at the National Institute of Mental Health in the United States. She knows all about the brain, its physical structures and the many ways in which it can malfunction. A survivor of both stage 3 breast cancer and stage 1B melanoma, she is an athlete as well as a scientist. As she trains for an Ironman triathlon (140.6 miles of swimming, running and cycling) at the age of sixty-three, she notices oddities in her body. She’s shaky and there are problems with her vision. Her experience tells her at once that she may have a brain tumour. In fact she has three melanoma tumours, one of which is bleeding.
Janet Todd, an academic who was recently president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, has also survived two cancers – bladder and endometrial – when she is diagnosed with a third. This time the doctors decide on ‘radical’ treatment: brutal radiation of her pelvis and associated organs. She writes the diary in order to avoid talking too much about her symptoms and perhaps embarrassing her colleagues, as well as to achieve detachment. Unlike Lipska’s controlled, scientific account of what is happening in her brain and to her mind, Todd’s memoir is chatty, episodic and filled with allusions and literary quotations.
Genevieve Fox is a journalist and mother of two school-age sons when she notices a lump on her neck. She calls it the Interloper. Unlike Lipska and Todd, she has not had cancer before but quickly understands how serious this one is. When Fox was nine, her widowed mother died of the disease, leaving her and her two siblings in the care of variously competent relations and paid companions. Her experience makes her determined that her sons shall not be motherless. The doctors tell her that their treatment plan has a 75–80 per cent chance of success. It will also include ‘radical’ radiotherapy. Like Todd’s, her mind is full of literary references, which both support and torment her. Julian of Norwich’s ‘All shall be well’ runs through her mind. A friend and fellow reader of J R R Tolkien tells her she is heading for Mordor.
All three of these women describe their treatment and its appalling side effects in such vivid detail that it is impossible not to think, as they sometimes do, that it asks too much. How is it possible to endure, particularly when the treatment itself may so damage healthy cells that they will become cancerous in the future?
Lipska’s two adult children are doctors, her sister is a physicist working in radiation oncology and her husband is a mathematician. The whole family is as well informed as it is possible to be. They know where in the United States to get the best care as quickly as possible and how important it is to get second and third opinions and fight for experimental treatment. She has excellent medical insurance, which will cover the enormous costs.
Todd and Fox both live in the United Kingdom and so do not have to worry about insurance or costs. The NHS will look after them, and they do not go for second or third opinions, but Todd is angry about delays in her treatment.
Much of what the three go through is the same. They write of the stress that the illness and its tormenting treatment cause their families, as well as of the support those families give them. They all range back across the years to look at where the cancer may have come from, at what they have done (or not done) and what has been done to them. All have had interesting lives and fought great battles.
It is impossible to choose between these memoirs. Lipska’s battling determination and scientific rigour are as impressive as Fox’s engaging account of life as an orphan being shuttled between grand and cultivated relations on both sides of the Atlantic. Todd’s impressionistic narrative is full of humour as well as suffering. Whether the newly diagnosed would want to read them is debatable, but every member of their family and all of their friends should do so in order to understand what is happening to those they love.