CANCER IS A BITCH. Gail Konop Baker. Da Capo. 261 pages. $22.
When Wisconsin writer Gail Konop Baker heard the words every woman dreads — ”I think we should biopsy” — she was at her annual mammogram and had ironically just about finished writing a novel about a woman who searches for meaning after finding a lump in her breast. But while her agent rejected the novel because she didn’t ”really care whether the protagonist has breast cancer or not,” as Baker’s life mimics fiction a more powerful plot develops, one chronicled in Baker’s unflinchingly intimate new memoir.
Based on her column in Literary Mama and packed with razor-sharp humor and raw confessions, the book traces her year-long battle with breast cancer begun at age 46, when she was watching out for the expected midlife crisis and focused on negotiating her oldest daugh-ter’s college application process, younger children’s growth and balancing her marriage. Though she was healthy as one could be — a doctor’s wife, runner and yoga practitioner who ate organic and watched her toxin intake — her life is transformed by illness, tests, long waits for results, surgery, deep ruminations about meaning and death, all while juggling a daily life that won’t stop and a breast that won’t behave.
The antithesis of a victim’s tale, Baker’s unaffected account welcomes readers on the rollercoaster of coping with the disease and living with ‘the responsibility of being `The Woman Who Had Breast Cancer.’ ” Painful questions are never sugarcoated, whether considering having a mastectomy to get ”rid of the time bombs” as Baker calls her breasts or thoughts about who her husband might end up with and what her kids would do without her.
No concern is dismissed as too trivial, such as realizing the upside of being able to become a medical marijuana pothead or the funny then heartbreaking reality when ”[i]t strikes me that I’ll never go topless in Nice. Never be a stripper. Never pose for Playboy. And now I want those choices back.” Each detail underscores the everyday realities of the loss she faced and eventually escaped.
Today, one in eight women are likely to develop breast cancer, and so Cancer is a Bitch offers a humorous yet frighteningly relevant glimpse into an experience too many women will face. But even if the disease has not touched your life, Baker’s story resonates with a portrait of just how quickly, and how often, life teeters off balance — and how in one morning everything else except living and loving ceases to matter.