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Against all odds

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Last Updated : 05 February 2011, 12:30 IST
Last Updated : 05 February 2011, 12:30 IST

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Marital discord, emptiness, a sense of physical discomfort, a divorce, and then the startling realisation — met first as a flight of fantasy, then denial, and finally the gut-wrenching resignation. Yes, she went through this entire gamut of emotions and feelings. Yet, till the end, Katherine Russell Rich remains undecided. Was it her divorce that caused her breast cancer? While this question confronts her from time to time — testifying to a deep-seated doubt in her, and which is quite possible, the author poses for future researchers to busy themselves with. The Red Devil is also the battle that Rich fights to triumph over cancer.

No triumph over cancer is final and decisive. Doctors now prefer to deal with the affliction as a chronic disease, like diabetes, for cancer refuses to vanish, once it embeds itself in someone’s mortal frame, its tentacles keep spreading. It can lie dormant; it can be suppressed but never fully done away with. Rich shows us just how much can be won, with her own enduring and brave battle (or perhaps engagement?) with cancer; she shares intimate moments with her readers and emerges as one who inspires faith and courage in all her fellow passengers on this ride.

Rich’s story, no doubt, is one that should be shared with all — cancer patients need great support systems, and it is not to be forgotten that each of us are its potential victims, for cancer, like death, recognises no borders or boundaries, physical, geographical or those of class. But perhaps, it was also the flimsy support systems that she encountered, the discouraging shrinks that she had to suffer, which make it suspect that, that was what motivates her to let the reader enter into her life, visit some of her most private moments, and emerge stronger. She offers us a support system that she herself did not easily find, without romanticising the experience. Cancer is not the best anything, except, in too many instances, killer. It’s savage and cruel, it can cripple people, maim them, leave them begging for air, or hope, or death.

And the hurt at the doctors who are reluctant to even entertain her doubts is incredible — this, after all, is New York. If one is crass enough to tell her, I’ll feel your breasts anytime you want me to, the other dismisses her doubts with a finality that petrifies her.
They made it sound that doctors were standing by, anxiously awaiting your call if you found any kind of thickening. In the stories, it was always the women who wouldn’t do their part, who were reluctant to examine themselves or go for mammograms. The articles never said, what might happen to these women, so fainthearted they couldn’t touch their own breasts, if they had to face the demands of chemotherapy. Nor did the stories explore the scenario I now found myself in. What was a patient supposed to do if her doctors kept blowing her off?

But Rich is also careful not to fall into the trap of victimhood syndrome. Cancer patients are not all suffering, there are those who also cause suffering — whom she names ‘Cancer queens’. Cancer queens ‘milk the illness, their own or others’.’ They demand sympathy, they play on guilt, and burn through support.

In fact, the book dares the reader to sympathise with cancer patients. Rich’s central message is that cancer patients require understanding to help them grapple with a new reality, and her book serves as a common sense guide to living with cancer. For cancer, Rich finds, is an affliction, not only of the body, but also of the mind.

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Published 05 February 2011, 12:30 IST

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