Books about cancer, whether novels or more practical books about how to cope with treatments or side effects, can be beneficial for both patients and caregivers. In fact, bibliotherapy—treatment in the form of self-help books, novels, or poetry—has been prescribed for other disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Several practical books can help cancer patients cope with the side effects of cancer or its treatment. Many of these books focus on nutrition.
The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen: Nourishing, Big-Flavor Recipes for Cancer Treatment and Recovery (Ten Speed Press, 2009), by Rebecca Katz with Mat Edelson, is not merely a cookbook. Ms. Katz points out in the introduction that as many as 80% of cancer patients are malnourished, and she cites the growing body of scientific evidence that supports nutrition as a key aspect of cancer treatment and prevention. Each recipe describes the nutritional value of its ingredients, and the book includes a “Culinary Pharmacy” table that provides information about the anticancer properties of commonly used ingredients in the recipes.
Louise Villejo, the executive director of the Patient Education Office at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, said that one of the most highly requested books in the Learning Center at MD Anderson is Anticancer: A New Way of Life (Penguin, 2009) by David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D. Anticancer discusses nutritional changes that can help in cancer recovery and also recommends other lifestyle changes, such as stress reduction, that can help fortify the body’s defenses against cancer. Dr. Servan-Schreiber, who had brain cancer, describes the book as “the story of how I used my skills as a physician and scientist to find out everything in the medical literature that would help me change the odds.”
Reading memoirs written by cancer survivors can help inspire and encourage patients currently struggling with the disease. These books can also help patients and their loved ones articulate their feelings or discuss difficult topics. The Cancer Survivors Club (CKG Publishing, 2012), edited by Chris Geiger, is a collection of essays written by survivors of common and rare cancers.
Lance Armstrong’s memoir written with Sally Jenkins, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life (Penguin Putnam, 2001), describes in detail the cyclist’s struggle with testicular cancer, treatments, and survivorship. He writes, “I’ve read that I flew up the hills and mountains of France. But you don’t fly up a hill. You struggle slowly and painfully up a hill, and maybe, if you work very hard, you get to the top ahead of everybody else. Cancer is like that, too.”
Novels, like memoirs, can help patients and their loved ones process emotions and can provide a scaffold for discussing difficult issues. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (Penguin, 2012) has become a New York Times bestseller and a film. The story is narrated by Hazel, a 16-year-old girl with thyroid cancer that has metastasized to her lungs. Suffering from depression, she goes to a cancer support group meeting, where she meets Augustus, a boy who has lost a leg to osteosarcoma. This novel is a young adult love story, but it also explores fundamental philosophical questions.
My Sister’s Keeper (Washington Square Press, 2004), a novel by Jodi Picoult that has been turned into a film, raises difficult questions about what it means for a family to live with cancer. In the story, Anna was genetically engineered to be a perfect bone marrow match for her older sister Kate, who has leukemia. Throughout Anna’s life, she has provided Kate with blood transfusions, bone marrow, and stem cells; but when Kate needs a kidney transplant, Anna decides to sue her parents for the right to choose what happens to her body.
Understanding the history of cancer can help demystify the disease, and learning about advances in cancer treatment can give hope to patients. Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., an oncologist, won a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Scribner, 2010). This book chronicles the advances in research from Herodotus’s 440 BC account of Atossa, a Persian queen who had a slave cut a tumor from her breast, to the nineteenth-century surgeons who performed radical and disfiguring mastectomies, to the age of systemic chemotherapy beginning in the 1960s, to the current era of molecularly targeted therapies.
Helping patients cope
Although none of these books would be considered typical light summer reading, they may help patients cope with cancer by providing practical advice and encouragement.
— J. Delsigne
For more information, call MD Anderson’s Learning Center at 713-745-8063.
OncoLog, September 2014, Volume 59, Issue 9