July 2001

Living with cancer: helpful books for the journey

By Wendy Schlessel Harpham
By Peter S. Houts
By Katen Moore
By Nancy Hassett Dahm
By Dr. Jimmie Holland
Review by
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First, you fall apart. That's OK. You have just been told by your doctor that you have cancer. On hearing such news, everybody falls apart, in his or her own way. Then you gather up the pieces and try to figure out what to do next. It's a decision facing many Americans, since approximately one-third of women and one-half of men will get cancer during their lifetimes. No one is immune, not even this writer who battled (and survived) uterine cancer. And for many people facing cancer the first step is to amass the most powerful weapon against the disease: information.

Here, we recommend a selection of the best books that offer help and advice for cancer patients and their families. All of these books are written either by health professionals or by cancer survivors (sometimes both), and in each the personal voice is strong, compassionate and empathetic. They share common insights, such as the power of positive thinking (though one is rightly careful to point out that even positive thinking is no magic cure). All are empowering, supplying the information needed for personal decision-making. All deal to some extent with alternative therapies. All include appendices of resources for support groups, information agencies (Internet and other) and health organizations. And all touch on the mind-body connection, some more than others.

Practical advice
Three of our recommended books fall into the practical no-nonsense category, with an emphasis on the technical aspects of the disease. Wendy Schlessel Harpham's Diagnosis: Cancer, Your Guide through the First Few Months is a revised and updated paperback edition of a book first published in 1991. Harpham is both a doctor and a cancer survivor, and she combines the insights of both. The question-and-answer format makes for easy reading, and the questions Harpham poses really are the questions a new cancer patient will ask. Least exhaustive and most manageable of all the books in this group, Diagnosis: Cancer is perhaps the best choice for a first book for the newly diagnosed patient although certainly not the last.

Caregiving: A Step-By-Step Resource for Caring for the Person with Cancer at Home by Peter S. Houts, Ph.D., and Julia A. Bucher, R.N., Ph.D., is designed for caregivers but is equally informative for the patient. Another in the down-to-earth category, it covers treatments (including how to pay for them), instruction and advice for emotional and physical conditions, managing care (for example, a section titled Helping Children Understand) and living with the results of cancer treatments. Well organized, although somewhat repetitive, Caregiving is helpful on the matter of when to get professional help for symptoms and answers questions likely to surface in day-to-day support for cancer patients.

Oncology nurse practitioner Katen Moore, M.S.N., R.N., and medical researcher Libby Schmais, M.F.A., M.L.S., declare a simple goal for Living Well With Cancer: A Nurse Tells You Everything You Need to Know About Managing the Side Effects of Your Treatment: how to feel better during cancer treatment. The emphasis here is not on the treatments themselves but on dealing with their side effects and symptoms. Many cancer patients can maintain a fairly normal life while under treatment; Moore and Schmais enable the patient to play an important role in managing his or her own disease, and in related decision-making. The authors' traditional technical and medical expertise is obvious, but they also give a good deal of attention to complementary and alternative medicines.

Mind-body connection
While all these books acknowledge the importance of treating the whole person, emotionally as well as physically, some authors put more emphasis on the psychological aspects of cancer treatment. Mind, Body, and Soul: A Guide to Living With Cancer is written by Nancy Hassett Dahm, a nurse with broad experience in treating cancer, who seems to take no guff from doctors. Clinical cases illustrate her key points, which include attitudes toward the sick and the dying, managed care, fear, stress and home care. In discussing "the continuum of pain control," Dahm emphasizes that the patient, family and medical staff must work together to assess pain, report it to the doctor and see that proper medication is administered. Chapters on philosophical and religious inspiration reflect her own deeply felt experiences in these areas. Dahm includes a discussion of spiritual events, such as out-of-body episodes, that have been reported by her patients.

Before I had cancer, I already felt I "knew myself," and all my "deepest longings, intentions, and purposes." All I really wanted to do was come out of it safe (in some way) on the other side. Most of us recognize, however, that a traumatic event like dealing with cancer presents an opportunity for personal growth. In The Journey Through Cancer: An Oncologist's Seven-Level Program for Healing and Transforming the Whole Person, oncologist Jeremy Geffen, M.D., makes that kind of personal growth the major goal of the cancer experience. His program aims to produce healing and spiritual transformation in cancer patients "at the deepest levels of your body, mind, heart, and spirit." The author's voice is compassionate and persuasive, especially as heard in clinical cases where he counsels patients and in his own experience with his father's cancer when he was a medical student. Profoundly influenced by 20 years of "exploring the great spiritual and healing traditions of the East," he invites readers to "embrace all the dimensions of who you are as a patient and as a human being." Like the Eastern religions on which it is based, Geffen's program presents sequential levels in the cancer experience, from the first level of learning basic information about the disease to levels of emotional healing, life assessment and the spiritual aspects of healing. Readers may not care to go all the way with Dr. Geffen, but they will find rich resources in joining him for some part of the journey.

Dr. Jimmie Holland's The Human Side of Cancer: Living with Hope, Coping with Uncertainty combines all the best parts of this category and reveals an independent streak. Top psychiatrist at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Holland has tired of the universal emphasis on positive thinking and includes a whole chapter on the "tyranny" of the truism, tackling in the process the idea that mind-body connection means you bring your cancer on yourself. Many anecdotal illustrations ease the reading and further her purposes, which include dealing with the diagnosis, societal myths, treatments and unique chapters on surviving cancer, dying from cancer and the grief of dying patients and their families. Holland's book is less technical than some, but it's wise and warm and a stand-out in the genre.

Not too long ago there were few technical and spiritual resources for newly diagnosed cancer patients; now a wealth of information floods bookstores and Web sites. That is hardly a cause for celebration but certainly one for gratitude.

Maude McDaniel is a longtime BookPage reviewer who writes from Cumberland, Maryland.


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