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The New Cancer SurvivorsReview - The New Cancer Survivors
Living With Grace, Fighting With Spirit
by Natalie Davis Spingarn
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999
Review by Wyndham Perring
Jun 30th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 26)

It emerges from this book that the author Natalie Spingarn is a woman dedicated entirely to the subject of suffering with cancer. She writes from the point of view of a patient, a sufferer and as someone who believes with great sincerity that she is on a crusade -- a crusade to bring information, statistics knowledge, and fine detail, to the reader, who is assumed to be a sufferer, a fellow sufferer, and who is looking for ways to cope with the suffering.

I will go, in a moment, into the business of reviewing the book in some detail because the passions of Spingarn do warrant respect and the duty of a reviewer to be fair and impartial. I will be as fair and impartial as possible but I must admit, at this stage, to-having a disadvantage, which might in some opinions, also be a qualification. I have "suffered" cancer. I have been advised, when the tumor was discovered, that in a scale of aggressiveness from 1 to 10, mine was a 9.5: I therefore have some insight into the subject and feel that this should be admitted to the reader at the start.

I wish this book had never been written. However beautiful the syntax, however well defined the linguistic style, however correct the statistics and however well-defined the subject, it is put together by an amateur, a non-medical person, a non-expert. Reading this book is rather like looking through a medical dictionary. After the first 10 pages, symptoms of disease begin to present themselves. After a hundred pages, the unfortunate reader is convinced that he is suffering from conditions that are unpleasant, incurable and almost certainly, fatal. Turning over the last page leaves the poor reader in a state of near collapse. So it is with The New Cancer Survivors. In my non-medical, non-expert opinion, this book is troublesome, unwise and possibly harmful.

The opening paragraph immediately tells that the author, Natalie Spingarn, has had repeated bouts of metastatic breast cancer plus other diseases, since 1974 and mentions survival rates and the work of the ACS (American Cancer Society) the NCI (National Cancer Institute) and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). NCI Director Dr. Richard Klausner (who likes to be known as Rick and seldom wears a jacket or tie, because he has to be "humble," is quoted.) Never mind what he is quoted saying: my point is about the style of the book on its second page: it is as if it was a meeting of neighbors talking over the garden fence telling each other of the worst possible scenario. The author states that 1500 women, men and children a day will die of cancer in the US. That's half a million people a year. The statistics have a great weakness--they are not put in context. How many women, men and children die of influenza, electric shocks, falling down stairs or run over by a vehicle? The statistical approach used throughout the book is designed to impress and frighten and has little relevance other than to depress.

Still on page 3, I now quote.

So have rates of the oral cavity, the other major cancer I have suffered (without exposure to the main risk factors - it is more than thirty years since I have smoked and I've never been a heavy drinker.) I say "major" cancer because the official numbers do not even include the many basal and squamous cancers my dermatologist constantly freezes or cuts off my skin (for this I plead guilty, only in recent years have I stopped the sunbathing I love and have been meticulous about covering myself with sunscreen)

This attitude persists throughout the following 213 pages, offering information that does not help those who are seeking help. It is as if by telling of her own suffering in grim detail she is thinking it will help the searcher for relief feel better. Page 5 (no I am not going to wade through every single page dear reader) tells of Ellen Stonewall, NCCS director, who points out that the notion of a cure implies a measure of permanence, "that may or may not be realistic." How comforting. Said Ellen, a twenty-seven year two time Hodgkin's Disease survivor, who is as compelling as she is endearing, "Hams are for curing. People are for surviving". Betty Salter had a lumpectomy with radiation to achieve a "cure" and says " I'm not surprised when people live on, like us, leading good gutsy lives, I'm surprised when they do not." Still on page 5 I quote "Hopping on one of those little Toonerville trolleys to Olde Towne I sat next to a slight lady of my vintage with a deceptively soft, sweet southern drawl who introduced herself as Sally Henderson." What's with your health?.". It took us all the way downtown and back for her to tell me about her four cancers and the feisty intelligent way she had dealt with them. She had a bilateral breast cancer in 1973, then colon cancer in 1979, followed by melanoma of the eye and lung cancer".

There is an almost pointless frenzy throughout, in describing individuals and their conditions in awful detail. All the people, almost all female, are courageous, strong, feisty, brave, and intelligent. She talks of the sadness of Moms and Dads of the Twilight Zone, the Cancer twilight zone, as being a world that other people haven't lived in. This is really frightful stuff.

The paragraph headed THE BAD NEWS is really bad news. Lumps, biopsies, cysts and more breast removal and dissecting ancillary lymph nodes body scans and more spreading of the cancer to the hip and chemotherapy. These are all discussed. Opinions are given by all and sundry and she went also to receive an award for outstanding contributions to the public understanding of psychiatry. Psychiatry??

Whatever the title of the chapter, the content is the snippets from here and there, in graphic gruesome detail of the conditions of people who have been interviewed. At page 199, we are told of Suzanne, a tall beautiful young woman with large hoop earrings who had prayed for a child. She had a beautiful daughter and developed breast cancer. Why, she apparently asked, had God blessed her with a child only to then cause her cancer. Puzzling this out took an inordinate amount of her precious time. The Kwakintl Indians learn enough of the meaning of life to be ready to die.

I could go on. My notations in the margins give me enough material to write many pages. I will not. I will spare my reader from more suffering.

Natalie Spingarn, not a doctor, is completely untrained in any medical matters. Yet she writes a book that could cause great distress to any cancer patient or those who fear the disease. It is a pointless book reflecting her own belief that she is a brave sufferer and that she is doing some good. If you have a relative or friend who may or may not be ill then keep them well away from this catalog of statistics, sick people, and tedious trivia.

Let me advise those interested to listen to skilled, qualified medical advice. NOT other patients. NOT well meaning ill-advised amateurs. And for the record, if being ill with anything is no fun, dwelling on it is worse. Science only last week told us that laughter is a great medicine!


Wyndham Perring is an independent designer and consultant in medical products. He lives in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.


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