“Cancer.” Loathsome and foul. Relentless. The treatment is brutal. My most immediate experiences with Cancer have been as an outsider: daughter, sister, friend of patient. Over the years, I’ve read everything I could get my hands on about breast, colon and liver cancers*, stumbling through complex medical jargon.
And I searched high and low for something resembling a handbook that addressed, in “people-speak,” a patient’s day-to-day realities of dealing with “Cancer.” My search has ended, thanks to Hollye Jacobs, an RN, licensed clinical social worker and palliative care provider, who was diagnosed with Breast Cancer at the age of 39. Hollye has published an insightful, compassionate, practical, graceful, honest, and humorous guide to dealing with breast cancer titled: The Silver Lining.
The book is drawn, in part, from Hollye’s blog, The Silver Pen which, like her book, looks to serve as a guide and inspiration to “navigating the realities of cancer.” The chapters center around Jacobs’ own life journey with cancer (she writes a heartfelt explanation of why she does not personally view cancer as a battle) and each includes a memoir portion, a section on “practical matters” (key clinical details about managing the patient experience), and some silver linings.
Hollye’s narrative is accompanied by beautiful, uplifting and elegant photographs taken by her friend and gifted professional photographer, Elizabeth Messina, whose words in the introduction resonated with me:
“The day that Hollye told me that she had breast cancer, I felt haunted with helplessness. I wanted to hug her, to bring her flowers. I wanted to do something, but nothing seemed quite right. I did not want to burden her with my fear and sadness. I also knew that I could not eliminate the intensity of the path that lay in front of her.”
I’ve felt this way – with my mom, sister, dad, and my dear friend, Nancy – after they were diagnosed with Cancer and during their treatment and recovery. You do what you know how to do to help them, and it never ever seems quite right. Messina offered to take photographs to help Jacobs record the journey. The photos were initially intended as a personal gift of love. The two of them only began to envision the book a year after Hollye’s diagnosis. An inspiring collaboration of healing and friendship.
Jacobs’ guide in the early pages of the book of what to do when facing a cancer diagnosis is invaluable, in my own experience, as there is a mental fog that envelops patients and families during these initial weeks. She offers a primer on medical tests and types of breast cancer/staging, a list of coping mechanisms for needle phobias, questions to ask during tests and questions to ask at the time of diagnosis. And that’s just Chapter 1.
The subsequent chapters cover:
- communicating with children about your cancer diagnosis,
- navigating the surgical experience (Jacobs had a double mastectomy),
- and the unique experiences of chemotherapy and radiation.
Her humor is ever present (the chemotherapy chapter is titled “Chemo Sobby”) and she doesn’t sugarcoat the side effects of treatment, reporting that she had all listed side effects except seizures, with details on vomiting, pernicious diarrhea, mouth sores, and constipation. Jacobs offers practical advice as to how to deal with these and other treatment side effects and, in her eternal optimism, views them as a “silver lining” as she is able to write about her experience with them and offer guidance to others as to how to navigate them. Her chapter on the emotional impact of cancer treatment is also a must-read for cancer patients and families.
The final chapters of The Silver Lining include a list of comprehensive resources and address the ebb and flow of recovery once treatment ends and what life after cancer looks like. I think Jacobs’ focus on her marriage and working her way back to intimacy with her HOTY (Husband of the Year) make for compelling and inspiring reading.
I love the “Lifelines” set in the margins of each chapter in The Silver Lining. These brief notes offer worthwhile, thoughtful and practical advice or encouragement:
Many of these “Lifelines,” and much of Jacobs’ practical advice about chemo and radiation, could be applicable to other forms of cancer as well, despite the books focus on breast cancer.
I follow Hollye’s blog and I was thrilled to win an advanced copy of the book from the publisher (Atria Books) in a giveaway on Goodreads. But, honestly? Before reading it, I was pretty skeptical about the “silver linings” bit. I’ve witnessed Cancer from a variety of angles and I struggled with the idea that there are any silver linings to be found in the living with all that comes with it. Here are some of Jacobs’ personal silver linings:
- seeing a hummingbird outside her window when she was wretchedly ill from chemotherapy
- vile tasting medicine managed pain
- feeling isolated from the world helped her tap into her “inner resources”
To me, these “silver linings” made sense – they gave Jacobs a focal point (and some days she had to look really hard to find the silver lining) and helped her endure a painful, rotten Herculean journey. Jacobs is no Pollyanna – she is emphatic in stating that CANCER IS NOT A GIFT. But she writes that she had two choices about how to handle her diagnosis: from a place of fear or a place of optimism. I admire her courage and her resilience.
This is a practical and hopeful book for anyone with breast cancer, especially those in the initial stages of diagnosis, undergoing treatment or in the early days of post-treatment. There isn’t much specific information for those faced with a recurrence of breast cancer (and I pray Jacobs never has to walk that path), but I do think there is a great deal of supportive material in the book for patients who experience recurrence, especially in her chapter on “Sustenance & Soulfulness,” which describes nutritional and complementary therapies to help with cancer treatment.
- A GOOD LISTENER
- HONEST & COMMUNICATIVE
- DON’T TAKE THINGS PERSONALLY!
No, not all of us are wired to look for “silver linings” in hard times and individual personalities have to find their own coping mechanisms for dealing with Cancer. Nonetheless, even for those with different approaches, The Silver Lining offers practical, insightful “lifelines” for people impacted by Cancer.
*A great book that discusses Cancer from a medical/scientific/historical perspective is The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Accessible to the non-scientist, it lays out how society has dealt with Cancer through the ages. Fascinating read.