Kairol Rosenthal’s book, Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s, does everything a good book should do. It wrenches your mind open and forces you to see a bigger, more troubling world around you.
A young woman who continues to live with recurrences of thyroid cancer herself, Rosenthal interweaves her own experiences with those of other young cancer survivors. (Many of whom, like Rosenthal, don’t like the term “survivor,” but I hope they’ll bear with me.)
The fact is, there’s no easy age to be diagnosed with cancer — but Rosenthal and her often eloquent interviewees convinced me that young cancer patients have enormous difficulties peculiar to their age. Being young, they’re not supposed to get a disease usually associated with aging — so they’re often misdiagnosed. They’re young, they’re just starting out in their lives, and they’re often un- or underinsured. Most of them still look forward to finding a partner, but their fertility is often lost to chemotherapy and their bodies are marred by surgeries and treatments.
When do they tell potential partners about their history of disease — and the possibility of recurrence? How much do they tell other young friends who are disease-free and less able to cope with illness and death so early in their lives? How do they go to a support group when most of the other survivors are far older than they are?
Rosenthal presents a number of patients speaking in their own voices about their experiences, hopes and fears. Like other survivors of this equal-opportunity disease, they are a varied group who respond in different ways — angry, thoughtful, combative, resigned, bewildered, smart-alecky. They deal with hovering parents, partners who stay, partners who leave, doctors and nurses who provide good care, doctors and nurses who should follow their dream and get the hell out of medicine. (My personal favorite: The nurse who blithely told a young woman that her symptoms probably indicated she had a metastasis to her brain. Although I am generally against the death penalty, I want to say this nurse should be shot.)
Throughout the book, Rosenthal also provides readers with common-sense advice and resources for dealing with every kind of problem from the maze of insurance and benefits to spiritual issues.
By the end of the book, some of Rosenthal’s interviewees have died — but not before leaving behind experiences that are touching, thought-provoking and tremendously insightful. In a world of cheap optimism, bumper stickers and T-shirt sayings, Everything Changes is the real thing — gritty and funny and heartbreaking.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)
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