When reporter Joyce Wadler was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer in 1995, friends recommended that she read comedian Gilda Radner's book about her experience with the disease. It would be "inspirational," they enthused.
The problem? Radnor had died of ovarian cancer.
Maybe not so much.
Wadler's cancer, in contrast, was cured. She's been cancer free for 15 years. In 1997, she wrote a cover story about her "ovarian adventure" for "New York Magazine," which has just been made into a book, Cured: My Ovarian Cancer Story, (with updates that include Wadler's advice for anyone who receives a similar diagnosis, plus links to organizations where a new patient can find information and support.
If you want an inspirational book for a pal reeling from a new cancer diagnosis, this is a much better pick.
Besides being a reporter, Wadler, who pens the "I Was Misinformed" column for the New York Times, is one of the best humorists around. Wise-cracking is both how she communicates and how she copes. So while her book covers some bleak and scary stuff, it's also funny as hell. And if you can walk through the shadow of the valley of death and still have your audience in stitches, they'll love you for it. (When stand-up comic Tig Notaro recently went onstage and began riffing about her own just-received cancer diagnosis, the riveting show that resulted instantly went viral.)
Wadler has actually faced down cancer twice. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991, at age 43. It was caught early and successfully treated. Wadler, who, because she has the BRCA-1 mutation, has dubbed herself Middle-Aged Mutant Jewish Writer, wrote a book "My Breast," about the experience. (It was made into a made-for-TV movie, with Meredith Baxter as Wadler.)
Coping with cancer the second time around, Wadler is not a model patient. She totally lacks that upbeat, optimistic outlook that so many of the folks who write about coping with the disease recommend. Whenever things take a turn for the worse, she fails to find the silver lining. Instead, she cries, curses, rants, tosses back the sedatives, kvetches ("I'm doomed" is a favorite riff), calls her shrink, summons her pals, pesters her cancer doc at all hours, and just generally freaks out.
Guess what? She survives anyway!
This is great news for any woman who suspects that, under the circumstances, she wouldn't be a brave little soldier either.
"I'm afraid I have ovarian cancer," Wadler tells her therapist. "That's what killed Gilda Radner. And she was more successful than me and she was funnier than me and she was married."
After telling her she's not Gilda (and writing a prescription for Kloponin) he suggests a strategy: "If you find yourself morbidly obsessing about the future, distract yourself."
"I'm okay with the concept," Wadler writes. "But I still can't stop worrying and asking questions."
The worrying may be a drag, but the questioning sure pays off. Clearly, there's no better preparation for a cancer diagnosis than years as a working reporter. Even in her darkest moments, Wadler manages information beautifully, researching each treatment option and expertly grilling every medical professional involved with her case. (Her previous bout with cancer means that she's already got a team of trusted Memorial Sloan-Kettering docs to rely on.) Give her a fact or a medical opinion and she'll come back with a probing question. And then a follow up, even more probing, question.
Wadler never stop questioning till she really understands. And while she treats her docs with affection and respect, they aren't Gods. (Upon meeting her 38-year-old surgeon for the first time, she observes, "Another middle-age milestone. My surgeon is younger than me.") She also tapes important conversations with docs "so I can listen to them as many times as I need and make sure I've got everything straight."
Wadler relies throughout on a support network of friends, family and therapists (even bringing them along to doc appointments and on hospital stays.) This is a woman who isn't afraid to ask for help. Nor does she suffer in silence. Indeed, she can be quite the kvetch.
"I've had two cancers," she complains to Herb, her best pal. "Why me? I didn't hurt anybody. Okay, maybe I wrote some snotty stories about movie stars, but I can't see this pissing off God, unless it's actors who are the chosen people. Which is really depressing."
The reader accompanies Wadler, step-by-step, through some very tough times, from her disquieting first symptoms and scary diagnosis, through her grueling, but, thankfully, successful treatment. It's a wild ride, with plenty of uncertainty. The news is bad. ("It's cancer!") Then it's good. ("You're optimally debulked!") Sometimes, it's just weird. (A 50 percent chance of surviving for 4 years, is supposed to be good news??)
There are lighter moments, of course, like shopping for wigs with Herb, who although their friendship is entirely platonic, urges her to buy a sexy blonde wig. "Just once. For me."
One hospital blunder is just plain awful. As she recovers from surgery, the hospital thoughtlessly puts Wadler in a room with a woman who is dying from ovarian cancer. Distracting herself from the woman's suffering by listening to "Guys and Dolls" on her Walkman doesn't work. "On the tape," Wadler writes, "a make-believe gambler is singing that when you see a guy reach for stars in the sky, you can bet that he's doing it for some doll. Beyond that, the woman in the next bed is throwing up."
Although the other woman's fate terrifies her, instead of demanding a room change, Wadler crosses the barrier between the two beds, introduces herself, then gives her roomie a foot massage and listens to her life story.
If this isn't grace under pressure I don't know what the hell is.
The final section, "Protecting Yourself, is packed with useful advice. Wadler finds the notion that ovarian cancer is a "silent disease" infuriating. "I don't think ovarian cancer is silent," she says. " I think we haven't been educated enough about the warning signs...." These include (according to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund) "abdominal bloating or pain, digestive problems such as constipation and diarrhea, and an increased frequency of urination." (Wadler's symptoms? Spotting and chronic constipation.)
Don't "wait and see." Instead, demand answers. "If your GP cannot determine what is causing your medical problems," Wadler writes, see your gynecologist and say you want a vaginal sonogram." (Which, she notes, are routinely given to pregnant women.) She also recommends that every woman research her family medical history. "Knowing your genetic predisposition," she writes, "can save your life."
For the reader who has received a cancer diagnosis, Wadler makes specific suggestions about doctors and treatment centers, then advises the reader to "(g)et your information from cancer care professionals, not the friends and family members who suddenly decide they are experts; take a friend with you to take notes or record the conversations; get second and third opinions; and make sure you are getting the best treatment available."
And if you don't have a well-informed, wise-cracking, feisty best pal you can count on to have your back, take this book to the hospital with you.
This piece first appeared on Womens Voices For Change.