Thursday, April 2, 2015

Semi Colon: Book Recommendations from the Bottom of my Pile

A sad fact about cancer is it took away one of my life's most pleasurable activities - reading.  I've been a reader since I was a little kid; some of my best days were spent outside, holding a book as big as me, sitting in the cool shade of a tree on a hot summer's day with a glass of ice water and a slice of white bread.  I became immersed in the lives of people far away and in different generations as grass tickled my legs and ladybugs buzzed about. I've been a hooked reader since Dick and Jane chased Spot, and I had thought I'd be a reader on my deathbed.

But something changed.  I assumed it was part of chemo-brain because I began having trouble concentrating on books.  I'd pick one up and put it down again, fretting at not being able to remember who was whom or what was happening.   I'd start chapters and pages over and over, even lowered my reading standard.  Eventually, I just give up. Reading was, for the first time, not fun.

This was my secret shame.  I told no one.  Losing my love for reading was worse than losing a breast, or a job.  It was like losing my soul.

But it has been about 18 months since my last hardcore chemo and I've been on only Perjeta/Herceptin and Zometa since then. People have been sending me books all along.  And I discovered that I finally have been able to sit down, read them and enjoy them again.  This is almost as much a miracle as my continued survival.   I don't know if chemo brain is wearing off - I do feel a bit more focused, at least as much as I can within my ADD capability.  Or perhaps something else is happening.   Whatever the reason, I don't question.  I just am happy.

But I still have a large stack to go through, so I will share some with you.

First up, we have Semi Colon,A Writer's Cheeky Journey Through Colorectal Cancer, by Neil Crone.

Neil Crone is a well-known Canadian comedian, having appeared on television in a variety of shows. He also is a columnist, and it is from his columns and email blasts this amusing and often heartwarming book was drawn.   Diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer, Neil's essays and thoughts during cancer treatment include everything from his enjoyment at being at home (even though his dog didn't treat him with special care), to relating a car ride while managing a "hair-trigger colon." And who Canada, you apparently get an actual cancer card!  There are, of course, the obligatory hiney jokes, and who am I to complain?  I've made plenty on the other end.

No matter what cancer you are diagnosed with, I think we can all relate to what Neil shared.  Humans are very much alike when it comes down to it, and when looking death in the eye, most of us end up feeling the same way - recognizing the importance of family and love, and the necessity of taking time to enjoy and experience a really good sandwich.  (Or, in my case, a hummingbird.)  Neil's book is hopeful, uplifting and funny.  Each chapter is interspersed with quotes that also provide inspiration. I do think that it is a must-read for anybody newly diagnosed with colon cancer or really, any kind of cancer at all. It's not so much about his treatment as it is what he learned by going through it.  Many cancer patients are looking for that light at the end of the tunnel, and Neil's book shows it is there.

Next, a book about managing breast cancer treatment, called Living Like A Lady When You Have Cancer by Donna A. Heckler.

So I confess, the title threw me off a bit.  "Living Like a Lady" made me think she'd want me to put white gloves on and pull the teacups out, and after C-diff, there is no hint of lady in me anymore, and all my gloves are medical-grade.

The idea that her writing would be prim and proper was quickly dispelled as I read the book. She talks about all the things you should know about managing cancer treatment that you might not be told by your doctor or nurse.  The tone is more like your best girlfriend is giving you realistic advice as you go through the mastectomy/radiation/chemo process than it is a manners lesson.  She gives quite fine advice too, not holding back, telling you what to expect at each step along the way.  In a conversational style, she tells you how your hair will fall out and not to be surprised about where it happens.  She gives advice on creams to use for radiation and chemo, how to handle hospital visits, what chemo complications might exist, how to manage support, etc.  And, like me, she urges you to drink your water!   There is so much more; I think she covered every topic a newbie to cancer would want to know.  It is a very comprehensive book, with pull-out boxes sharing what she wrote in her blog at the time it was happening to her. Because medical timelines are often different for different patients, this is not a book that has to be read in order.

She advises living life "radiantly."  Like Neil, that means appreciating each day for what it's worth. In writing about post-cancer life, she says she doesn't believe in finding a "new normal," that the old normal is possible after treatment.  Sure, she understands that that life after cancer will change, as it does for all of us, but says that maybe the changes are what should have been your previous normal, which is an original and refreshing viewpoint.

I really cannot recommend this book enough to the newly diagnosed breast cancer patient.  If you know somebody who has just been diagnosed, this will make a great gift, providing numerous tips for managing breast cancer treatment, and rest assured, she definitely discusses unladylike topics!

And last but definitely not least, The Smile Never Fades -- Compelling Essays by Breast Cancer Survivors by Bill Bastas.

I met Bill at SXSW and was instantly charmed by him.  He had sent me this book to review 6 weeks previous and I'd flipped through it,  but in preparations for the event that led me to him personally, I didn't have time to really go through it or blog about it.  I'm happy to make up for it now.  Bill's book is a series of photographs of women who had breast cancer, taken with their pets, along with essays they'd written about their experiences and how their pets had helped them.  It is a unique idea to put in a book but not one unknown to cancer patients.  We always mention our husbands, children, friends when we talk about the support we get in dealing with a dread disease, but our pets are a big part of comforting us too.  The years I was terribly sick and spent a lot of time in bed a cat was next to me 24/7. (She has since died - of cancer.)   My dogs have never cared if I'm sick or not,  making me get up to let them in or out for forcing me to walk whether I want to or not!  They lay a head on my lap or play, giving me a reason to smile.  Pets are part of our lives and acknowledging them this way is brilliant.

More than a unique book is what Bill is doing with the proceeds.  Bill has a personal experience with cancer, and has set up a charity in Texas called A Smile Never Fades.  He spends the money on what he calls a "Comfort Concierge" providing women with housekeeping services, transportation, food, or other needs that women with cancer face.

People have often asked me what charity to donate to.  Aside from the big one I support, StandUp2Cancer, I always suggest that people find these local charities - they are in every community and are usually run by incredibly smart and dedicated people with caring hearts.  They are not out for money or glory - they are trying to help people and give them exactly what they need. During my sickest, darkest days, a clean house was a gift beyond measure, and I cannot support Bill enough.

The book I linked to is not his only book - he has several others, including a cookbook.  So please search through them and buy one.  Not only will you see and read the stories of remarkable women, you will be helping out a wonderful cause, started by a remarkable man.

On another note,  I want to congratulate fellow blogger, Renee Sendelbach on her book Renee in Cancerland.  I haven't read it yet so I cannot give a review (I will in the future) but you can read her blog at Team S and get a feel for her writing style and story.  Or just go ahead and buy it without waiting for my opinion!  Renee is a metster blogger who was diagnosed at only 30 and is still with us 6 years later.    Her book is bound to provide comfort and insight for younger women facing this disease, and give hope for anybody diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.


  1. I was a voracious reader before cancer. I haven't been able to figure out why that changed.

    My mother sent me a box of paperback books she bought at a garage sale. They were all trashy romance novels. In her note she said that I read books like these in high school and should be easy to read. I picked up one up at random and starting reading. It was by Danielle Steele. I'm reading along about a woman that's married, has a kid and is a lawyer. She's in the shower and feels a lump... I literally screamed and threw the book across the room. I couldn't believe my first attempt ended up like that!

    I'm back to reading now but not like I used to. Again, not sure why. Aside from my health, my reading loss is one of the big things cancer stole from me.

    Thank you for the reviews. There's a couple I'm going to read!

  2. Thanks for this list, Ann! Love your review style. I haven't read any of these yet. Over the past year, I have been slowly making my way through the books my fellow BC blogging pals have written; will be posting about them soon. Your blog post is reminding me to keep at the reading!

  3. Thank you for these recommendations, Ann.

    I am looking forward to reading a book written by you. You have so much knowledge and experiences that I think would help a lot of people as well.


    1. You are a beautiful writer. Perhaps it's your turn for a book!

  4. Dear Ann,

    Thanks you for bringing up "the reading problem." Again something that is never addressed as a side effect of cancer treatments. (One of a number of SE's not considered a medical problem.)

    I am so glad for your continued recovery which has extended to being able to read a whole book again. Yes, cancer treatments, let alone YEARS of treatments, do whittle our reading down to newspaper or magazine articles and and we can't always hold those in mind.

    I had the same experience, which I also put down to the immense fatigue, as well as foggy thinking. Thought I would try to go back and reread some literary classics, but that did not turn out to be a good idea, even though I already knew the basic story.

    Little by little the ability to stay up a later and read a while returned. The finished books list is now long, and I have about 100 books waiting now. I seem to do best with books that take me traveling to other countries and cultures.

    Great post!

  5. Chemo brain and books aren't a super fantastic mix for me. I am behind on my reading!

  6. Hi Ann I just found this blog and so I'm reading from the beginning. Question...your son's friend Kurt, with lukemia, how is he? Did he ever get his bone marrow transplant?


Thank you for commenting. If the post is over 14 days old, the comment will be moderated and will approved later. This is a spam prevention technique - but I love to hear from you!