December 03, 2013

Reading with Cancer

The fatigue of cancer treatment made it hard for me at times to watch a movie let alone read a book.  I also often suffered from cancer brain fog and a racing mind from thyroid hormone replacement.  I interviewed in my book, Everything Changes, young adult cancer patients who have ADD like symptoms from chemo brain.  Each of these circumstances can make it hard to follow the content of a great non-fiction tomb or a long novel, and lend themselves well to the cyclical, mind-numbing loop of facebook, youtube, and super trashy reality TV.  At first these can feel like a great salve.  Cancer brings so much stress and checking out from the intensity of life can feel healing.  But there is only so much quick fix social media and addictive reality TV I can take before I start feeling even more depressed about my brain turning into a trash can.

I am a person with intellectual inklings.  I like to read and learn, even when my body and mind aren’t in their prime.  Once while waiting an excruciatingly  long time for test results that would decide if I needed more surgery, I began reading short stories.  They have become my go-to reading ever since.  I have come to deeply appreciate the craft of short stories because every word counts.  No image, plot line, or detail is frivolous.  Everything matters.  This subtle sense of urgency in writing helps to keep my mind more engaged.  There are fewer avenues down which my mind can wander.  I like feeling this sense of focus.  It reminds me that my brain is not shot to hell; I can latch on to content and follow it through.  And, because a short story can be completed in only one or two sittings, I am more apt to remember the characters than if I am constantly picking up and putting down longer fiction.

Alice Munro is my favorite short story author.  Some readers complain that all of her stories begin to sound the same.  I agree, but instead of a detriment, I find it an asset.  I feel as though I am submerged in her world, and while living with the uncertainty and stress of a chronic illness, I am so glad to escape my world and join hers.  I almost cried when this year on my birthday it was announced that she won the Nobel Prize for literature.

If you are new to short stories and don’t know where to start, two very good collections are the O. Henry Prize Stories and the Best American Short Stories.  These are both published yearly and can often be found at your local library.  Also, if you know anybody who subscribes to the New Yorker, ask them to stock pile their old copies for you as each issue has a short story.  The New Yorker is weekly, slender, and the perfect light weight to carry in your bag to chemo or for an extra long wait at your next doctor appointment.

For more practical tips on handling body and mind changes that accompany cancer, check out my book Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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