The CancerLand Bookshelf: The Red Devil Revisited

Alysa Cummings
Alysa Cummings

I am sitting at the dining room table, thumbing through the summer issue of CURE magazine, when a familiar name suddenly catches my eye, compelling me to stop and read the rest of the paragraph on page 14:

After having lived with metastatic breast cancer for nearly 25 years, writer Katherine Russell Rich, 56, died of the disease on April 3. She chronicled her experience in her 1999 memoir The Red Devil: To Hell with Cancer – and Back.

Kathy Rich. Oh my God, she died three months ago; I can’t believe I didn’t know, I think to myself. Such a strange thought, such a strong reaction, actually, when you consider that Kathy Rich and I weren’t friends. We weren’t even casual acquaintances; we had never met face to face. The truth is this: our paths did cross briefly in an absolutely virtual way twelve years ago. Let me explain.

Kathy Rich’s book The Red Devil “spoke” to me when it first came out, and there are lots of good reasons why. In 1999 I was bald from a few rounds of chemo, scarred inside and out from multiple surgeries and mostly wandering lost and angry around CancerLand. The Red Devil was my first cancer memoir. Ever. And by page 100, Kathy Rich’s experiences going through treatment for stage four breast cancer – her stories, her feelings, her voice – resonated loudly and meaningfully for me.

What was it exactly that drew me into Kathy Rich’s world? Was it her overall lack of positivity? I liked that she didn’t pretend to be brave or perky when she didn’t feel that way. Or was it her righteous anger facing a medical crisis beyond her control that made me feel like I had found a kindred spirit? Hard to say. But clearly here was another single woman in CancerLand – one I could relate to – who wrote so honestly and authentically about the cancer patient experience. As I tuned into Kathy Rich’s story on the printed page, I began slowly but surely to make better sense of my own.

Now all these years later, learning about Kathy Rich’s death moves me to pull my dog eared copy of The Red Devil off the shelf. I’m alternately smiling and sad as I page through the book remembering how she called her oncology nurses Cancer Hostesses, how she quoted one of her doctors saying, “I’ll feel your breasts any time you want me to,” how she was set up on the perfect cancer survivor blind date (“he’s got red hair, and he’s really cute and, best of all, he has leukemia! You two would have so much in common.”).

Yes, Kathy Rich was an amazing writer, one who I was lucky enough to “meet” online.

I loved her book so much I wrote and published a book review of The Red Devil along with an author “interview” that appeared in Breast Cancer Survivor, (a Florida based newsletter that ceased publication in the early 2000s). The word interview is surrounded with quotation marks because my “meeting” with Kathy Rich was totally virtual. Her publishing representative acted as the go-between, enabling me to email the author a series of questions that Kathy graciously responded to and emailed back to me.

To honor Kathy Rich’s memory, let me share some excerpts from that interview below. Twelve years later, her message to cancer survivors still feels fresh and relevant. Read on and see if you don’t agree:

Alysa: Gather a bunch of breast cancer survivors together and they may confess to feeling like professional patients – so many drugs and tests, constant monitoring for lumps, bumps and bruises and all those endless doctor’s appointments. Can you share some strategies for integrating cancer into your life?

Kathy: Oh boy, is that the truth! Cancer is like a bad part-time job. I’ve gotten myself down from disbelieving to slightly annoyed by all the time it takes. My strategies change all the time. Right now, I’m going through a stage of acceptance. At my doctor’s, there’s a 40-minute wait no matter what you do. It used to make me highly indignant – they said 10 a.m., I showed up at 10 a.m., they should see me at 10 a.m. I’d ask the receptionist every five minutes what was going on. Once it dawned on me that I was getting nowhere fast with that approach, I just gave it up and gave in to the wait. I don’t like it any better, but I don’t get high blood pressure over it now.

Alysa: During your June 2000 online chat with Dr. Susan Love, you said that writing provided you with a “kind of distancing” that allowed you to keep your head when you might have otherwise lost it. Did something trigger the transition from keeping a private journal to becoming a published author of a cancer memoir? What was that process?

Kathy: It’s funny; I had absolutely no interest in writing a book about cancer. I’d spent years trying not to make it the center of my life, trying not to have people think of cancer first thing when they thought of me, and I also felt weird about writing a book about myself. Memoir can be unpleasantly narcissistic. But about 1997, two years after my stem cell transplant, I suddenly found myself dissatisfied with my life. I’d been a magazine editor for 20 years and had loved it for 19, and, to my surprise, I didn’t want to do it anymore. I kept thinking, I want to lead a more artistic life. So I began to wonder if I couldn’t write a book that would use the subject of cancer to talk about other things, like coming alive and all the quirky situations you run into when you’re ill. I still felt weird when I was writing it though – all those sentences beginning with “I.”

Alysa: Can you describe the role of humor in your recovery? Did your sense of humor change once you were diagnosed?

Kathy: Humor saved my butt. It’s a necessary release. Growing up in my family, we all saw things in a really black-humored way, so I’d put in training by the time I got sick. My sense of humor hasn’t changed, but when I was really sick, I employed it in a more kamikaze way.

Alysa: In less than two years’ time I’ve had five surgeries. Number six is coming up in two months. Each time I’ve had to face the mirror and try to make peace with the latest (but not necessarily greatest) new me. So many physical changes! Have you wrestled this demon to your satisfaction and won? What strategies have helped you cope?

Kathy: Whoa! Five surgeries! I want to hear your answer. I have made peace with my body and, honestly, I don’t know how I did. I think I just got fed up with being fed up with my body. Plus, I was working at a beauty magazine when I was going through the worst of my cancer recurrence, which was really strange, and got me over the myth that beauty would fix your life. This was the kind of place where people honestly believed that if you were a perfect size 6 and had your hair perfectly blow-dried, and had the perfect right clothes, you’d have the perfect life. And I couldn’t see that any of them did. So I stopped worrying so much about what I looked like, and all the tracks cancer had left on my body. Still, no matter how much peace you’ve made with it all, there’s no getting around the fact that sudden body alterations are hard on the psyche. I guess when you come up against one, you just have to give yourself time to let the impact settle in.

Alysa: What role does reading cancer memoirs play in the healing process? Can bibliotherapy support recovery?

Kathy: There’s a stage you go through when you’re first diagnosed where you read everything you can about cancer. I think it’s important to, and I think memoir gives you access to someone else’s inner life in a way that’s crucial. It’s important to do everything you can to keep from feeling isolated when you’re sick. Memoir can help – it can keep you afloat, knowing there’s someone else out there who’s felt what you’ve felt, gone through what you have.

Alysa: If you were in charge, how would you change the way Breast Cancer Awareness Month is handled by the media every October?

Kathy: It’s probably heretical to say, but I’m not a big fan of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I think it’s a fake convention – although I have to quickly add, it’s a hugely effective fundraising device. But to answer the question: I’d have the media assign smarter stories on breast cancer, not perky or celebrity pieces, but real-life stories about real-life women. Also, with regard to the media, I’m sick of those stories announcing the cancer cures that are just around the corner. If you look at the history of the media and cancer reporting, they’ve been running headlines about amazing, breakthrough, nearly-there treatments for decades now. Everyone loves those stories – editors, writers, readers – yet cancer is about to pass heart disease as the number one killer disease in the country. Maybe, instead of doing the feel-good stories, a smart reporter should get on the case and figure out why we’re not further along.

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