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You don't have to read my book: What I want to say to those who say "pass" to reading about cancer

When you're diagnosed with cancer, people give you books about it, like you have a new hobby. It's fine to say no


Mary Elizabeth Williams
September 9, 2016 3:00AM (UTC)

Dear kind person who wrote to say you got my book but you just can't read it: I understand. Put it down. Give it away. Sell it on eBay. I'm fine. I promise. Because I've been there.

Let me backtrack a bit here. My memoir "A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles" came out earlier this year, an achievement of which I am enormously proud. It got very nice reviews and enabled me to go to some amazing places and meet wonderful people. Also, it's about how I came pretty close to dying of cancer and how my best friend died of cancer, so you can probably imagine how happy I am just to be above ground in general. The book is about the scientific breakthrough that saved my life and about love and friendship, and I tried to make it as funny as possible, too. I like to tell people you don't have to have cancer to enjoy it.

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What I explicitly don't want, however, is for anyone to feel obliged to read anything, ever. And I know from personal experience that when cancer stomps into your life, sometimes very well-meaning people hand you books like they're homework. Sorry about that. I never wanted to be your assignment.

When I was first diagnosed six years ago, one of the first things that happened was somebody gave me a book by Louise Hay. Have you heard of her? I'll cut to the chase: She's an ill-informed, dangerous crackpot who says inane things like "If one thinks negative, unloving thoughts about the body and oneself, how will the cells know not to similarly attack themselves?" and that resentment causes cancer. Reading her book made me feel at first ashamed that I'd failed to keep my cells from rebelling and then angry at this pile of nonsense and then baffled why someone who didn't have cancer would think it's a hot idea to foist this crap on someone who did.

Over time, other people have landed closer to the mark. A friend who'd had breast cancer shyly presented me with a copy of Dr. David Servan-Schreiber's "Anticancer," but promised, "If you don't want it, I understand." I was advised to read Barbara Ehrenreich's furious, righteous essay "Welcome to Cancerland." And soon after my daughter tearfully tore through "The Fault in Our Stars," she handed it to me and said, "I think you can handle it."

But earlier this year, much too soon after the same daughter had spent five harrowing days in the ICU after going into septic shock, I was killing time at a bookstore and pulled "When Breath Becomes Air" off the table. I got through about three pages before I burst into tears. I left without purchasing it. Sometimes those mortality tales hit just a little too close.

I am spectacularly grateful to every person who paid money for the book that I wrote, poured my heart into and actually learned how T-cells work for. Yet every week I get very sweet messages from readers who say they're so sorry; they just couldn't. They tell me how a friend gave it to them, but when they read the jacket flap, they just went directly into NOPE mode. Or they read the first two chapters and put it down, and they want me to know it's not personal. The last time this happened, the message came from a young mother with the same metastatic melanoma that I had. I told her that I guessed this meant I should write something she could read. Here it is.

I imagine that the reason someone gave you this book — or maybe you even curiously picked it up yourself — is because you have an intimate experience with cancer. It sucks, right? I mean, it really, really sucks. And sometimes you may feel like other people, the ones living in the not-cancer world, don't even know how much it sucks, how hard and scary it is. A lot of the time, they say nothing or they say the wrong thing. Maybe they're genuinely trying, but it doesn't help. So they buy you a book, like cancer is one of your "interests" now, like gardening.

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I swear I don't want to make you cry. My book — despite the one potential publisher who groused that it's "all cancer cancer cancer" — is not a bummer. But I get it if the subject matter is not something you need any additional exposure to. When I was in the thick of it, I found horror stories very therapeutic. How about some Stephen King? Or perhaps you're more a sci-fi type? Or biographies of founding fathers who died in duels? You do you right now. Go read something light and beach-y. Go read a trashy magazine. Since you asked, you have my full and enthusiastic support. I want us to spend our reading time on things that feel like pleasure and not obligation. And that Amy Schumer memoir is really fun, if you're looking for suggestions.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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