‘The Undying,’ an Extraordinary and Furious New Memoir About Cancer

Those vloggers offer Boyer something that she can’t quite find from classic texts like Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor” and Audre Lorde’s “The Cancer Journals” — a sense of what it feels like to have cancer right now, four decades after those books first appeared. Sontag was undergoing treatment for cancer but wrote impersonally, careful to avoid writing “I” and “cancer” in the same sentence; Lorde’s first-person book was published into a silence that has since been replaced by a din. Boyer notices that the old reluctance to speak publicly about one’s breast cancer has now become “an obligation, for those women who have it, to always do so.”

“I was afraid, on the first day, for my vocabulary,” Boyer writes, recalling how her journal entry for the date when she found the lump mentioned everything but the lump. She was telling herself one story “so I wouldn’t have to tell another.” She knows how writers lie by fixating on the “precisely avoidant detail.” Writers are instructed to show, don’t tell, but Boyer, who wrote about the limits of literature in her 2015 book “Garments Against Women,” argues that “telling is that other truth,” and might be ethically necessary. Until she felt the lump, she didn’t sense she was sick, even though she might have been dying. “The senses,” she writes, “are prone to showing’s lies.”

So she tells us not just what she feels but also what she thinks: about women and “sororal death,” overtreatment and the “ruinous carcinogenosphere.” She lives in one of the richest countries in the world, yet the hospital considered her double mastectomy an outpatient procedure, evicting her from the recovery ward before she could stand up. She had to return to work 10 days after her surgery and give a lecture on Walt Whitman with drainage bags stitched to her chest.

Reading Lorde’s description of spending five days in the hospital after the removal of a breast, Boyer admits to feeling “sometimes envious of the horrible circumstances of the past because they are at least differently horrible and differently degraded than our era’s own.” Some new kinds of degradation are so tied to technological change that they would have been completely unfathomable before. In 2014, in a pledge to raise “awareness” in partnership with the Susan G. Komen breast cancer foundation, the fossil-fuels company Baker Hughes produced a thousand pink drill bits to be used in hydraulic fracturing — even though chemicals released by fracking have been linked to cancer.

Where Boyer finds a measure of hope is in pain — not in valorizing it (insufficient), or in conquering it (impossible), but in recognizing it as something that’s real and shared with others. “Pain was my body being reasonable,” she writes. She recalls a time when her fellow patients joined her in the infusion room “to say what appears to hurt actually does hurt,” spurring her to grasp this strange solidarity, “the shared vistas of the terribly felt.”

Even the most resonant work of literature is historically specific, contingent not just on an author’s imagination but on where and when it was written, the context that gave it form. Boyer has more books in her, and when the treatment looks like it’s beginning to work she imagines what else she might write. “Now that I am undying, the world is full of possibility.”

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/10/books/review-undying-cancer-anne-boyer.html?emc=rss&partner=rss

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