In her closely observed memoir, A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles: A True Story of Love, Science, and Cancer, journalist Mary Elizabeth Williams reports on two years in her family’s life, during which she was treated for stage 4 melanoma. Williams first wrote about her disease in a New York Times Modern Love essay, in which she detailed her split from her husband Jeff and their journey back to coupledom. This book expands on that essay, focusing on the small ups and grueling downs of these two years.
As she begins treatment, Williams’ father-in-law succumbs to lymphoma, and her childhood friend Debbie undergoes surgery for advanced ovarian cancer. Williams is frank, funny and crass in describing these developments, as well as indignities like an infected head wound after surgery to remove her first melanoma. She and Debbie share a wisecracking philosophy: “I’m just over hearing people without cancer tell [us] how we’re supposed to do it,” Williams says. “Like there’s always supposed to be a struggle or a fight, and it’s supposed to be courageous. You know what? Bite me.”
“God, I can’t stand that battling talk,” Debbie replies. “Don’t assume I’m a warrior because I got sick.”
Williams also tenderly describes how her husband Jeff and their two school-age daughters cope and change, and she illuminates the recently revived field of immunotherapy. As a patient at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Williams qualifies for a phase-1 study of two new immunotherapy drugs. These save her life: After three months of treatment, the metastases in her lungs and back disappear, as do all signs of melanoma.
Williams often mines her cancer journey for comedy, but the scenes that stayed with me were quiet moments, such as when she drives away after visiting Debbie, not knowing if it’s the last time she’ll see her old friend. In the crowded cancer-memoir genre, this book holds its own.