Showing 1 - 10 of 427 annotations tagged with the keyword "Cancer"

Annotated by:
Mathiasen, Helle

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

A rare patient narrative from 1812 describes a mastectomy performed before the introduction of anesthesia. This letter from Frances d'Arblay (1752-1840) (née Frances [Fanny] Burney), addressed to her older sister, Esther, details her operation in Paris by one of Napoleon's surgeons.In her childhood and youth, Fanny Burney moved in the best London society; she was a friend of Dr. Johnson who admired her. She served five years at the court of George III and Queen Charlotte as Second Keeper of the Royal Robes (1786-1791). Fanny Burney married Adjutant-General in the army of Louis XVI Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard d'Arblay in 1793. He had fled to England after the Revolution. They lived in England and spent ten years in France (1802-1812).Burney's mastectomy took place 30 September 1811. The patient wrote about her experience nine months later. She chronicles the origin of her tumor and her pain. She is constantly watched by "The most sympathising of Partners" (128), her husband, who arranges for her to see a doctor. She warns her sister and nieces not to wait as long as she did. At first resisting out of fear, the patient agrees to see Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey (1766-1842), First Surgeon to the Imperial Guard.He asks for her written consent to guide her treatment; her four doctors request her formal consent to the operation, and she makes arrangements to keep her son, Alex, and her husband, M. d'Arblay, away. Her husband arranges for linen and bandages, she makes her will, and writes farewell letters to her son and spouse. A doctor gives her a wine cordial, the only anesthetic she receives. Waiting for all the doctors to arrive causes her agony, but at three o'clock, "my room, without previous message, was entered by 7 Men in black" (136).She sees "the glitter of polished Steel" (138). The extreme pain of the surgery makes her scream; she feels the knife scraping her breastbone. The doctors lift her up to put her to bed "& I then saw my good Dr. Larry, pale nearly as myself, his face streaked with blood, & its expression depicting grief, apprehension, & almost horrour" (140).Her husband adds a few lines. These are followed by a medical report in French by Baron Larrey's 'Chief Pupil'. He states that the operation to remove the right breast at 3:45pm and that the patient showed "un Grand courage" (141). She lives another twenty-nine years. It is impossible to determine whether her tumor was malignant.

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The Wound Dresser

Coulehan, Jack

Last Updated: Nov-23-2016
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

The collection is prefaced and named for a poem by Walt Whitman, The Wound Dresser, annotated in this database by Jack Coulehan. In “On Reading Walt Whitman’s ‘The Wound Dresser’” Coulehan sees Whitman as a nurse tending the Civil War wounded, and, while using some of the words and language of Whitman’s poem, imagines himself moving forward in that created space of caring for patients: “You remain / tinkering at your soldier’s side, as I step / to the next cot and the cot after that.” (p. ix) The poem introduces us to all the ‘cots’ of the book – where we step from patient to patient, through history and geography, and through the journey of medical training.   The book is comprised of 4 sections without overt explanation, although there are 4 pages of Notes at the end of the book with information about select individual poems. In general, the themes of the sections can be described as: 1.) clinical care of individual patients and medical training; 2.) reflections on historical medical cases, reported anecdotes or past literary references; 3.) meditations on geographically distinct episodes – either places of travel or news items; and 4.) family memoir, personal history and the passage of time.   Many of the poems have been previously published and a few are revised from an earlier chapbook. Notable among the latter is “McGonigle’s Foot” (pp 42-3) from section 2, wherein an event in Philadelphia, 1862 – well after the successful public demonstration of anesthesia was reported and the practice widely disseminated, a drunk Irishman was deemed unworthy of receiving an anesthetic. Although it is easy to look back and critique past prejudices, Coulehan’s poem teaches us to examine current prejudices, bias and discrimination in the provision of healthcare choices, pain relief and access to care.   There are many gems in these 72 poems. Coulehan has an acute sensibility about the variety of human conditions he has the privilege to encounter in medical training and clinical practice. However, one of the standouts for me was “Cesium 137” based on a news report of children finding an abandoned radiotherapy source (cesium) in Goiania Brazil, playing with the glowing find and suffering acute radiation poisoning. He writes: “the cairn of their small lives / burst open…their bodies vacillate and weaken / hour by hour, consumed by innocence / and radiant desire.” (p. 68).   Following another poem inspired by Whitman, Coulehan concludes the collection with a sonnet “Retrospective.” He chronicles a 40-year career along with physical aging, memories of medical training “etched in myelin,” and the search for connection across that span of career including, “those he hurt, the woman / he killed with morphine, more than a few he saved.” Ultimately, he relies on hope with fitting understatement: “His ally, hope, will have to do.” (p. 97)

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Talking with Doctors

Newman, David

Last Updated: Nov-08-2016
Annotated by:
Redel-Traub, Gabriel

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Talking with Doctors, a memoir by David Newman, follows the author’s dizzying journey to find a physician and treatment plan after being diagnosed with a rare malignant tumor perched dangerously near his brain stem. Despite the author’s education, money, connections and geographic privilege (Mr. Newman is a New Yorker surrounded by “the best” hospitals and the “the best” doctors), he finds himself struggling to make any sense of the conflicting medical advice he receives. The vertigo induced by the deluge of advice he gathers in his countless trips to multiple medical centers, is only exacerbated by the egotism and childishness of some of the doctors he sees. The indecencies range from the routine—waiting hours for doctors that are running behind schedule—to the utterly bizarre—a doctor returning Mr. Newman’s $10 copay as a gesture of good will after explaining that his tumor was inoperable and would likely be fatal.   Mr. Newman’s career as a psychotherapist is intimately interwoven into the fabric of the memoir. His analytical eye strongly informs his search for a physician whom he can trust. Moreover, knitted into the narrative is Mr. Newman’s experience with his own patients whom he is forced to refer to other therapists while he is receiving treatment.   Coloring the tone of the entire memoir is the fact that Mr. Newman has survived the tumor around which the memoir is framed. Nonetheless, Talking with Doctors is a harrowing and suspenseful read.

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Attending Others

Volck, Brian

Last Updated: Apr-11-2016
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This memoir of a life in medicine takes the writer from St. Louis to a Navajo reservation to Central America to the east coast and from urban hospitals to ill-equipped rural clinics. It offers a wide range of reflections on encounters with patients that widen and deepen his sense of calling and  understanding of what it means to do healing work.  He learns to listen to tribal elders, to what children communicate without words, to worried parents, and to his own intuition while calling on all the skills he acquired in a rigorous medical education.  Always drawn to writing, Volck takes his writing work (and play) as seriously as his medical practice, and muses on the role of writing in the medical life as he goes along.

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Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Essay

Summary:

This is a collection of essays by (mostly British) artists, performers, and academics on the intersection between medicine and theater.  It appears in a series entitled “Performance and Science: Interdisciplinary Dialogues” put out by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.  The introduction makes it clear there are many points of convergence beyond the scope of this volume, such as how medicine is depicted in plays and therapeutic uses of theater (e.g. drama therapy).  The focus here, then, is on “the ways in which the body is understood, displayed and represented in performance” (p. 11).  And the “medical body” of the title refers to one that is ’acted upon’ by illness or disability and/or by the diagnostic and therapeutic activities of the medical profession” (Ibid).  

The book is divided into three sections: “Performing the Medical,” “Performing Patients,” and “Performing Body Parts.”  The first section includes an essay by Roger Kneebone, a surgeon, who explores the parallels between his field and theatrical performance.  Kneebone has devised simulations that enable laypersons to get a sense of what it is like to participate in surgery.  In his view, this encourages cross-fertilization of ideas.  For example, his collaboration with a jazz pianist has demonstrated to him that musical improvisation, in its spontaneity, is somewhat like emergency surgery.  And his work with a choreographer led to the development of a dance piece depicting the movements of a surgical team during a procedure.   
 

In the second section we read about Brian Lobel, a theater artist who has used his experience with testicular cancer to create a solo performance piece entitled “BALL.”  This not only allowed Lobel to “regain a sense of mastery over the illness experience” (p. 88), but has also earned him a niche within the theater community.  Lobel now works with other cancer sufferers helping them develop their own narratives in a project called “Fun with Cancer Patients.”  

The final section of the book includes a description of “Under Glass,” a forty-minute performance piece consisting of eight specimen jars each containing a solo performer, said to be “at once museum exhibit, gallery and medical laboratory” (p. 141), which also provides the book's front cover image. "Under Glass" was devised by Clod Ensemble, whose Performing Medicine project is known for its teaching programs in numerous London medical schools.  Meant to provoke discourse about the public display of specimens, it brings to mind the Victorian “freak show” as well as the more recent controversial touring Body Worlds exhibition of plastinated cadavers and body parts.

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When Breath Becomes Air

Kalanithi, Paul

Last Updated: Feb-18-2016
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Paul Kalanithi, diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer when he was a neurosurgery resident at Stanford University, was faced with a decision. Should he truncate his career in neurosurgery in order to become a writer - a career he had always envisioned for himself after completing a couple of decades of neurosurgery practice? Married to Lucy Kalanithi, an internist he had met in medical school, Paul’s career and future had looked bright and promising. But as he entered his final year of a seven-year residency, symptoms of excruciating back pain and significant weight loss began. Garbed in a hospital gown, he examines his own CT scan – this is how we meet Paul at the beginning of the Prologue. He then writes of the relatively brief period of misdiagnosis prior to the CT scan. With the initial negative plain x-rays, he is started on nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. But breakthrough pain and continued weight loss leads to the CT. Paul the physician understands the death sentence the images portend; Paul the patient is just beginning his journey. The diagnosis and treatment cause him to reassess his decisions about his life, to decide to father a child even though he knows he will never see the child grow up, and ultimately to write a memoir, essentially for his daughter.

Paul had graduated from Stanford with undergraduate and master’s degrees which reflected his dual love of literature and science. He combined these in a second master’s degree from Cambridge University in the history and philosophy of science and medicine before attending Yale for his medical degree. He and his wife return to California for residencies. The book is largely a blend of his dual interests: a deep and abiding love and faith in literature and how words can reveal truths, and a passion for the practice and science of neurosurgery. The rupture of fatal illness into his life interrupts his dogged trajectory towards an academic medical career, and, like all ruptures, confounds expectations and reorients priorities.

The book has five parts: a foreword by physician-writer Abraham Verghese, who notes the stunning prose Paul produced for an initial article in The New York Times and exhorts the reader to “Listen to Paul” (page xix); a brief prologue; two parts by Paul Kalanithi (Part I: In Perfect Health I Begin, and Part II: Cease Not till Death); and a stunning, heart-breaking epilogue by Lucy Kalanithi. In the epilogue, written with as many literary references and allusions as her husband’s writing includes, Lucy provides the reader with a gentle and loving portrait of her husband in his final days, reaffirms his joy in their daughter Cady, and chronicles how she kept her promise to her dying husband to shepherd his manuscript into print.

The bulk of the book is memoir – a childhood in Arizona and an aversion to pursuing a life in medicine due to his hard-working cardiologist-father, experiences at Stanford which eventually led him to reverse his decision to avoid a medical career, the stages of his medical career and caring for patients, and his devastating cancer. Though initially responsive to treatment—and indeed, the treatment enables him to complete his residency and decide to father a child with Lucy—the cancer is, as prognosticated from the diagnosis, fatal.

What makes this memoir so much more than an exercise in memory and a tribute to the herculean effort to write while sapped by cancer and its treatment, are the philosophical turns, the clear love of words and literature, and the poignancy of the writing. He begins reading fiction and nonfiction again: “I was searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death, to find a way to begin defining myself and inching forward again. The privilege of direct experience had led me away from literary and academic work, yet now I felt that to understand my own direct experiences, I would have to translate them back into language…I needed words to go forward.” (pp 148-9) Paul’s writing ends with what is arguably some of the most poetic prose ever written. He concludes by speaking directly to his infant daughter: “When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.” (p. 199)

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The Death of Cancer

DeVita, Vincent

Last Updated: Feb-04-2016
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The book offers a detailed account by one of the nation’s leading cancer researchers of developments in chemotherapy over the past several decades, as well as the recent history of surgical and radiation treatments in the “war on cancer”—a term he resisted at first but finally embraced with full understanding of its implications.  The narrative touches on many of the writer’s own struggles over economic, political, and moral implications of what a NYT reviewer described as a “take-no-prisoners” approach to cure.  He also includes stories about disagreements with other researchers that give some insight into the acrimony that is part of high-stakes science.  At the NIH and later as head of the National Cancer Institute, DeVita faced many decisions about distribution of resources, how much to put patients at risk, and whom to include in clinical trials.  He provides his own point of view on those controversies frankly.  Not much mention is made of the causes of cancer, of nutritional or other complementary approaches, or the environmental factors in the spread of cancer. The strong focus on the book is on the development of chemotherapeutic treatments that have succeeded in raising survival rates, though few current statistics are cited.

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Side Effects May Vary

Murphy, Julie

Last Updated: Jan-07-2016
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

At 16, Alice is diagnosed with leukemia, and is given a dire prognosis.  Assuming she has months to live, she undergoes chemotherapy with the support of her lifelong friend, Harvey, whose frank and deepening love she is uncertain about returning.  On days when she has enough energy and the nausea abates, she works on a "bucket list" with Harvey's sometimes reluctant help, since the list includes revenge on two classmates who have hurt and humiliated her.  When, months into treatment, she goes into unexpected full remission, Alice has to come to terms with the consequences of some of her revenge strategies and reassess the depth of a relationship with Harvey that may last far longer than she thought she had.  Given an opportunity to choose life on new terms, she considers those new terms in a more adult way, chastened, focused, and grateful for a chance to make new choices.

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The Not-Dead and the Saved

Clanchy, Kate

Last Updated: Nov-23-2015
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Two individuals share a struggle that is grueling, depressing, and whose outcome is probably preordained. The Mother (divorced, constantly tired, and fearful of sickness) is "not a good choice for the parent of a chronic invalid" (p. 168). The Son (smallish, clever, and born with some kind of tumor) has previously had an organ transplant (most likely kidney).

Their trek through the realm of sickness unfurls in seven scenes - all hospital wards and finally Hospice. First, the Son is an adolescent in a pediatric ward where the Machine (presumably renal dialysis) prevents his death. There he spots a baby that he dubs a "Not-Dead." She has multiple birth defects due to a chromosomal abnormality and is kept alive by technology. He intuits that while not dead, the baby is not "properly alive" either. He muses about his own status. His mother is always bedside, propping up his spirits.

Next he is in the ICU and then transferred to a medical floor. He receives a blood transfusion after disconnecting the Machine in a likely suicide attempt. Sometime later, he is back in the pediatric ward after receiving an organ transplant. The Son gets admitted to the Cardio-Respiratory unit for a severe infection. In and out of hospitals, he enrolls in college but quits. After getting married, he joins a commune of survivors of medical illnesses known as "The Saved." This collective lives on a farm and members avoid any contact with family.

The Son's health further deteriorates. He is hospitalized in terminal condition. By this time, he has his own child, a 14-month-old boy named Jaybird. In the oncology ward, doctors diagnose three tumors in the Son's brain but he refuses any treatment (surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy). He is moved to Hospice. His absent Father comes to visit and comfort him. When the Son dies, it is the Mother who is alone with him. The Son's wife, Father, Jaybird, and members of The Saved commune are all asleep in the Day Room. Only after the Son dies are the names of the Mother and the Son revealed: Julia and Jonathon.

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Summary:

A mother (termed Mother in the story) discovers a blood clot in her young son's diaper and wonders "so what is this thing, startling against the white diaper, like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow?" This discovery leads to a diagnosis of Wilms' tumor--a childhood malignancy of the kidney, and surgery to remove the diseased kidney.The parents are thrust into a new world--the world of pediatric oncology ("peed onk") and meet the Surgeon, the Oncologist, and the other anxious parents waiting in the Tiny Tim Lounge of the pediatric ward. Everyone is named by their relationship to the Mother or by their profession--Baby, Husband, Anesthesiologist.The reader is privy to the inner thoughts of the Mother--her anger, denial, protective instincts and dark ironic vision. The Mother is also a writer and advised to take notes of this odyssey in case they need money to pay the medical costs. She feels alien to the culture of the pediatric ward--only her artsy friends understand her hell. Notes one (Green Hair) "Everyone's so friendly here. Is there someone in this place who isn't doing all this airy, scripted optimism--or are people like that the only people here?"When the Mother is given the option of no post-operative chemotherapy for Baby, the Mother grabs the chance to leave the hospital, clutching Baby, and says "I never want to see any of these people again." The piece ends on the rhetorical and ironic question--where's the money for these notes, for the story?

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