* The Red Devil: To Hell With Cancer--and Back
By Katherine Russell Rich
Crown, $22; 256 pp.
This is not one of those uplifting, savor-every-day-as-if-it's-your-last kind of books. It is, instead, an unsparing, unsentimental account by a self-involved New York magazine editor of her battle with breast cancer that should have killed her long ago. "I don't want to smell one more freaking flower," Katherine Russell Rich writes.
What makes this memoir so moving are the author's unflinching self-awareness, her wit and her gritty perseverance in the face of what she describes as overwhelming odds, chiefly Stage IV metastatic disease that literally broke her bones and invaded her skull.
In 1988 Rich, then 32, had ended a tempestuous marriage three weeks before she discovered a lump in her breast while taking a shower. Her internist dismissed her fears that it might be malignant--women her age didn't get cancer, he said--as did her elderly Freudian psychiatrist, who kept insisting that all of Rich's problems stemmed from the unexamined detritus of her childhood.
Five months after she found the lump--by which time it had grown to the size of a pigeon's egg--Rich was finally diagnosed and began her long, sometimes macabre, odyssey through "Cancerland."
Since then she has endured surgery, radiation, chemotherapy (the red devil in the title is a nickname for the chemo drug adriamycin, which gave Rich a hellacious, unpleasant buzz), hormonal treatment and, finally, a bone marrow transplant. Despite recurrences, she has managed to keep the disease at bay.
Last year the cancer, which had been in remission, returned again as a small tumor on her adrenal gland. For now it is being kept in check with drug treatment. Remarkably, Rich is well enough, a dozen years after diagnosis, to work.
Nothing had prepared Rich for her battle with cancer. A two-pack-a-day smoker and heavy drinker who thrived on stress and a grueling work schedule, Rich was raised by reserved Christian Scientists who acknowledged neither illness nor emotion.
At the time she got sick, she had few friends, a new job with a spectacularly unsympathetic boss--who actually fired her during her illness--and anxieties typical of the newly single. How, she wondered, weighing the benefits of mastectomy versus lumpectomy, would she meet new men if she had only one breast?
In those pre-pink-ribbon days, she writes, before the torrent of publicity about breast cancer, one of her worst problems was loneliness.
"I encountered no examples of anyone like me," she wrote. "The women in the books might have jumped ship from Good Housekeeping. They were graying and settled, concerned more with families than with bosses or careers. They were Mary Worth with bum mammograms. None of them appears to have been hoping for wild sex flings in the days leading up to their diagnoses."
Although a few of her friends were stalwart, Rich makes it clear that she had little in the way of support. Camped out in a sublet, one of her biggest worries is that she might be evicted if her hair, falling out in clumps from the chemo, clogs up the drain. Her father cannot utter the word "cancer" and some of her so-called friends say and do the dumbest things; one tries to fix her up with a man simply because he has leukemia. Her co-workers at her new job are awkward to the point of cruelty: They stop talking when she enters a room.
Armed with her wit and intelligence, the support of a few close friends, and a new boyfriend who sees her through some of the worst times and helps her find courage she didn't know she possessed, Rich manages to stay alive and, even, to thrive.
The story of how she manages to do that makes for compelling reading for people struggling with serious illness and for those who appreciate a memoir that conveys the writer's grit, ironic sensibility and self-deprecating candor.