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Book Reviews

A Safe Place: A Journal for Women with Breast Cancer

by Jennifer Pike

To Dance with the Devil: The New War on Breast Cancer

by Karen Stabiner

My Breast

by Joyce Wadler

Every Woman’s Handbook for Preventing Cancer: More than 100 Simple Ways to Reduce Your Risk

by Roberta Altman

Natural Medicine for Breast Cancer

by Ron Falcone

“Most of the women I knew were frightened out of all proportion to statistical reality. Although heart disease was far likelier to kill them, they worried more about breast cancer,” writes American journalist Karen Stabiner in the introduction to her opus, To Dance With the Devil: The New War On Breast Cancer. But then she writes, “The primary risk factors for breast cancer are being female and growing old.” Readers are constantly reminded in breast cancer literature that it could be anyone, at any time. No one knows why, no one knows how. Treatments are more successful, but hardly guaranteed. There’s fear all right.

More than 18,000 new cases of breast cancer were diagnosed in Canada last year alone, one in eight women will get it in her lifetime, and the numbers appear to be rising. Breast cancer patients, survivors, family members, and other activists are increasingly politicized, angry at the lack of funding, the ambiguous answers to health questions, the stories of doctors who misdiagnose or dismiss women’s symptoms.

The need for information, the fear, has led to a steady flow of books about breast cancer, and cancer in general – especially books on environmental causes of the latter. Books about breast cancer – from the hugely popular Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book to a new journal for women with breast cancer, A Safe Place (see story p. 13) – include prevention topics, guides to treatment, and personal stories.

To Dance With the Devil is a fascinating hybrid of these, a well-reported, behind-the-scenes story covered by Karen Stabiner, a respected journalist. For a year, Stabiner followed the celebrated Dr. Susan Love as she worked to establish a new approach to breast cancer treatment at an innovative co-operative clinic at UCLA. She explores the political, scientific, and academic factors faced by American breast cancer researchers as they work to find genetic links for the disease. She gets behind high-profile Washington lobby efforts and star-spangled fashion industry fundraisers. And most poignantly, she follows the lives and feelings of seven women, from 38 to 64 years of age, with varying types of breast cancer, choices, treatments, and prognoses.

Stabiner is not completely immune to the rhetoric of this disease, but mostly she reports in an intense, readable style that makes medical jargon and statistics both accessible and human. To Dance With the Devil makes a good part of the breast cancer situation in the United States crystal clear, and has lessons it can teach Canadian women. Beyond its subject matter, it is a potent piece of journalism, and should still be relevant reading when it is published in paperback in the spring of 1998.

My Breast is another American story, but a more personal one, by former Washington Post correspondent and People magazine writer Joyce Wadler. My Breast was first published in 1992, and just re-released with a new afterword in which the author updates her cancer situation. Wadler assumes an archetypal voice: the tough, streetwise New York journalist, middle-aged, mid-career. When she finds a lump in her breast, she’s working on a book about the French spy on whose life the musical M. Butterfly is based. Wadler’s the kind of character who is embedded in the popular consciousness by TV sitcoms. Her boyfriend is a big jerk but his Italian-Catholic family is sweet, her Jewish mother is pushy, and her best friend is a fabulous bearded guy named Herb who will go through anything with her, asking for nothing in return. Through the brief and darkly funny story – which actually provides a great deal of information about dealing with doctors, treatments, and emotions – Wadler allows herself and the people around her to gain dimension. This makes the book a concentrated and moving read. While news that Wadler is at work on a book about her recent ovarian cancer, Plucky Cancer Girl Strikes Back, is hardly happy, it may shed more light on women’s cancer issues in Wadler’s personable, intimate style. And that, in a twisted way, is good news.

In My Breast, Wadler worries about the lifestyle factors that may have contributed to her developing breast cancer. While writers underline over and over again that there are no guarantees, some books distill the latest research on ways to reduce the risk. Every Woman’s Handbook for Preventing Cancer is a quick-hit dictionary on everything from hair spray to cooking to hormones. The alphabetical arrangement is great if you know what you’re looking for (coffee, hair dyes, smoking, stress) but as a straight informational guide, jumping from “dry cleaning” to “endometrial hyperplasia” is disconcerting. Readers buying a book on preventing cancer probably want to know the straight do’s and don’ts for healthy living, with a separate section on hereditary and other medical factors. Later in the book, though, chapters on reducing environmental risks accomplish what the organization of the early section impedes: a thematic understanding of the factors involved and what to do about them.

Natural Medicine for Breast Cancer is also a useful, up-to-date guide to prevention through healthy living, although the title fails to make this clear. While the book is pitched at those who have breast cancer and are undergoing treatment for it, the chapters on diet, vitamins, and stress reduction contain invaluable information for all women. Herbal remedies and other alternative therapies are also discussed in some detail, and explored in terms of their effectiveness when used in conjunction with treatments such as chemotherapy and surgery. Author Ron Falcone writes in a straightforward, easily understood fashion and the book is very well organized.

Hope Is Contagious: The Breast Cancer Treatment Survival Handbook also covers ways to deal with medical treatment, but in a different way. Author Margit Esser Porter surveyed hundreds of women for their first-person advice. A companion to each stage of the disease from diagnosis to reconstruction, here women share the foods, lifestyle choices, health decisions, and suggestions for comfortable clothing and environments that helped them get through their treatments.

In its first-person snippets of advice, Hope Is Contagious points out that women are individuals, and responses to treatment will vary from person to person. Some women value having meals prepared and frozen before chemotherapy begins. Some are proud that they never missed work, or walked for five miles every day of their treatment; others just want to make a cozy nest of flannel sheets and eat comfort food. Some women advise celebrating the baldness that can result from chemotherapy; others offer advice on makeup and head wraps.

Finally, for a more Canadian perspective, for detailed information, and a whole-woman approach many of the other books ignore in favour of dealing mainly with the cancer itself and its related medical conditions, Vancouver bookseller Jennifer Pike’s A Safe Place is a very special guide to understanding one’s own experience with breast cancer. Blank pages (which may have to be supplemented by an additional journal because they don’t offer much space) are interspersed with quotes, Pike’s own experiences, medical information, and prompting questions. Pike’s book is important, too, for its inclusion of material for breast cancer survivors, on goals, relationships, and aftercare. A Safe Place may prove an irreplaceable resource for many women faced with life-and-death decisions, changes, and feelings. It fills a serious gap in breast cancer literature, by a writer who knows whereof she speaks. And as the only book reviewed here to officially donate a portion of the proceeds to breast cancer research, it seems an extra important resource.