CancerLand Bookshelf: In the Body of the World

Alysa Cummings
Alysa Cummings

Author: Eve Ensler
Publisher: Metropolitan Books, 2013 | $25.00 US
Information: ISBN: 9780805095180
OncoLink Rating: OncoLink CancerLand Bookshelf

At the very mention of her name – Eve Ensler –I’m transported back in time. Suddenly it’s the year 2001 and I’m sitting in a darkened Philadelphia theater along with ten other women from my breast cancer support group. We are watching a trio of actresses onstage performing The Vagina Monologues. Later, when the play is over and the lights come up, I scan the standing-room-only audience of women around me – yes, an all-female audience, not a man in sight – and see some women smiling, others wiping away tears. And I can’t help but hear a buzzing, an energetic hum of connection among all these women. No doubt they are chatting with one another about the powerful and poignant stories they’ve just heard.

That makes sense, doesn’t it? Eve Ensler is all about stories: stories about women, stories about parts of women’s bodies, stories about how women relate to their bodies, stories about violence against women, stories that raise our collective awareness of what is going on in the world when it comes to women’s rights. Say her name – Eve Ensler – and these are the associations that immediately come to mind. Her international reputation as an author, playwright and advocate to end violence against women certainly precedes her.

But even as an ardent fan of her work, I opened her memoir and quickly discovered how much I didn’t know about Eve Ensler – most notably her childhood sexual abuse, her drug use and bisexuality. I also had no idea that in 2010 she underwent treatment for stage IVB uterine cancer. In the Body of the World is an exceptional book that reveals Eve Ensler’s life story in vivid detail, with her cancer diagnosis as the defining event that brings all of her previous “chapters” into sharp focus. How ironic that a woman whose life work has been to serve others, suddenly is forced to focus on herself, reconnect with her own body and try to make sense of a disease that is threatening her life. In a sense this book poses the question: how will cancer fit into the story of Eve Ensler’s life?

The author explains that the book is “like a CAT scan – a roving examination-capturing images, experiences, ideas and memories, all of which began in my body.” She fills the pages with memorable scenes from a place she starts to call Cancer Town. Ensler undergoes treatment at both the Mayo Clinic and Sloan-Kettering; her stories unfold in hospital beds, on operating room tables or while the author is in the infusion suite receiving chemotherapy.

Before long, Ensler is able to list her many losses as a cancer patient and it’s an instant poem: (here’s what’s gone/nine hours/rectum/sections of colon/uterus/ovaries/cervix/fallopian tubes/parts of my vagina/seventy nodes/here’s what’s new:/a rebuilt rectum made out of my colon/my stoma/a temporary ileostomy bag/a catheter in my bladder/my face, the size of two faces/a button I push/any time I begin to feel what/is missing).

But the book is not always poetic. Clearly, Ensler makes a decision to be open and honest about the cancer patient experience. There are graphic descriptions of her stoma and the pus from her post-operative infection, along with what day five after chemo really feels like. Ensler would no doubt point out to the uninformed that if you look up the word “patient” in any dictionary, one of the oldest definitions of the word is “sufferer.” And her suffering as a cancer patient going through treatment is apparent. As a fellow cancer survivor, I loudly applaud her ability to transform her suffering into art using her gifts as a writer.

In the Body of the World also celebrates the healers who lead Ensler through her health crisis to a point of healing and recovery. One such medical professional is known only by the nickname Ensler has chosen to give him: Dr. Handsome. Their initial meeting reads like a prose poem:

The most handsome doctor in the world comes in to examine my rear end. What else, of course? I am obviously shell-shocked. I lie on the table, my underpants around my ankles, and think this is it. This is what the end feels like. The most handsome man in the world knowing that I have some horrible tumor inside my colon or rectum or uterus and that he has to feel it. I have already died from the humiliation and terror that are now merged in a cocktail of sweat and nausea, and I am curled on the table, hoping he will not see me, that I will disappear, and at the same time all I want is for him to see me and for this to be part of what it means to be human, and at that moment Dr. Handsome walks from one side of the examining table, where he is facing my back and naked ass, around to the other side, and he looks me in the eyes and says, “Before we begin, I want you to know how much I admire you and all you have done in this world for women and all you have written and all the ways you have made the world better. It is a privilege to care for you and I will do my very best.” I feel like a little shaking dog picked up by a stranger in the rain, and this moment makes everything that follows in the next days bearable, and I know I can trust him with my body and I bet he will save my life. Doctors never believe how simple it is to give patients dignity. It takes a sentence. It takes a short walk around a table.

Like so many of the books on the CancerLand Bookshelf, my copy of In the Body of the World has already become dog-eared; with each re-reading, I can’t help but highlight favorite passages, insert post-it bookmarks and turn down page corners of sections that speak loudly to me. Let me close with another excerpt from Eve Ensler, a few sentences that are a gift to cancer survivors who need the inspiration of powerful words on the page to move forward:

Having cancer was the moment when I went as far as I could go without being gone, and it was there, dangling on that edge, that I was forced to let go of everything that didn’t matter, to release the past and be burned down to essential matter. It was there I found my second wind. The second wind arrives when we think we are finished, when we can’t take another step, breathe another breath. And then we do.

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