During challenging times books can offer practical advice, perspective, and empathy. Whether they've faced their own cancer diagnosis and wanted to share the experience, were coping after the diagnosis of a loved one, or simply wanted to better understand the disease and to help, many people have written books about cancer to offer support and guidance to both patients and cancer survivors. In this article we review some well-known, useful and inspiring examples.
The Best Books for Cancer Patients to Read
When it comes to books, there's no one-size-fits-all option. A book that resonates with one person might not be another's preference. You might be seeking advice on nutrition or might want to hear someone's story. Perhaps you're looking for different things at different points in the treatment process. The following books about cancer, life, and more can comfort you and support you at various stages from diagnosis through treatment and beyond.
1. Finding the "CAN" in Cancer
Written by four cancer survivors, "Finding the 'CAN' in Cancer" is a handbook designed to help guide patients, family, and friends through the cancer experience. The book mixes practical tips with the authors' personal memories and experiences.
Tips in the book include advice for handling side effects and how to embrace support from others. The book also outlines many of the procedures and tests cancer patients might face during the process. It also contains encouragement to help lift up patients and their loved ones when they are feeling down or need a bit of hope.
2. When Breath Becomes Air
"When Breath Becomes Air" was posthumously published in 2016. The book's author, Paul Kalanithi, was nearing the end of almost 10 years' worth of training to be a neurosurgeon when he was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. His life changed as he went from being a doctor who helped people live to a patient himself.
The memoir follows Dr. Kalanithi's life through medical school and beyond. It documents his journey as he sought to determine what makes life meaningful and virtuous, through working at Stanford as a neurosurgeon, and his life as a patient coping with mortality. Along the way, he rediscovers religious faith and also becomes a father.
Dr. Kalanithi was just 36 years old when he was diagnosed. His memoir confronts death head-on and ends up being life-affirming and impossible to forget.
3. Cancer Vixen
Marisa Acocella Marchetto is a New Yorker cartoonist and breast cancer survivor who's produced a laugh-out-loud funny graphic memoir with "Cancer Vixen."
The memoir explores what goes down when a self-described "wine-swilling, fashion-fanatic, about-to-get-married girl cartoonist" finds a lump in her breast. Acocella Marchetto ends up in an 11-month battle against breast cancer, and her colorful memoir details every part of it, from the diagnosis to the treatments. The author goes beyond the cancer diagnosis and paints a picture of her big-city life and her love story.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer a mere three weeks before her wedding. She worries about how her fiancé will react, how she'll survive, and what'll happen to her hair. Along the way, readers of the "Cancer Vixen" get treated to a behind-the-scenes look at living in Manhattan, working for a major magazine, and having the courage to be a vixen, not a victim, of cancer. It's an ideal read for anyone who needs a laugh.
4. Promise Me, Dad
U.S. President Joe Biden has seen his share of personal tragedy, from the loss of his wife and infant daughter in a car accident in the 1970s to his son Beau's cancer diagnosis. Beau Biden was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in 2013. During the family's annual Thanksgiving dinner a year later, Beau said to his father, "Promise me, Dad, give me your word that no matter what happens, you're going to be all right."
And Biden promised his son. The memoir "Promise Me, Dad" details the next year in his life, during which he continued to serve as vice president. He traveled the world to manage crises as they arose, all while trying to balance his commitments to his family back home. Biden's book provides a look into how a person handles grief and loss when they also have other major concerns and commitments to attend to in their lives.
When people are first diagnosed with cancer, one question many have is how can they fight it? While it shouldn't replace medical treatment and attention from a doctor, "Anticancer" offers guidance and advice on what you can do to strengthen your body following a cancer diagnosis. The book also offers tips to help people without cancer potentially minimize their risks.
The book describes how diet can affect cancer outcomes as well as how certain lifestyle choices affect cancer treatments. It details the connection between stress levels and cancer and offers tips to help you lower stress and improve wellbeing.
6. The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself
Many cancer patients find themselves questioning why they were the ones to be diagnosed with cancer. A diagnosis can disrupt your inner peace, leaving you questioning your validity. "The Untethered Soul" guides people into their inner space, helping to change their relationships with the world around them and with themselves. The book aims to expand people's consciousness by illuminating the emotions and thoughts that tend to stand in people's way. It's a guide to self-realization and happiness.
7. What to Eat if You Have Cancer
What you eat can have a major impact on the effectiveness of your cancer treatments and on how you feel in general. "What to Eat if You Have Cancer" is an entrant into nutrition books for cancer patients. The guide recommends foods to eat while undergoing treatment and afterward. The recommended foods can help reduce the side effects associated with many cancer treatments while providing your body with the nutrition it needs to thrive.
In addition to recommending certain foods, "What to Eat if You Have Cancer" also includes menu plans and recipes to help you take action and change your diet. The information in the book is research-based and research-supported. Along with describing the foods to eat, it recommends foods to avoid and provides guidance on the best nutritional supplements to try while undergoing treatment. As with any nutrition plan, be sure to talk with your medical providers before taking any supplements or making extensive changes to your diet.
8. Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes
Several years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, doctors living in the area noticed a sharp increase in leukemia in children who lived in surrounding areas. "Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes" tells the story of one of those children. Sadako lives in Hiroshima and is a lively, active little girl. Then, she starts to experience dizzy spells and is diagnosed with leukemia.
In an effort to save her life, Sadako starts to fold paper cranes, as a Japanese legend states that if a person successfully folds 1,000 cranes, the gods will grant their wish. The book is a moving reminder of the power of persistence and is based on a true story.
9. The Emperor of All Maladies
Described as a "biography" of cancer, "The Emperor of All Maladies" traces the history of the disease from its earliest descriptions to the efforts made in the 20th and 21st centuries to control and cure it. The book is written by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a physician, science writer, and researcher. He takes a precise approach to his examination of cancer, detailing the effects the disease has had on humankind for the past 5,000 years.
Although it's based on fact, the book is gripping and thrilling. Cancer acts as the protagonist, affecting everyone from the ancient Queen of Persia, who cut off her breast due to a tumor, to the earliest recipients of radiation therapy in the 1800s. The book looks back as well as forward, detailing potential treatments and new developments in cancer research.
10. The Last Lecture
"The Last Lecture" is based on a lecture given by Randy Pausch soon after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Pausch was a computer scientist and professor at Carnegie Mellon University. When asked to give his "last lecture," he chose not to focus on death and legacy. Instead, the lecture and the subsequent book are on the topic of achieving childhood dreams.
The book discusses why it's important to seize the moment, overcome challenges and obstacles, and help others make their dreams come true. At its heart, the book is about the value of life and the joy of living. The book is humorous, smart, and inspirational and is worth a read by anyone, whether they are facing a cancer diagnosis or not.
11. The Unwinding of the Miracle
Death has haunted Julie Yip-Williams throughout her life. "The Unwinding of the Miracle" tells her life story in the shadow of always imminent death. Yip-Williams was born blind in Vietnam and was nearly euthanized by her grandmother. She fled the country in the late 1970s due to political upheaval. She eventually made her way to the U.S. and underwent surgery to restore some of her vision.
After attending Harvard, becoming a lawyer, getting married, and having two daughters, Yip-Williams was living a life she couldn't have dreamed about. Then, in her late 30s, she was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. Writing her memoir gave her a way to process the pain and anger she felt. Although Yip-Williams is rightfully angry in the story, she is also honest and funny, painting a portrait of a complex and fully human individual.
12. Picture Your Life After Cancer
If you're struggling to imagine life after cancer, know that many others have been where you are standing now. "Picture Your Life After Cancer" gives you a peek into their stories. The New York Times asked cancer survivors to respond to the question, "How is your life different after cancer?" Each response is accompanied by a photo of the person. The book gathers the images and responses together, providing a glimpse into the hope, joy, grief, and confusion that come with life after cancer.
13. It's Always Something
Comedian Gilda Radner made people laugh on "Saturday Night Live" and paved the way for other female comedians. "It's Always Something" is her memoir, a touching, funny, and bittersweet look back on her life. The 20th-anniversary edition also includes a tribute from Radner's SNL colleagues and a guide to help people currently dealing with a cancer diagnosis.
What Books Have Inspired You?
Reading can open up new worlds, giving you insight into your own experience. If you've been diagnosed with cancer, books can help you navigate a confusing and scary time, providing an important source of perspective, empathy and emotional support.
As a patient or cancer survivor, what books have inspired you?
- Emerson N, Schinazi T, Moonan S, Leight P. Finding the "CAN" in Cancer. Lulu.com; 2005. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7936191-finding-the-can-in-cancer?
- Kalanithi P. When Breath Becomes Air. New York: Random House; 2016. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25899336-when-breath-becomes-air
- Marchetto MA. Cancer Vixen. New York: Knopf Publishing Group; 2006. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/349348.Cancer_Vixen
- Biden JR. Promise Me, Dad. Flatiron; 2017. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35633343-promise-me-dad?
- Servan-Schreiber D. Anticancer. Laffont; 2007. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1886829.Anticancer_A_New_Way_of_Life
- Singer MA. The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications; 2007. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1963638.The_Untethered_Soul
- Keane M, Chace D. What to Eat If You Have Cancer. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2006. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/331750.What_to_Eat_If_You_Have_Cancer_Revised_?
- Coerr E. Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. London: Puffin; 1999. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/181077.Sadako_and_the_Thousand_Paper_Cranes?
- Mukherjee S. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. New York: Scribner; 2010. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7170627-the-emperor-of-all-maladies
- Pausch R. The Last Lecture. New York: Hachette Books; 2008. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/40611510-the-last-lecture
- Yip-Williams J. The Unwinding of the Miracle. New York: Random House; 2019. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/39216478-the-unwinding-of-the-miracle
- Barrow K. Picture Your Life after Cancer. Atlanta: American Cancer Society; 2012. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17433350-picture-your-life-after-cancer?
- Radner G. It's Always Something. New York: HarperCollins; 1989. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/248170.It_s_Always_Something?