Showing 21 - 30 of 430 annotations tagged with the keyword "Cancer"

The Man with Stars Inside Him

Coulehan, Jack

Last Updated: Oct-06-2015
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice
Chen, Irene

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

During the physical examination of an elderly cancer patient, the doctor considers the tell-tale symptoms of pneumonia. While the patient is dying, the physician imagines that the symptoms represent the birth of a universe and that the patient is becoming a part of the galaxy.

View full annotation

Welcome to Cancerland

Ehrenreich, Barbara

Last Updated: Sep-28-2015
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

A “drive-by mammogram” leads the writer, Barbara, to a biopsy of a suspicious breast lump. She awakes from the fog of anesthesia to hear the surgeon’s bland remark: “Unfortunately, there is a cancer.” Welcome to Cancerland, a place where her identity is displaced by the vast implications of the diagnosis, another operation, and arduous months of chemotherapy. What works for her own peace of mind has little to do with the trappings of pink-ribbon sentimentalism in the survivors groups.

Barbara resorts to her knowledge of cell biology, asks to see her own tumor under the microscope, and contemplates the meaning of visualizing the malignant cells even if she does not believe the exercise can help her. She dissects the rank commercialism and denial in the survivor movement: let me die of “anything but the sticky sentimentalism in that Teddy Bear.” She decries the claims that cancer therapy makes better skin, better hair, and better people, with better bodies, especially when an implant on one side subtends a cosmetic procedure on the other.

Posting these thoughts on a chat line, she discovers that most women berate her attitude and suggest she needs a psychiatrist. But one dying woman agrees with her distress, and writes of having cancer, “IT IS NOT OK.” Admitting feminists can be found in the “survivor” community, Barbara faults its underlying tone for being coercively optimistic, infantilizing, and insulting to the dying and the dead. She is angry. Very angry, and her “purifying rage” spares no one: doctors, support groups, feminists, drug companies, and the Cancer Society. Nevertheless--and in keeping with her earlier work--she credits the women’s movement with helping to rid the world of three medical evils: the radical Halsted mastectomy, the practice of proceeding to mastectomy from biopsy without waking up the patient, and high dose chemotherapy.

Two disturbing ironies bring the essay to a close. The first, is the possibility that mammograms may not be saving or even prolonging lives, even as they detect cancers; they make women dwell in Cancerland for longer and cause too many “unnecessary” biopsies. The mammogram is a ritual, she says. The second irony lies in the role of the pharmaceutical industry which fosters the pink power movement –the ribbons, the teddy bears, the marathons-- while manufacturing the expensive poisons that seem to have anticancer side effects. These same companies, she argues, have also manufactured carcinogenic pesticides that pollute the environment. Having profitably poisoned women into having breast cancers, they continue to profit from poisons of chemotherapy.
She faults both the “cult” of the survivors movement and the American Cancer Society for their “unquestioning faith” in these imperfect instruments of action.

View full annotation

Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Since Joy Davidman is known to most readers as the woman C.S. Lewis married late in life and lost to cancer four years after that marriage, it is likely that many readers will pick up Joy Davidman’s letters out of fondness for her husband’s Narnia stories or popular theology.  They will quickly find that the letters chronicle a life of considerable interest in itself.  Davidman was an award-winning writer herself, a secular Jew and atheist who turned hopefully to communism and then wholeheartedly to Christianity in her later years, though remaining skeptical—and acerbic—about church people.  The fact that she remained friends with her first husband after their difficult marriage broke up resulted in many of the letters in the collection, which include material Lewis fans will be glad to see, though it offers little intimate information about their lives except that they were devoted to one another through her painful final years with breast cancer.  Her account of that last illness is often matter-of-fact; she writes as though it is one of the less interesting parts of her life, which was full of intellectual pursuits, including editing some of Lewis’s later works, and of practical concerns that included caring for her two boys with whom she emigrated to England from New York.  

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

A bicycling, bee-keeping, British neurosurgeon approaching the end of his professional career recalls some distinctive patients, surgical triumphs as well as notable failures, difficult decisions, and mistakes. Nearly thirty years of a busy neurosurgical practice are distilled into a collection of linked stories throbbing with drama - both the flamboyant kind and the softly simmering type.

Most chapters are titled after a medical condition (exceptions are "Hubris" and "Melodrama"). Some of the headings are familiar - Trauma, Infarct, Aneurysm, Meningioma. Other chapter titles flaunt delicious medical terminology that mingles the mysterious and the poetic with nomenclature such as Angor animi, Neurotmesis, Photopsia, and Anaesthesia dolorosa.

Included are riveting accounts of both mundane and seemingly miraculous patient outcomes. One success story involves a pregnant woman losing her sight due to a brain tumor that compresses the optic nerves. Her vision is restored with an operation performed by the author. Her baby is born healthy too. But tales of failure and loss - malignant glioblastomas that are invulnerable to any treatment, operative calamities including bleeding of the brain, paralysis, and stroke - are tragically common. The author describes his humanitarian work in the Ukraine. He admits his aggravation with hospital bureaucracy and is frequently frustrated by England's National Health Service.

Sometimes the shoe falls on the other foot, and the doctor learns what it is to be a patient. He suffers a retinal detachment. He falls down some stairs and fractures his leg. His mother succumbs to metastatic breast cancer. His three month old son requires surgery for a benign brain tumor.

As his career winds down, the author grows increasingly philosophical. He acknowledges his diminishing professional detachment, his fading fear of failure, and his less-hardened self. He becomes a sort of vessel for patients to empty their misery into. He is cognizant of the painful privilege it is to be a doctor.

View full annotation

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal is both ambitious and synthetic, qualities that well suit his difficult subject, death.  In Western culture, there are taboos against death because it fits neither into post-Enlightenment notions of progress and perfection nor into medical notions of control, even domination of human biology. A surgeon and an investigator, Gawande draws on his patients, his family, and travels to various hospitals and other caregiving places in order to confront death and see how approaches such as hospice and palliative care can improve our understanding, acceptance, and preparation for death.

Gawande has harsh words for contemporary medicine, the supposed caregiver for the dying and their families.  Relying heavily on technique and industrial models, it ignores the deep needs of the dying and provides, instead, versions of “warehoused oblivion” (p. 188), for example long, futile stays in ICUs.

As opposed to traditional societies like India, Westerners prize the independence of individuals, a status that is, of course, never permanent. In the chapter “Things Fall Apart,” Gawande describes how longer lives are now the norm but they include chronic illnesses and inevitable decline in vitality.  Our deaths are now routinely in hospitals, not at home, and often extended—sometimes brutally—by technical support and unwillingness of doctors and families to stop aggressive treatment.       
       
Also, sadly, there are fewer and fewer geriatricians at a time when there are more and more elderly.  A good geriatrician takes a long time with each patient, is not well paid, nor does s/he do income-generating procedures. Worse yet, some training programs are being discontinued.  

Gawande illustrates his ideas with case studies of patients and describes, from time to time in the book, the elderly journeys of his grandmother-in-law and his own father.  These passages make vivid the abstract ideas of the book. But it’s not just elderly patients who face death: health calamities can come to anyone, for example, a 34-year-old pregnant woman found to have a serious cancer. Various treatments are tried without success, but family and doctors act out “a modern tragedy replayed millions of times over” (p. 183) of a medically protracted death. Finally her mother calls a halt to treatment.
               
Family members often bear a heavy load in caring for a sick elder, but many nursing homes are often worse, designed for control, not support of the patients. 

The chapter “A Better Life” describes the first in a series of places that offer much improved settings for the elderly, with birds, animals, gardens, and, in general, richer lives that have a sense of purpose.  Gawande describes hospice care, palliative care, and advanced directives (including Do Not Resuscitate orders) as improvements needed to break the norms of “treat at all costs.” The old roles of Dr. Knows-Best and Dr. Informative need to give way to physicians and others who talk with patients and families about their values, their wishes for the last days, and their preparations for death. In short, aggressive treatment should no longer be the “default setting” for hospital care.     
        
The book ends with a dozen moving pages about the death of Gawande’s father. The “hard conversations” have clarified his wishes, and hospice care has provided “good enough” days.  Pain control has done well. Then, finally, “No more breaths came.” The family travels to India to spread his ashes on the Ganges. 

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Painting

Summary:

Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler painted his model and lover Valentine Godé-Darel in a series of drawings and paintings after she became ill and was dying of cancer (of the reproductive organs). For a painter of that time to focus his/her work on a dying individual over a period of many months (1914-1915) was highly unusual. In this painting, Valentine's head and face are seen in side view in the left of the picture. She is lying down with her head partly elevated and sunken into a pillow. Her features are bony with high cheekbones and a prominent nose. Her eyes are closed, her mouth open. Blue is a featured color, forming the background as well as tinting her face. Hodler also favored blue in many of his landscape paintings. The woman's head and face are carefully drawn but the pillow and bedclothes are sketchy, drawing the viewer's attention immediately to the dying woman and holding it there.

View full annotation

Summary:

This anthology is a sequel to Pulse: The First Year (2010). Both anthologies are comprised of postings to the website “Pulse: voices from the heart of medicine,” an online publication that sends out short poems and prose pieces every Friday. As the website subtitle suggests, the topics are from the medical world, the writing is personal (not scientific), and the writers give voice to feelings and perceptions from their direct experience as care-givers, patients, or family members of patients. All the pieces are short (typically one to five pages), usually with a tight subject focus. For example, in "Touched," Karen Myers reports how massage has helped her muscular dystrophy. 

The postings in the second anthology originally appeared from April 2009 through December of 2010. Because the 87 pieces appear in the order they were published, they don’t have linear coherence. Therefore the editors of have thoughtfully provided four indices in the back of the book: by author, by title with summaries, by healthcare role, and by subject/theme.

Prose pieces vary widely in style and technique. The poems are almost all free verse, although some poets have used regular stanzas. “Depression Session,” (p. 157) is an 18-line poem by a physician about a difficult mental patient. Many of the pieces explore the intensity of medical subjects with impacts on doctor, patient, and/or family. Some of them show limits of medicine. “Pearls before swine” (p. 191) relates the experience of a third-year medical student in a rotation at the office of a racist and sexist physician. “Babel: the Voice of Medical Trauma” (p. 158) dramatically tells the story of a poorly handled birth at a hospital.  

View full annotation

Summary:

Carol Levine's anthology of stories and poems about the intimate caregiving that takes place within families and among friends and lovers reminds us that the experience of illness reaches beyond clinicians and patients. It can also touch, enrich, and exasperate the lives of those who travel with patients into what Levine calls the land of limbo. This land oddly resembles the place where some Christian theologians believe lost souls wander indefinitely between heaven and hell. For Levine the limbo of familial caregiving is an unmapped territory. In it caregivers perform seemingly endless medical, social, and psychological labors without professional training and with feelings of isolation and uncertainty. Caregiving in this modern limbo, created by contemporary medicine's capacity to extend the lives of those with chronic conditions and terminal illnesses, has become, according to Levine, "a normative experience" (1).

By compiling this useful selection of well known and less familiar stories and poems, Levine increases the visibility of the experience of familial caregiving among works of literature about medicine. While illness literature is typically classified by disease or disability, Levine focuses instead on the relationships between caregivers and those being cared for. Her collection organizes the literature into five parts: Children of Aging Parents; Husbands and Wives; Parents and Sick Children; Relatives, Lovers, and Friends; and Paid Caregivers who assist families. The literature in each section tends nonetheless to represent particular conditions: dementias, including Alzheimer's disease, cancer, and frailty in the first two sections; childhood cancer, hyperactivity, and mental illness in the third; AIDS in the fourth. 

Probably the most familiar and powerful works include Rick Moody's "Whosoever: The Language of Mothers and Sons," Ethan Canin's "We Are Nighttime Travelers," Alice Munro's "The Bear Came over the Mountain" (the source for the film "Away from Her"), Lorrie Moore's "People Like That Are the Only People Here," and several poems: Mark Doty's "Atlantis" and selections by Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon, James Dickey, and Raymond Carver.

These and the less familiar works offer disparate responses from both caregivers and those they care for. The narrator of Tereze Gluck's "Oceanic Hotel, Nice" thinks "what a bad person I was to not even want to touch his feet. . . it made me shudder" (220). The wife in Ann Harleman's "Thoreau's Laundry" cannot place her husband with Multiple Sclerosis in a nursing home because "his presence, however diminished, was as necessary to her as breathing" (116). The caregiver in "Starter" by Amy Hanridge "didn't want to be the person people feel bad about" (180).  Several stories explore the limits of obligation. As is often the case, the son in Eugenia Collier's "The Caregiver" is sick himself, failing to schedule his own doctor's appointments and dying before his mother. Marjorie Kemper's witty, exuberant "God's Goodness" plays out an unexpected relationship between a dying teenage boy and his Chinese immigrant aide, while his parents remain in the background.

Carol Levine's brief introduction to the collection explains that she excluded excerpts from memoirs and selected only very recent literature, almost all from the past three decades. A Resources section at the end includes some introductory medical humanities resources and practical resources for caregivers.

View full annotation

On Bittersweet Place

Wineberg, Ronna

Last Updated: Nov-18-2014
Annotated by:
Nixon, Lois LaCivita

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

This story centers on Lena, an immigrant teen from Ukraine, whose entire family has been traumatized and uprooted by family deaths during a violent pogrom.  Relocated to Chicago, in a tiny apartment on Bittersweet Place, the family struggles to survive in the years prior to World War I. Wineberg’s tale of disrupted life and resettlement is weighted by formidable issues that stretch beyond the ordinary range of family experiences. 

Lena, the intelligent, highly observant and resilient adolescent, narrates an unvarnished tale of survival for the extended family clustered together in this strange new world, but especially for herself.  While the family’s economic and financial circumstances are difficult, her own life is made worse by an unkind teacher, mean-spirited classmates, and hormonal impulses.  Her uncle touches her inappropriately, a favorite uncle goes mad, a cousin dies, and her mother, who is unfamiliar with the new world setting and mores, drives her crazy. 

Nevertheless, Lena is a clear-eyed survivor exhibiting a surprising toughness of character and determination. For example, her introduction to sex is far more direct than might occur with most girls of that time.  In addition, when her teacher fails cruelly to support her artistic talents, she shows amazing defiance.   When she discovers that her father has a beautiful female friend, undoubtedly a lover, her consideration of this circumstance does not render the crushing blow that might be expected.  In retrospect she is more adult, more mature than most young women might be in each of these situations.  She is a remarkable young woman with a spirited edge.

View full annotation

Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In the course of sharing her own experience of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, the writer offers personal reflections on coping with each of a number of specific challenges most American women with breast cancer face:  desperation, fear, sadness, anger, guilt, overwhelming choices about treatment, side-effects of treatment, grief, adjusting to a new "normal," shifts in relationship, and rethinking spirituality.  She raises hard questions in a compassionate way, encouraging readers to use the experience of illness as an occasion for examining and growing into a new phase of psycho-spiritual maturity.

View full annotation