CancerLand Bookshelf: Survival Lessons

Alysa Cummings
Alysa Cummings

Author: Alice Hoffman
ISBN: 9781616203146
Information: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013 | $13.95 US
OncoLink Rating: OncoLink CancerLand Bookshelf

I’m sitting on the porch reading the latest addition to the CancerLand Bookshelf. It’s a humid September afternoon and every few minutes I look up from the page to enjoy the sight of the first fall leaves helicoptering to the ground from the maple tree in the front yard. Before long I close the book and begin thinking about the review I want to write.

Where to begin? What can I say about such a precious, poetic book written by New York Times bestselling author Alice Hoffman? Who knew that we were both diagnosed with breast cancer fifteen years ago?  Wow. It’s also surprising that a book with the title Survival Lessons can include “treats” ranging from a recipe for chocolate brownies to knitting directions for a beehive hat guaranteed to cover a head bald from chemo.  And, I almost forgot to mention, there are 32 original photographs included, all taken by the author, that enhance the text.

Quick time-out. Maybe I should start with the writer’s purpose. After all, this is the author’s first non-fiction book and she states clearly in the preface exactly why she wrote it: I wrote this book to remind myself of the beauty of life, something that’s all too easy to overlook during the crisis of illness or loss.

Hoffman organizes Survival Lessons into 20 mini-chapters, perfectly manageable for a patient in treatment to read bit by bit for small doses of inspiration. Survival Lessons goes beyond the classic here’s-what-cancer’s-taught-me formula to explore the notion of choice.  Hoffman introduces this idea with her opening epigraph: There is always a before and an after./My advice, travel light./Choose only what you need most to see you through. She picks up the theme again – making conscious choices in the face of situations and events typically beyond our control – by crafting chapters with titles like Choose Whose Advice You Take and Choose How You Spend Your Time.

Ultimately, Hoffman shares her truth, the knowledge she has gained from a personal journey through CancerLand, in bite-sized chapters that add up to a book that is less than one hundred pages long. But in the hands of such a gifted writer, her insights feel fresh and immensely comforting. There’s no question that I would consider Survival Lessons a special gift for someone currently in treatment.

Here’s an excerpt from the chapter Choose to Give in to Yourself:

Take a nap whenever you want to. Look at the tree outside your window for an hour without being ashamed that you might be wasting time. 

Go and don’t feel guilty.

Time is different now. Don’t worry about wasting it. It belongs to you. There are programs on television that will surprise you, things you never paid attention to before when you were so busy and never took time for yourself. You may get caught up in trashy dramas about high school passions or become obsessed with a reality show about fishermen or storage units. 

Play music. Listen to Sheryl Crow, Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison. Remember where you were when you first heard your favorite songs and who you were in love with back then.  I remember where I was when I first heard the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Mick Jagger. Who knows where the time goes? The music of your youth stays with you and winds itself around your heart. I hear one chord of “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “Satisfaction” and am instantly back in time. It doesn’t matter where I am, suddenly I’m walking through the woods, I’m in my best friend’s room plotting how we might run off to London (never happened); I’m with my mother standing outside The Plaza Hotel, screaming every time a curtain moves because Paul McCartney might be there.

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