Of Dragons and Garden Peas: A Cancer Patient Talks to Doctors

Trillin, Alice Stewart

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn
  • Date of entry: Jan-25-2000


The writer describes her experience as a cancer patient, thrust into "the Land of the Sick" by the diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer four years earlier. Although she is not ill, the fear of mortality embedded in a diagnosis of cancer is a dragon that haunts her existence.

To cope with the dragon she relies on talismen: her doctors, personal will, and her garden peas, an emblem of everyday life and its constant renewal. The talismen create the semblance of control over her situation. She observes that "doctors and patients are accomplices in staging a kind of drama" and that the patient and her continued well-being become talismen for the doctor too.


This moving autobiographical essay is based on a lecture read to medical students by a patient who is a writer, a mother, and a teacher of English. Having used it for more than a decade in my teaching of undergraduates and medical students, I find it is an eloquent and inspiring evocation of the fear and striving experienced by those who live with a potentially fatal disease. It offers a holistic perspective on the experience of illness that is usually absent from medical accounts.

Primary Source

New England Journal of Medicine. 304(12): 699-701 (1981)

Place Published


Page Count