Friday, March 07, 2008

book review: the middle place

I really wanted to like this book. And I was really worried that I wouldn’t.

You see, it’s a breast cancer memoir, written by a young woman (37 at the time of diagnosis) who is also the mother of two young kids.

Sound familiar? And yet, when I first picked up the book, all I could see were our differences (it didn’t help that the review copy I received had what was for me an off-putting quote on the cover about finding out you have cancer and thanking God that you’re somebody’s daughter. I note that the final cover is lovely and much more befitting of the spirit of the book).

I was worried that the book would be badly written or that Kelly Corrigan, the author, would be someone to whom I could not relate at all. I worried that our approaches to cancer, to life and to our common experiences would be too disparate.

I needn’t have worried.

Our differences (which weren’t that significant, anyway) didn’t matter at all once I reached page 11 and the read Corrigan’s description of how she found her lump:

“When Edward [her husband] is away, I often find that I’ve been talked into the tub so that the girls can pour too much shampoo on my bushy brown hair…except on this night, as I brush past my breast to get some soap out of my eyes, I think I feel something hard, just there under the skin. I touch it once, pressing it lightly into the open palm of my hand, and then, after a flash of shock passes through me, I force my full attention to bathing the girls…As I dry myself off, I know I have to touch it again, just to be sure I’m wrong. I’m not.”

Over the next few weeks, Corrigan would continue to check the lump, “… I touch it again and again, like you would a loose tooth or a cancer sore, each time, surprised to find it still there.”

These words resonated very strongly with me. I was hooked.

The book alternates between stories of growing up in a pretty traditional Catholic family (Corrigan has two older brothers and was very much the apple of her father’s eye) in Philadelphia. At first, I was much more interested in the cancer-related material in the book than I was in the stories about her family (although her description of killing a giant snake that her brother had bought definitely got my attention). Then came the story of Corrigan’s year in Grade 6 when she was tormented and excluded by a group of girls. Her mother later identifies that as the worst year of her life, explaining, “You’ll see. When you’re a mother and your kid’s in pain and you can’t stop it, its hell. Absolute hell.”

This reminded me of my own son’s very difficult time in Grade One and of how truly distressing it is to see your child in pain. It caused me to think, as well, of my own parents. I have come to realize that the only thing worse than having cancer would be to have it happen to my child. And I reflect on how difficult my experience with cancer has been for them.

Corrigan is a gifted writer and she does a great job of describing those first conversations with friends and family and dealing with others’ emotions as well as her own. I fielded countless questions from friends and acquaintances when I was first diagnosed, about finding my cancer, my treatment and what I thought could have caused it. As Corrigan says, “It’s a big job, being the first person your age to have cancer.”

Also extremely evocative were her descriptions of chemotherapy (and being both fascinated and repulsed by other patients), missing life while in chemo’s haze (not being able to be there for her kids, missing moments you know you’ll never get back) and finding herself, never really having been sick before suddenly taking a long list of meds to manage the cancer and it’s side effects.

In the end, when Corrigan has her lumpectomy (she had chemo first, followed by surgery and then radiation), she finds out that her lymph nodes are clean and that her tumour had clean margins (this is very good news). She also finds out that her tumour is hormone positive. This will make her cancer easier to treat. The treatment, however (Tamoxifen) will shut down her ovaries for the next five years.

Corrigan is devastated by this news, as she had always planned to have more kids (this may still be possible once treatment ends but it will be an uphill battle). I knew that my family was complete long before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, yet I can empathise with Corrigan. Chemotherapy sent me into early menopause at 38 and I do grieve a little bit at the myriad ways that cancer has changed my body.

The reality is that cancer changes you. Irrevocably. Corrigan laments not being able to “go back to the life I had.” I can really relate to this. When we are first diagnosed with breast cancer, most of us tell ourselves that we will put up with the worst cancer throws at us, get through treatment and then pick up our lives where we had left off. It doesn’t work like that. Even for those lucky enough to avoid (or defer) a recurrence, cancer remains a presence in our lives, manifesting itself physically and emotionally.

While Corrigan is still in treatment, her much loved father is diagnosed with prostate cancer. On the one hand, you get the sense that Corrigan welcomed the distraction the opportunity to do something for someone else (even if, in doing so, she admits to driving everyone around her crazy, as she obsessed to the point of asking input on her father’s treatment from her surgeon as she was being prepped for her lumpectomy). On the other hand, I remember very well what it feels like to be in that initial phase of cancer treatment. And, honestly, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to add worry for a loved one to the mix at a time when I could barely keep myself together. And, again I am reminded of the period when my son was in crisis at the same time that my mother suffered a heart attack after undergoing surgery. I remember what it was like to forget to breathe, to feel as though you might die from the stress.

Other parts of the book made me laugh out loud, though. I particularly loved her description of the “Guess Jeans Fight” of 1984, a row she had as a teen with her mother (she wanted to get a job to earn the money for the jeans. Her mother vetoed that but later relented by buying them as an early Christmas present). In a subsequent passage she tells about losing her virginity while wearing those same jeans, “…Jimmy Betts, with hair as light and tousled as an angel’s, was my first non-fictional boyfriend..”

The story that remains with me, though, is not really about cancer at all. Towards the end of the book, Corrigan and her family went on a Mexican beach vacation with friends and their young children. One evening, as they settle in for cocktails and ready themselves to make dinner after a day in the sun, Corrigan notices that Claire, her toddler, is nowhere to be seen. A frantic search ensues (could she have gone back down to the beach by herself?), and eventually, the child is found, curled up and asleep.

I feel the waves of relief as I read this (what parent hasn’t felt that panic for even a few seconds at some point?) and I can’t help thinking, yet again, about how life can change in an instant.

As I write this Corrigan and her father are both doing well. Although, her father is in treatment for a recurrence, he continues to coach lacrosse. Corrigan continues to write (you can read more about her and her book tour here).

I highly recommend this book – if are seeking insight into what it’s like to be diagnosed with breast cancer in your thirties, are seeking words that reflect your experience (no matter how different your background or life goals) or if you just enjoy a moving story, told well and with humour.

The Middle Place is published by Voice (Hyperion Press).


Kelly Corrigan said...


Thank you so much for this thoughtful review. I'm glad the book found you.

I'll be thinking good thoughts for you.


Kelly Corrigan
Author of The Middle Place

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Actually I feel so identify with because I have a nephew who has cancer, that's the reason I want to write a book referring to the cancer.

Canada said...

I loved this story of life and strength, family and love. The Middle Place helped me to appreciate even more deeply the spirit of a young woman - Kelly Corrigan - who, like my beloved daughter, had to surrender to her baldness and her new identity post diagnosis. This kind of "put your feet down on the floor every morning" living takes enormous courage and humor. It all comes through in this memoir. It also takes sheer guts to write about a journey that is both scary and unpredictable while making oneself vulnerable in the process. It's also the truth that sets the spirit free.