If I'm Spared

Simpson, Helen

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony
  • Date of entry: Oct-04-2006
  • Last revised: Oct-03-2006


A foreign correspondent accustomed to global calamities now finds himself entangled in a personal disaster. Tom is a middle-aged man with a weakness for cigarettes and women but not much interest in his wife, Barbara, and their young daughter. Tom develops a nagging cough. Night sweats, bloody sputum, and weight loss soon follow. He visits multiple physicians. A chest X-ray demonstrates a suspicious "shadow." Even before further testing is performed, a distinguished pulmonary specialist tells Tom that the diagnosis is lung cancer.

Tom and his wife search the Internet and worry even more when they learn about the harsh side effects of treatment and the dismal prognosis of the disease. Although he has smoked cigarettes since he was a teenager, Tom suddenly has little trouble quitting. He develops a greater appreciation of his wife and fondness for his daughter. If only he could have another chance at life, he would mend his ways and become a new man. The results of Tom's additional tests reveal a different diagnosis - tuberculosis. Tom and Barbara are ecstatic that he can be cured with a combination of five different medications. With the threat of cancer eliminated, Tom resumes all his old habits: smoking cigarettes, ignoring his wife, and flirting with women.


Second chances - how often do they make a lasting difference? A cancer scare provokes a reassessment of one man's life, yet once the menace has passed, nothing changes. The protagonist is not a likeable character. Tom is addicted to cigarettes, womanizing, his career, and self-pity. As a foreign correspondent, he is given a free pass abroad. He seems to enjoy an equal exemption in his own home as well. Tom is guiltless even when it comes to infidelity.

Different styles of bedside manner are on display. A couple of these doctors are gentle or aloof. Another one is direct and over-confident. Mistakes reverberate. Doctors err in their diagnoses. Individuals make poor choices in their daily lives. Characters like Tom seem destined to blunder repeatedly.

Primary Source

Constitutional (pp. 62-79)


Jonathan Cape

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