The Light Within: The Extraordinary Friendship of a Doctor and Patient Brought Together by Cancer

Ramondetta, LoisSills, Deborah

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: Nov-14-2008
  • Last revised: Nov-13-2008


Dr. Lois Ramondetta was a fellow in gynecologic oncology at M. D. Anderson Hospital in 1998 when she met Deborah Rose Sills, a professor of comparative religion, who had undergone surgery for ovarian cancer the year before and was re-admitted for small bowel obstruction. Ramondetta and Sills "clicked," and their relationship developed over several years from doctor-and-patient to close friendship and eventually co-authorship of this memoir. The women tell separate stories (Sills's are in italics), which interact more and more as the relationship progresses. Ramondetta writes about marriage to a medical classmate, its rapid unraveling under the stresses of residency, her infant daughter, and the complexities of her life as a single mother. Sills' sections tell of a highly regarded professor accepting a life with cancer, but struggling against reinterpreting herself as sick. Some of their interactions take place at MD Anderson Hospital, as Sills returns for a bone marrow transplant and later for management of recurrences and complications.

Their friendship also blossoms at their respective homes in Houston and Santa Barbara. Among the stories they share is that of Ramondetta's courtship and marriage to a local disk jockey, and the rock-solid support of Sills's family.  In addition, they begin to collaborate, first on a lecture and then on an academic paper about spirituality and ovarian cancer. This dialogue eventually leads to the book itself, completed only after Sills's death in 2006.


Although The Light Within is interesting and competently written, the writers do not explicitly address the spiritual dimension of their friendship ("The Light Within") during most of the book. They refer often to their lecture, and later their paper, on spirituality and cancer, but without presenting the spiritual or existential content. During the later stages of her patient's illness, Ramondetta comments, "I began to notice that some of my fellow oncologists were also being drawn-sometimes against their will-into similarly deep and spiritual relationships." (p. 167) However, toward the end of the book (p. 197), Sills reads this passage from Isaiah to her friend-doctor: "The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All fresh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field." In context, this is an extremely moving spiritual passage. Another occurs on p. 218 where Sills's adolescent daughter thanks her dying mother for being her mother and for fighting so hard to stay alive. The authors' stories may appear for most of the book to promise more than they deliver, but in the end they come together powerfully and, for many readers, may trigger a revelatory experience.


William Morrow

Place Published

New York



Page Count