What to Read When It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month


Once again, it’s October and Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and we’re all seeing the world as a little more pink. Julia Louis Dreyfus recently announced on Twitter that she has breast cancer. We’re encouraged to walk or run as fast as we can toward a possible cure.

Here’s a list of books—mostly memoirs in women’s own words—for those of us curled up on the couch in our pajamas, hunkering down to calculate our breast cancer risk or wait for our mammogram results. These books offer various ways to understand what breast cancer means in our lives, individually and collectively.


The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs
This memoir was published this year to much acclaim. Nina Riggs died from breast cancer shortly before her book was published and urged others not to be afraid to read her account of the last two years of her life. Riggs’s writing is beautiful, even welcoming, and she draws solace and perhaps raw talent from the fact that she is a descendant of the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. This memoir is infused with grace, as wife and mother Riggs faces a cancer that progresses instead of being the “highly curable” disease she initially expects.


The Cancer Chronicles by George Johnson
Even dinosaurs had cancer; the disease may be an inevitable statistical outcome of being human. George Johnson’s book suggests that the body’s ability to maintain cellular order over time and vast numbers of cells is truly amazing. Sometimes, it falters—and the result is cancer. As Johnson weaves deft reportage with the story of his wife’s illness, readers gain a broad and emotionally resonant sense of what cancer means.


The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde
The Cancer Journals was first published in 1980 and endures as an important reference point for how women feels about their breasts and breast cancer, mastectomy and body image, and mortality and purpose. Audre Lorde intertwines journal entries and cultural commentary that, though cancer treatment has changed, remain relevant today.


Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person by Miriam Engelberg
This graphic memoir is funny and wonderfully uncomfortable as it challenges what it means to have breast cancer. When she was diagnosed, Miriam Engelberg was forty-three years old, and her son was four, so her situation is akin to that of Nina Riggs. But Engelberg has no qualms with tossing grace aside. In her introduction, Engelberg talks of the pressure a cancer patient feels to be courageous. In her comics, she explores what it means to be human. When a mammogram reveals calcifications and she has to wait for the biopsy, she turns on the television, falls into a funk, and obsesses. The honesty and humor is refreshing and a strange relief to read.


The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Publisher’s Weekly calls this Pulitzer Prize-winning tome “a sweeping epic.” No wonder, as it covers the history and science of cancer with amazing detail. Eminently readable because it tells a good story and focuses on people, The Emperor of All Maladies grapples with our valiant pursuit of a cure for all cancer and the acknowledgement of what a varied and complex disease cancer is in real lives.


Ice Bound: A Doctor’s Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole by Jerri Nielsen and Maryanne Vollers
Physician Jerri Nielsen was looking for adventure when she decided to spend a winter far from home. There, she discovered a lump in her breast. Most of us would head to the doctor’s office to have this suspicious mass checked, but Nielsen was the doctor, and she was stuck at the South Pole in the middle of winter. She performed a biopsy, teleconferenced with medical experts in the United States, and then treated herself for breast cancer over the next several months with medication airdropped into the Antarctic. Her story is one of coming to terms with dire circumstances and finding one’s core self.


The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan
Kelly Corrigan is only thirty-six when she is diagnosed with breast cancer. In this warm, funny, straightforward memoir, Corrigan faces her own treatment while raising her children and negotiating her father’s cancer as well. The San Francisco Chronicle says, “Come for the writing, stay for the drama.” There’s a keeping-it-real quality to this memoir that draws a reader in like a friend. Corrigan comes to the realization that life is about sticking with it together: “We’ll transcend, ladies. Because we did all this, in that worst moment, we will transcend.”


This Is Cancer by Laura Holmes Haddad
Laura Holmes Haddad wishes that she’d had a guidebook for the road trip of breast cancer. She wishes that she’d known that life would never be the same as it was before. So, she shares what she’s learned as a woman with breast cancer as a guide for others. In other words, this book is about what to expect when you didn’t expect breast cancer.


Tumor by Anna Leahy (that’s me!)
Kristen Iversen, author of Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, says of Tumor, “In clear, compelling language, Anna Leahy writes with insight and empathy about cancer and the social and cultural dimensions of one of our greatest fears. A blend of science, journalism, and deeply personal storytelling, this book takes a lyrical approach to a complex subject we all face in some way.” This book grapples with pink-washing, the breast-less body, and the tumor—of all sorts—as an object that is us.

Anna Leahy is the author of the nonfiction book Tumor and the poetry book Aperture and the co-author of the forthcoming Conversing with Cancer. Her essays won top awards at Ninth Letter and Dogwood in 2016 and have appeared at The Rumpus, the Atlantic, PopSugar, The Southern Review, The Pinch,, and elsewhere. See more at http://amleahy.com and @amleahy . More from this author →