Book Review: Ordinary Life, by Kathlyn Conway (W.H. Freeman and Company, New York, 1996)

Conway coverI found this breast cancer memoir—written by a psychotherapist about her third bout with cancer—deeply disturbing. As I read it, I sometimes even felt irritated by the author’s responses to her illness.

For me, such irritation is always a sign that my ego is being triggered. In other words, what Conway has to say struck very close to the bone for me, and likely will for many other breast cancer patients. Sometimes I’d rather not see my own reactions so well quantified and articulated!

Conway is particularly on point in her observations of her feelings vis a vis her medical experiences. Of her first meeting with her surgeon, she writes, “He tells me that he would like to examine me. It’s amazing how quickly I withdraw all emotional significance from my breasts so that I can let him examine them. These breasts are no longer breasts that give sexual pleasure, nor are they breasts for nursing. They’ve become mere appendages, parts of my body to be examined and felt for tumors. They are suspect, perhaps guilty.”

The author’s experiences of the medical establishment are upsetting to her and an indictment of the insensitivity medical caregivers sometimes display. In another meeting with her surgeon, to discuss reconstruction, he talks glibly about how different women want different kinds of breasts.

“He jokes that this is the time women can get the large breasts they’ve always wanted. I’m appalled. . . . I cannot believe that this doctor is talking to me like this. Here I sit, naked above the waist, in front of a mirrored wall, talking as if I’m choosing a dress. Doesn’t this man know that I’m not here for fun? Doesn’t he know that I’m about to have my breast cut off? Why isn’t he mentioning what is really happening and how horrific this experience is for me?” Instead, Conway says, she feels like “a piece of meat.”

She also points out that a woman’s age factors into how she is treated by caregivers. It is assumed that women beyond a certain age shouldn’t care about losing their breasts. (I often wondered if my very grey hair was the reason no medical caregiver ever asked me how I felt about having breast surgery.) But losing a body part matters to everyone, no matter what their age, Conway points out.

Another taboo topic Conway explores is the odd depression that can set in after treatment ends.

“It’s not, as the books, say, that without my treatments I no longer feel that I am doing something constructive about cancer,” she writes. “I feel let down because I cannot seem to return to my life. How am I supposed to go on living and believing there’s a reason to do anything? Life seems too fragile. Why can’t I have my old, unaware, daily life back?”

Even months later, she continues to suffer from depression, which doesn’t seem rooted in reality or triggered by any conscious event, person or place. “While doing errands or making dinner I may be overcome by a feeling of unbearable sadness. At night, I sometimes awaken to find that I’m gripped by the fear I battled during those nights of treatment. At times the unrelenting sobs return for no apparent reason.”

Ordinary Life offers no advice, no happy endings, no Pollyanna pronouncements. The author says up front she doesn’t believe that cancer per se is transformative. However, she does believe that those who have been sick learn to “transform our experience of illness into something we can manage, into something we can live with, and that this utterly human process is in itself meaningful.”

Amen to that.