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BOOK REVIEW

Warm and witty memoir confronts cancer head-on

Cancer Happens: Coming of Age With Cancer; Rebecca Gifford; Capital Books: 238 pp., $24.95

September 08, 2003|Nick Owchar | Times Staff Writer

Cancer Happens

Coming of Age With Cancer

Rebecca Gifford

Capital Books: 238 pp., $24.95

*

Cancer survivors don't always make the best writers. Inexperienced with a pen, they can speak in a language that is awkward, flat or, when it reaches for emotion, falls into well-worn cliches. But Rebecca Gifford is someone attuned to words and her memoir, "Cancer Happens," dispenses with clinical-sounding definitions and encyclopedic sidebars on microbiology in favor of a candid, honest voice.

"Really, like I was going to hear anything after the introduction of the 'C-word,' but the doctor droned on for a while," she says. "I'm sure his words were very important and compassionate, but I have to call it 'droning' because it sounded like someone yelling into a pillow to me."

At 22, Gifford went to the doctor for a backache caused, she thought, by too much step aerobics. She was wrong. X-rays showed a tumor the size of a grapefruit in her chest. An oncologist confirmed that she had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. And when chemotherapy only slowed its progress, Gifford underwent a bone marrow transplant that, today, at 31 and married, she can say was a success.

But what exactly does success or cure mean? One can never really put the past behind, she says.

"Cancer survivors, like everyone, have memories that can never be erased," she writes in this inspiring, irreverent chronicle of her illness. "Even though you may rarely think about the experience, the memory of it may still cause great joy or great pain even many years later.... Where were you when the Oklahoma City bombing occurred? I was standing and staring at the television in the lobby of the outpatient oncology ward."

Her memories of those painful and joyful moments are rendered with a skillful pen; Gifford's background in journalism and public relations prepared her well to cast a scrutinizing gaze on her own life (one hopes she'll turn her skills to a novel some day).

You feel the loneliness of hospital rooms late at night, the discomfort of having marrow pumped back into one's body with "a Texas-sized syringe," the anxiety of what a new lover will do when he notices the catheter port under your dress, the power of support groups, the blessings of morphine and the agony of falling in love with a family-oriented man for whom you can never bear a child.

"This man I loved just had the misfortune of falling in love with a woman unable to give him biological children," she writes. "But the worst part is he's never considered it a misfortune.... I've never stopped feeling guilty about that."

Gifford's frank approach is like that of Ruth Picardie, whose "Before I Say Goodbye" -- another recent, important chronicle of the cancer journey -- includes the e-mails and candid newspaper columns she wrote about fighting breast cancer.

Such writing reaches out to countless patients and reminds them, isolated by illness, that they in fact belong to a large, generous community.

Gifford, who still contributes to various Web sites today (including her own, www.cancer happens.com), found a forum for her experiences and reflections on www.oncology.com, which her oncologist set up as a meeting place for cancer patients. Much of the material for "Cancer Happens" appeared there first.

Thoughtful, witty, always truthful, Gifford reminds cancer sufferers that their lives matter -- even when they're engulfed in misery. That is the time when people are watching and learning from their fight, from their courage. It's not a role you asked for, she seems to say, but it's the one you were given. You have become, by your illness, a teacher.

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