[Letters] have souls; they can speak; they have in them all that force which expresses the transports of the heart; they have all the fire of our passions, they can raise them as much as if the persons themselves were present; they have all the tenderness and the delicacy of speech, and sometimes even a boldness of expression beyond it.
-- Heloise to Abelard, 12th century
I have just finished I am With you; Love Letters to Cancer Patients by Nancy Novak and Barbara K. Richardson. This book felt like a gift, more than any other book on the subject I have read--and I’ve read many. In this one, Novak and Richardson have compiled letters to cancer patients written by cancer patients, survivors, and caretakers of cancer patients. The missives are practical, emotional, sometimes very poetic and sometimes a rushing stream of consciousness. At the end of each letter, the writer offers a few practical pieces of advice about what helped them along their journey.
Each short entry is filled with intimate sentiments that make you feel as if you are reading someone’s personal journal. You feel embraced; you hear a constant whisper, “You are not alone!” Unlike many other books on and about cancer, this one felt much more raw, more attuned to the emotional truths about what it means to have a cancer diagnosis, truths I’ve witnessed in so many of my patients. For example, Max Jennings in his piece A Little Worse for Some Wear writes, “My trust in my body has come to depend on how recently I’ve had tests.” My patients often feel enormous relief with the news of good lab results or a clean scan; conversely, upcoming scans cause nerves and anxiety to soar (to read more on this check out Scanxiety). Another truth comes in Alexander Niles simple reductive statement: “Sometimes through the darkest skies, the brightest stars reveal themselves and shine.” I always tell my patients that there is good to be derived from all the bad that accompanies a cancer diagnosis. Cancer causes the most meaningful aspects of our lives to come acutely into focus, forces us to reexamine what is truly important; it can be a huge opportunity for intimacy and personal growth. Niles understands this.
There’s also in this collection the light touch-- Les Mahler in his piece Am I Weird, or What?, writing, “[P]lus, the most important part in this battle was realizing that I am not dead yet. As long as I remembered that, the battle was going my way. If I could put my feet on the floor, and every day, if I woke up and saw the morning sun- I was still winning the battle.” Generally, I don’t love battle metaphors when it comes to discussing successes or failures in regards to cancer, primarily because if someone “loses the battle,” there is the implication that that person did something wrong--had an inferior strategy or ineffective armor. In fact, someone can do everything right and still “lose the battle.” But what Mahler is getting at holds water: Take it one day at a time. Each day is a win. It means you, the cancer patient, are still doing what you want to be, which is living. Staying in the moment, when you have cancer, is the antidote to all the what ifs and unknowns that can be intolerable.
I always want my patients to feel that I am with them on their cancer journey. These essays, one after another, affirm the critical importance and value of linking arms on the sometimes long, often frightening road.