4 out of 4 stars
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Cancer is a truly terrifying disease, and one of the worst things about it is how different it is for every person. Some cancers require a lifetime of chemo, others come back every few years and some are even "curable". Cancer changes the lives of not only those diagnosed with it but also everyone around them. Inspired by a friend who relayed her experiences with cancer through email, Margaret Phalor Barnhart decided to chronicle the stories of six people with different cancer diagnoses with her book Personal Encounters with Cancer: Lung, Bladder, Metastases, Prostate, Tongue, Breast.
Personal Encounters with Cancer (as I'll refer to it in this review) covers six different people using a mix of first and third person accounts. The first four stories focus on Crystal (lung cancer), Jack (bladder cancer), Linda (breast cancer with recurrence of invasive ductal carcinoma and metastases) and Ken (prostate cancer). Like those affected by cancer, these stories are about more than just their cancer, they also discuss their own personal lives and how they lived their lives with the terrifying disease. Crystal, for example, starts her story off with a friend getting arrested at the border for forgetting he had a rifle in the back of his pickup. Linda ended up losing her breasts to cancer and dealt with deciding between different prosthetics, reconstitution and merely letting it be and finding the confidence to do so.
The last two stories are over half of the book and tell the stories of Miriam (tongue cancer) and Margaret (breast cancer). Miriam is the friend who inspired Margaret to compile this book in the first place, and her story is told via a collection of emails from herself and her two children. Miriam's story is especially touching because not only was she shocked at the diagnosis of cancer (like everyone else), her husband started going through the effects of Alzheimer's shortly after. Her children balanced helping Miriam with her treatments and taking care of her with finding a place for his Alzheimer's treatment at the same time. Miriam deals with her life changing drastically and a husband who often forgets she's even sick at all. Margaret's (breast cancer) story is the final one, and it's no coincidence that she and the author share the same name. This is the story of Margaret Phalor Barnhart herself, and she introduces poetry and snippets from her other works alongside her diagnosis and treatment.
What makes Personal Encounters with Cancer stand out is how well it lives up to its name. Sure it's all about encounters with cancer, but it's also very personal. Linda goes into detail with the differences between different boob prosthetics and the notion that she's tricking people by wearing any at all, but then she feels less confident without them. Ken mentions the use of Viagra after his diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer. These and many more of the day-to-day life narratives are things people with cancer genuinely deal with but I've never read about them anywhere else. I felt honored to read such personal things, and it was brave and awesome of them to open up so other folks who have cancer can see they're not alone. A few of the stories also dealt with faith - how it's easy to lose sight of it during such tough times and how a steady confidence in God helps get through even the toughest decisions. One of the toughest things to explain about religion is why bad things happen to good people, and it was great to see how people dealt with their own faith during these tough times.
In the Amazon description of the book, Margaret writes that the book is for cancer patients and their friends and family, along with health care workers, pastors and social workers. With all of the personal details in the book, I wholeheartedly agree that anyone who has cancer, who knows someone with cancer or who interacts with people who have cancer should read the book. I would add, however, that anyone who enjoys a good, short autobiography/biography (this book is just under 150 pages and includes 6 stories!) will enjoy the book as well. My official rating is 4 out of 4 stars.
Personal Encounters with Cancer
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